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‘Newington Green was a spooky place as a kid...but Besant Court was a safe haven’

PUBLISHED: 12:41 20 July 2016 | UPDATED: 10:55 06 July 2017

Leo Whittaker of Besant Court, Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

Leo Whittaker of Besant Court, Newington Green. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

Big changes have been mooted for Newington Green’s Besant Court estate, with one block facing demolition. Tenants yesterday reflected on their memories with James Morris.

Numbers 41-70 Besant Court have been mooted for demolition by Islington Council. The taller tower block, right, would remain under the plans. Picture: Polly HancockNumbers 41-70 Besant Court have been mooted for demolition by Islington Council. The taller tower block, right, would remain under the plans. Picture: Polly Hancock

Much of Newington Green was heavily damaged by Second World War bombing. An explosion in Poet’s Road killed 22 people; the site later housed prisoners of war.

Across the way, Mildmay Memorial Hospital, off Newington Green Road, was fortunately unscathed – until the 1960s council housing boom, anyway. The hospital was knocked down in 1958, and Hathersage Court built in 1964-65.

On the other end of the estate stood Besant Court, which replaced the Mildmay Conference Centre between 1952 and 1954.

Many aspects of this construction remain the same today. But for better or worse – depending on which homeowner or tenant you ask – things could be set to change.

Islington Council has chosen the estate as prime land to help solve the borough’s housing shortage.

As part of its commitment to deliver more affordable housing, consultation is under way for plans to knock down numbers 41 to 70 and build bigger flat blocks in its place. Displaced tenants will get priority.

Leo Whittaker, 47, moved into his flat in 1980. When his mother died in 2001, he bought the lease using inheritance money.

A model who runs a boutique stall in Chapel Market, Leo is strongly opposed to the plans.

“If Besant Court was to get demolished, all I can say is that I’ll put up a fight,” he told the Gazette. “I don’t know if I could cope not living here.

Margaret Bowers, of Besant Court, is looking forward to a new home should the demolition go ahead. Picture: Polly HancockMargaret Bowers, of Besant Court, is looking forward to a new home should the demolition go ahead. Picture: Polly Hancock

“Newington Green seemed spooky at the time I moved, but maybe that’s because I was little.

“This estate was a safe haven, but leaving it was a different matter. You couldn’t venture into certain streets. But the kids here would look after each other.”

Margaret Bowers, 68, has lived in the block since 1985.

She recalled: “They closed the walkways through the estate because of anti-social behaviour. Some used these flats to get away from the police.

“Kids who lived here were up to all sorts, as well. But you could always go and talk to them. And us neighbours would sit outside together all the time for a chat and cup of tea.

“But to be honest, I am all for new homes. These flats have been up a long time and it would bring the estate up to modern times.”

Leo, though, remains worried.

“The main income I have is from tenants on Airbnb,” he said. “It’s what I live on. My stall in Chapel Market makes a loss every year. My work prospects aren’t very high. I’m an ageing model and I don’t have the qualifications for an office job that would earn me £2,000 a month.

“If I was forced to sell on a compulsory purchase order, it would be impossible to buy another flat that had two bedrooms in Islington – or any London borough. If it stays as it is, I could sell the property and have enough to get by at retirement age.”

Leo Whittaker looks over the now overgrown and derelict football pitch in Besant Court where he used to play as a child. It is one of the areas of land earmarked for housing development by Islington Council. Picture: Polly HancockLeo Whittaker looks over the now overgrown and derelict football pitch in Besant Court where he used to play as a child. It is one of the areas of land earmarked for housing development by Islington Council. Picture: Polly Hancock

But Cllr Diarmaid Ward, Islington’s housing boss, assured: “Earlier this year we consulted on a proposal to build more council homes that would involve demolition of the smaller Besant Court block. No decision has been made, and there will be further consultation in the autumn.

“We’ve spoken to leaseholders in the block and invited them to discuss the proposal. If it went ahead, the council would work with leaseholders to come to a fair agreement on the value of their home, with a 10 per cent increase on that value, and help with moving and legal expenses.”


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