It all started in 2008 when Lambeth Council announced, out of the blue, that St Martins Estate was getting “a great new school close to home” – just like that. There had been no notice, no warning and certainly no consultation, yet we were supposed to feel lucky and grateful for this unexpected ‘gift’. Well, guess what? We felt neither lucky nor grateful. We didn’t want the school. Why? Because it was felt, in essence, that simply too much was being crammed onto too small a site. And the prospect of 1200 teenagers streaming through the estate at 3PM every day, seemed hardly attractive. Throughout much of 2008 and 2009, there were protests on the estate and at the Lambeth town hall.
Lambeth Council were reported to be shocked. It was the role of people living in social housing to feel grateful to the council for its tireless effort on their behalf. People in social housing didn’t have opinions, views or concerns unless authorised by the town hall politburo. This was new. Was it some sort of peasant uprising? Once the council had overcome its shock, it realised it had to do something. It started asking the peasants, I mean the residents, what the problem was. Amazing; the council was actually talking to the very people living in the area where the school would be built – pretty radical, huh? They did it properly too. If you really want to find out what is actually happening on an estate, knock on people’s doors. The council did just that – twice! On a Sunday too. Quite sensibly, residents were asked what exactly their objections were. It’s a pity they weren’t asked a year earlier.
The council appointed a manager to steer the job through. Through quite a number of meetings, we were told in effect, that school was going to be pushed through anyway because the council owned the land on which Fenstanton school stood. We were getting the school whether we liked it or not! However, the school would be redesigned to take into account resident objections: it would be oriented away from the estate with its main entrance on Christchurch road; teachers and parents would be encouraged to use public transport to ease estate congestion and residents would have some access to the school facilities outside of school hours. We were asked what we wanted: we wanted community benefit; we wanted a youth centre to be totally under local control: it was to be of the residents, by the residents and for the residents. We were told in reassuring tones that not only would this be provided but it was pretty well what the council itself wanted. And of course the local kids would be able to use the sports grounds outside of school hours.
It wasn’t just the older residents who were consulted. A meetings was held for the estate’s youth, those who had formed local friendships but had drifted around the estate in groups because they had nowhere to go. They were looking for something “to keep us out of trouble”, as one put it to me. At the meeting in the Development Trust building, one young lad in the foyer was reluctant to participate. “There is a man in that room” said the Lambeth manager indicating the meeting room, “who has the power to give you what you want. Go in and tell him what you want”. Another young guy, later excitedly told his pal “we’re getting everything we want!”.
It took some time for the design of the school to be finalised. The waste ground behind the garages at Maskall Close, long an abandoned field, commonly known as “the dip”, was going to be reclaimed to form the school’s sports facilities. Not only would there be a number of floodlit pitches, but the design would incorporate a new, two-storey building, each floor completely self-contained and unconnected. The lower floor, containing showers and changing rooms, would serve the school’s sports facilities. The upper floor would be the youth centre, of the community, by the community and for the community. The council manager told us that as an act of good faith this building would be completed first – before even the school. Even better, the residents would have the final say in the choice of two shortlisted architectural firms. At the subsequent formal meeting, we looked at the plans and spoke to the representatives; our choice was virtually unanimous. It felt good and meaningful to have a direct say in our own immediate neighbourhood and the youth would be getting what they wanted – plus we had the council on our side, which ultimately is only natural as we elected them.
If only life ran as it should. The architectural firm actually selected to do the job was not the one we had chosen. Lambeth’s manager brushed off our objections, suggesting that there was a clash of interests with our choice of firm. Then why shortlist it?. In any case, it seemed obvious he didn’t want to talk about it – and wasn’t going to.
In due course the building was completed and was indeed completed before the school. Yes, it was completed in 2012 in yellow and that’s all there was. It was completed and empty, or completely empty if you like. The manager who, with easy reassurance, had been promising so much, disappeared.
The school was also completed and, in due course, the pupils started using the sports grounds and changing rooms, but only them. The promised use of the sports grounds never materialised.
In 2015 the newly formed St Martins Residents Association started demanding why such a precious potential resort was going to waste. The building’s empty state seemed to mock all the local youth who had invested such hope in “getting what we want”. A petition calling for the building to be opened up was presented to Lambeth council. There was a response. The manager reappeared; he seemed very evasive when asked to explain what had happened. The building was going to opened alright, but all those lofty ideals of community participation, control and sharing seemed to have gone with the wind. They were simply denied.
And so in 2015 the building, or the upper part of the building that was meant to be of the estate etc., was opened, by whom we knew not. Yes for a few years it did indeed provide some type of youth services under a well motivated local manager who was in turn under the control of a shadowy board, some of whose members apparently came from Bristol; large though St Martins estate is, it does not extend to Bristol. In any case, board communication with the wider community did not occur.
The pandemic closed down everything. Whatever goes on in the building today in 2023, and there seems scant evidence of any activity, it has little to do with the estate as a whole. Once more it stands there, alone, mute, dark, deserted and a mockery to all the young people who once had trust in a system they thought was listening to them. Is it any wonder some of them turn to gangs.
This has got to stop! Right from the start, this building was supposed to be of the estate, by the estate and for estate. This was meant to be ours – let’s get it back.
The Saga of the Yellow Qube r1 © Stephen Kearney March 2023