Rave to Save
While heaps of Londoners’ money are poured into largely unwanted regeneration projects, green, public spaces are increasingly neglected. Insufficient funding for playgrounds frequently creeps into the news, alongside the Tories loathsome ‘pay to play’ solution. But what about the commons? London, after all, boasts near to a hundred of these vast open expanses, once used by the people in the middle ages to grow food and graze their animals. The spaces have been the source of many battles between landowner and locals (‘the commoners’) during the centuries since, but yet, we hear little of their struggle in the age of cuts and regeneration.
On researching, La Bouche discovered wearily that many commons in the north of the city now lie buried under blocks of flats, but interestingly there is a notable cluster untouched in South London. Speculators have suggested there may be something about the soil south of the capital, which makes them unfavourable to developers, and could be the very same reason the underground does not snake too far into its depths.
And so, these commons, as un-luxury flat friendly as they are, remain open for public enjoyment, and require maintenance, but not, it seems, to be funded by the public purse. While millions have been invested in renovating Brixton’s markets and high streets, nearby Streatham common has come to depend on alternative means for funding. The space – which boasts woodlands, gardens, playgrounds and Lambeth’s only remaining meadow – now relies largely on a local cooperative, and bizarrely, a rave, for maintenance and cultivation.
Back in 2015, the Garage Nation franchise was invited to set up their sound systems on the common and bring along a fleet of old school DJs and MCs, like Rat Pack, Grooverider, Skibbadee, and even Baby D (as in, ‘Let me be your fantasy’). La Bouche happened to rock up - or down - on that very first year, and felt a flood of nostalgia for the old Brixton, the underground drum n bass quarter, now on the brink of extinction as the developers move in. Ironic then, that such a revival up the road, could arise from the very beast that drove it out.
La Bouche met with Peter Newmark, executive member of ‘Friends of Streatham Common’ [FoSC], to learn how this all came to be. “The Parks and Green Spaces Budget has been cut by fifty-five percent,” he explains. “At present, the common gets a relatively small budget for central repairs and also for cutting the grass and picking the litter but everything else now comes from events and £6,000 of this from Garage Nation. The £6,000 is part of the total hire fee to the promoters that is allocated to the site on which the event is held. The rest - and how much that is I don't know - goes into Lambeth's general coffers (some to pay for the team that handles events). So far, two new benches have been installed, the car park has been re-tarmacked in part, and two manhole covers that were cracked and dangerous have been replaced. However, all the money has been spent now and so we will have to wait until next summer, until the next Garage Nation.”
We wonder if the event has been of any benefit to residents, and to the commons? “Well, when it started three years ago it was used on top of the previous budget,” says Peter, “and so initially it was an ‘extra’ and it solved a lot of problems, such as the flooding of footpaths, which was a long-term worry. So this helped appease local residents.”
But now that the pre-existing funds have decreased, it seems that there is not only any ‘extra’ budget to benefit the commons, but residents also have a massive rave on their doorsteps. “It would have been nice to spend the money from the event on enhancements,” Peter tells us, “like a pond to create bio-diversity or to save a paddling pool which Lambeth was going to close down. We raised money for this through crowdfunding and a local trust instead. So, yes there is no added value from Garage Nation, however, our stance is that FoSC are not opposed to it, but the time may come if the returns become too small.”
And what about the rest of the commons? There are woodlands, gardens and a meadow which need looking after too. I learn from Peter that all this is being taken care of by Streatham Common Co-operative, which was set up in light of cuts, ‘to get Lambeth to do more, and the council to do less.’
Although they receive core funding from the council, Peter tells me the co-op make more money from putting on their own events, for instance, their 2016 Christmas fair raised £10,000. The money has been used to tend to the Rookery (a series of gardens), the woodland which has been neglected and even employ full-time staff, such as a garden manager. “The cooperative has asked the council if any excess money can be spent on the commons, and Lambeth has said ‘yes’,” Peter tells me with a wry smile.
In an age where everything is being removed from the public realm and sold off for profit, it is refreshing to see local people taking control of their resources and making a success of it. These South London open spaces may after all be the only scrap of our city to remain ‘common’. LB!