I was recently asked to write something for the West Ham United supporters fanzine ‘Over Land and Sea‘ about the proposed redevelopment of the club’s current ground when they move to the London Olympic stadium in August 2016. It’s reprinted below.
Whatever we think about the Olympic Stadium move, most Hammers fans will feel a sense of loss when the club leaves the Boleyn Ground. We all have special memories. Mine are Eintracht Frankfurt in 1976 and going to the bus garage in Priory Road where my dad was a driver. But it’s not just about football. West Ham is also about identifying with a place. The club’s been a vital part of the east London community for a century. When it moves, it should leave behind something that honours and respects that shared history, but also the needs of the present and future Upton Park.
Newham, like many other areas, has an acute shortage of genuinely affordable housing. There are almost 25,000 families on the waiting list. Many are condemned to overcrowding, disrepair, sky-high rents and the constant threat of eviction. For decades we haven’t been building enough council or other ‘social’ housing. The redevelopment of the Boleyn Ground is a golden opportunity to start changing that.
Instead, when the ground’s demolished, Galliard Homes wants to build 838 new homes, not one of which will be genuinely affordable social housing for rent. In the words of Newham Mayor, Robin Wales, this is ‘insulting and totally unacceptable’. At a meeting of the Council in October, a decision on Galliard’s planning application was deferred. West Ham fans – and the club – need to add their voices to those demanding 100% social housing at the Boleyn Ground.
Private property developers have become very clever at playing a game with Councils and politicians in which they try to build as many homes for the private market as they can get away with. They use lots of tactics for doing this, including calling homes ‘affordable’ when they’re only an option for those who can afford to buy. Average house prices in Newham are £300,000 and are rising faster than anywhere else in London. 37% of workers in Newham earn less than the London Living Wage (£9.40 an hour), the highest rate in the capital. Almost half the borough’s children are growing up in poverty.
The developers and the club need to take some responsibility for changing this. Karen Brady has said that Galliard were chosen because of their local links and origins in east London. The Evening Standard reported in February 2014 that the Boleyn was sold at a discount (£71.2 million), even though the site will be worth hundreds of millions when it’s developed. We all know the club itself is getting the Olympic stadium for a song. So between them, Galliard Homes and West Ham FC can afford to leave a fitting legacy for 112 years in Green Street.
Since its foundation, the Irons have been rooted in working class organisation, culture and community. For generations, local families like mine supported the club in the same way they supported each other. Playing, watching and talking about football was part of going to work, fighting for decent pay and conditions, looking out for your mates and a sense of solidarity. A lot has changed in the area since 1904, but like the experience of watching West Ham, some of those values are timeless. Today the club shares a neighbourhood with people, food and habits from all parts of the world. But on match day we’re all together. That internationalism extends to the pitch. But wherever they came from and however wealthy they may be now, most West Ham players are from the kind of working class communities that need decent, secure, affordable housing. In the days when most of the team came from the local area, council housing was a corner-stone of a stable environment where people didn’t have to constantly worry about keeping a roof over their heads. We need to rebuild that social strength and stability by building homes for need, not greed, at the Boleyn Ground.
The move to Stratford will change a lot. Even if the atmosphere inside the ground stays the same, the atmosphere outside won’t be. The artificial landscape and Westfield can’t compete with the buzz of Queens Market, the Boleyn and Nathan’s pie and mash. Some of those local businesses are really going to suffer when West Ham leaves and that’s another reason why something genuinely sustainable needs to take its place. The Galliard plans talk about creating a ‘village’, but in reality such places quickly become closed, soulless, gated communities detached from the people and area around them.
The club is making great play of West Ham’s tradition as a way of persuading us to buy season tickets for the Olympic stadium. But a lot of this fake nostalgia is nothing more than a marketing campaign. There are also plans to commemorate the club and some of its players within the new Boleyn Ground private housing development. That’s fine, but a more fitting memorial would be to build new, truly affordable homes. I can’t put it any better than Mayor Robin Wales:
“I am immensely proud of Upton Park’s diverse community and sporting legacy, its redevelopment must work for the whole community in this vibrant and unique part of London. It’s not just about new homes though – I also want job opportunities for local people and community space that residents will be able to utilise.’
Mr Wales goes on to say that blame for the housing crisis should be laid at the door of the government. In general, that’s true, but he should also accept some responsibility. Under his watch Newham Council has demolished hundreds of council homes and left others empty, like those on the Carpenters estate where the Focus E15 campaign showed that people in housing need were being denied access to perfectly good, affordable accommodation.
Negotiations about the future of the Upton Park site are continuing and the ‘Boleyn 100’ campaign will keep up the pressure to demand an open, democratic process leading to real, lasting benefits for the community after West Ham leave. But the threat to genuinely affordable housing is increasing. The government is currently trying to drive through legislation (The Housing and Planning Bill) that will let developers like Galliard make even more profit by building ‘Starter Homes’ that only a few will be able to afford. Cameron and Co also want to scrap permanent tenancies – another blow to stable, mixed communities.
If Galliard Homes won’t play ball, Newham Council should step in and buy the site. It managed to borrow £40 million to subsidise the Olympic stadium refurbishment and it could do it again, using historically low interest rates to invest in housing at the Boleyn Ground that will serve the community for the next century, not be at the whims of the property market. 7th May 2016 will be a sad day for West Ham supporters, but it will be even worse for the local area if a chance to build the homes it needs is wasted.
Please sign the Change.org petition and contact the Boleyn 100 campaign to get involved.
On-line petition http://t.co/EhOZpapYgW
Contact the campaign firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on the Housing and Planning Bill, contact email@example.com