Cllr Sean O’Donovan: “Architecture can be a catalyst for community cohesion”

Tottenham Hale’s newly elected councillor Sean O’Donovan shares his views on building for change in the borough

Sydney Webb once wrote of a councillor walking along “the municipal pavement […] cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water.” He passed the municipal school and the municipal park before he entered the municipal library to prepare his next speech at the municipal town hall.

“Socialism, sir –” the councillor would then say “– don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, sir, individual self-help, that’s what has made our city what it is.”

The social reformer Sydney Webb may have been writing in the 1900s, but as I walk through the streets of Tottenham Hale, where I was elected as a councillor last month, I see the same pavements, schools, council housing and parks created and maintained not by private greed but for public need – planned and financed collectively, owned by us all.
Those public owned assets are our common wealth, built with the sweat and toil of generations before ours and must be retained for the generations to come. My own father, who like many Irishmen worked on building sites “tearing down and building England up” after the Second World War, was particularly proud when he was working on council homes built by the people for the people.

Throughout the world, we have seen privatisation where public assets and public spaces are transferred into private ownership. The power of private capital may seem too big to defeat, but in fact urban initiatives often led by local councils and community and voluntary organisations are successfully challenging and reversing this process in many countries.

The challenge for any local councillor is not just to protect our publicly owned assets but to increase our common wealth. Beyond this, what is really needed is systemic change in the way we construct and value the urban environment. Architecture can be a catalyst for community cohesion and the alleviation of poverty. Working together to challenge the traditional motives of urban design, we can ensure that cities become an inclusive place for all, and do not simply serve the interests of capital, wealth accumulation and hyper-consumption.

A prime example of this is the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham built between 1904 and 1913 by the London Council. This estate was built to help people in Tottenham and the East End move out of appalling overcrowded slums and make a fresh start in healthier conditions. The homes were constructed to a high standard inspired by the arts and crafts movements, providing many amenities along with front gardens and backyards. The estate has its own park, flower beds, tennis courts and a bowling green. Tower Gardens is famous throughout Europe for not only providing safe, secure housing at a time of extreme poverty but also a living environment where residents could thrive and enjoy life – a housing development in the 1910s which offered not just bread but roses too.

We can do this again. As a new councillor I have been particularly impressed by the passion and enthusiasm of council officers planning the first new council home building programmes for a generation. Led by Ruth Gordon, the cabinet member for housebuilding and placemaking, these programmes seek to directly reflect the needs of local residents. They will be co-designed, giving the community real influence over community spaces, playgrounds and public realm improvements: homes built with sustainability at their heart to tackle the climate change emergency.

It is a trend long established in Haringey, and reemphasised by council leader Peray Ahmet, that resident participation and coproduction in decision-making is vital. When I first came to Haringey over 40 years ago as a student, I found a community that would not accept things as they were but struggled, campaigned and united against poverty, poor housing and racism.We are rightly proud of our community and voluntary organisations, and councillors play a vital role as a link between the local residents in their ward and our civil society organisations, so that nothing is decided about us without us.

I am honoured to have been elected as a Tottenham Hale councillor at this exciting, but challenging time for us all. I will continue a proud tradition of fighting for social justice and socialism, against food poverty, for the right to live in a decent house, and for climate justice, working together with my council colleagues to give all our young people real opportunities so that no one is left behind.

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