A community in the heart of Tottenham has shown how to fight the developers – and win

The message lit up her phone late last Thursday afternoon, and as soon as Vicky Alvarez saw it the tears came. She ducked out of her meeting, hurried to the loo and began phoning family.

“We’ve won,” she told them.

“Won what, the lottery?”

“No, bigger than that.”

Aditya Chakrabortty www.theguardian.com 

Much bigger. Alvarez isn’t just a victor in a battle that has swallowed 17 years of her life; she stands now at the intersection of some of the largest questions facing our pandemic-battered cities: how they are run and in whose interests. If you want to gauge where post-Covid, post-Brexit London could go next, Alvarez and her allies are the ones to watch.

You might assume Alvarez is wheeler-dealing at City Hall or flogging penthouses to passing oligarchs In fact, she runs a stall in a market in one of the poorest parts of Britain. Yet Alvarez and 40-odd other traders, most of whom are women from across South America, have created something that amounts to so much more.

The Latin Village market in Tottenham, north London, is a maze, offering everything from empanadas to nail jobs to news about jobs. Before the pandemic, it was a bustling shopping centre-cum-labour exchange-cum-community hub for expat Latin Americans and their kids – until Saturday night drew in, when the music bumped up a few notches and the dancing started. Vicky and many other traders came here as refugees. Together, they built businesses that sustain dozens of families and proudly watched their children grow up to become doctors and lawyers. The market is a story of how migrants can build a future for themselves and improve their new home, too. Trading out of tatty buildings, including a once grand but long abandoned Edwardian department store called Wards, they have breathed colour into dereliction.

No wonder the Latin Village gets love letters from the Washington Post and the UN. Were this in Berlin or Brooklyn, the market would be prized as a community jewel. Except this being London, it has been underfunded and under threat of demolition since 2004.

Alongside other traders and locals, Alvarez has spent years fighting developers and the local council, Haringey, as well as Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London, which owns the old Wards store and has let it rot. Over nearly two decades the fight for the Latin Village has grown in strength and significance. The arguments over a local market have become a battle for the future of our cities.

Until last Thursday, when the developer, Grainger, publicly announced it was dropping the entire scheme. It’s extraordinary enough for a big-money builder to flush away nearly two decades of deal-making and pledge-signing and buying up of land, but what follows could be really momentous. Starting next week, every big politician with a say on this issue – Khan, his deputy Heidi Alexander, David Lammy, Haringey’s senior councillors ­– will hammer out a plan for what to do next. Ultimately, they have two choices: stick with the broken old model of regeneration, or try something new.

Most city-dwellers know all too well what the busted model looks like, so let me sketch it only briefly. A big developer takes over a tract of rundown public land, usually aided by a nice slug of taxpayer money. They swear solemnly to give back to the public realm, typically providing a sliver of “affordable” homes, before sometimes rowing back on even those small promises because they are “not viable” ­– which means they would eat too far into their profit margins. By then, the developers have local politicians and officials over a barrel. The result is shoebox apartments sold at eyewatering prices (to say nothing of the cladding bills yet to arrive). The big winners are the developers, the big losers are locals who aren’t owner-occupiers, and the greatest work is done by the passive magic of rising land values.

This is a top-down system of development that treats people’s lives and livelihoods as brownfield land to be torn down and concreted over. Grainger’s original plans for the site jettisoned the Latin Village for a “Pasta Express” and a “Coste Cafe”, as if that were better than the Colombian coffee already on offer. Traders had to fight for every major concession, from saving the market to securing a temporary home for it during the rebuilding process (which Grainger later deemed not viable). Those calling the shots treated them as inconveniences throughout.

When traders complained about the market manager, Jonathan Owen, calling them “bloody illegal immigrants”, TfL took no action apart from ordering him to apologise. When they pointed out there was something funny going on with the market’s energy supply, TfL investigated and found evidence of electricity theft. The transport body told Owen to pay the suppliers but admitted to me that it ended up footing the bill, handing over £83,000 of public money. When asked about these issues and others, Owen declined to comment.

What makes this project and its collapse so instructive is that it shows the old model of regeneration no longer works economically, politically or environmentally. The economic point is easiest to see. Grainger admits that a large part of its withdrawal was driven by “the changing economic environment”. In the new world of white-collar workers spending more of the week at home, it will not be so easy to shift a bunch of expensive two-beds above a busy main road, whose main selling point is that you can get on a tube in seconds. Nor do 3,800 sq m of generic shops now seem like a wise investment. Far better to have the kind of social infrastructure that the Latin Village offers, where shopping is also about community cohesion, and where the money that people spend remains in local pockets rather than disappearing to remote shareholders.

Over the past three years, each time I have written about Latin Village it has been clear that even in a Labour stronghold like Haringey, when councillors support developers over locals they cause severe and long-lasting damage to their party. So it has proved. A few months ago, the leader of the council, Joe Ejiofor, was deposed in large part because of Labour members’ unease about his enthusiasm for Grainger. That makes him the second Haringey council leader, after Claire Kober in 2018, to be ousted over regeneration politics.

Straight after Grainger pulled out, the new council leader Peray Ahmet publicly supported a community plan for the market. This has the overwhelming backing of traders, many of whom have been involved in drawing it up. Instead of throwing up carbon-intensive concrete and steel, the plan will refurbish the buildings that are already there. At the heart of the alternative scheme will not be a FTSE 250 developer, but a community benefit society that will reinvest profits locally. The plan is a step into the unknown and it is not without risks, but Haringey has seen just what the old way delivered – or failed to.

In 2011, councillors in the city of Preston were told that the vast shopping centre they’d pinned their hopes on wasn’t coming after all. Developers no longer saw it as viable. That forced local politicians to rethink not just their plans, but their model. The result is one of the great experiments in guerrilla localism and alternative economics: a city that outperforms even in hard times and a local Labour party that actually thrives.

Sadiq Khan pledges “high streets for all”. Every politician in a suit swears they’ll “build back better”. Well, now they can live up to their promises. Let’s see London try bottom-up development, based around imagination and heart and giving people a say.

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