12 December 2007

Jeff Lowe - an artist speaks out

When I was asked to talk at the Forest Hill Society’s Annual General Meeting in October, I wasn’t completely sure what to talk about, writes Jeff Lowe, internationally acclaimed sculptor and founder of the Havelock Walk artists’ quarter. Should I talk about my sculpture, the Havelock Walk community or my views on Forest Hill from an artist’s perspective and as someone who has lived in Forest Hill for the last fifteen years?

I tried to combine all of these aspects but, in particular, I wanted to talk about my pet hates and disappointment at the virtually unchanged nature of what I would consider to be the centre of Forest Hill.

In my view, regeneration starts with small and obvious changes and from people who care about the environment in which they live.

I have been particularly critical of Lewisham Council’s planning department. Although it has absolute power over the granting of planning for shop fronts and signage, it does nothing to enforce this, nor does it even seem to have a particular design policy to deal with this.

By showing a series of images in my talk, I think everyone present was very aware of how hideous many of these shop fronts and signs are and how they detract from the quality of the architecture they hide. They present a visual barrage, which is completely unnecessary in terms of advertising. There is a complete lack of harmony and any sense of overall planning. Although I believe in organic growth, this has to develop within certain parameters.

Forest Hill is still seen as a run-down area and the fact that the centre is uncared for by Lewisham Council is a disgrace. The streets are filthy and full of rubbish. Refuse collectors should be encouraged to work to create a generally cleaner environment instead of having the belligerent attitude which most of them have. Rubbish should be removed from the centre of Forest Hill even if it falls outside of the weekly collections. For there to be regeneration, we have got to start with these obvious problems.

I have often said it would take the catalyst of perhaps five or six entrepreneurs, opening at the same time, to start the process of regeneration and in order to encourage others to have the confidence to follow suit. If we don’t deal with the obvious problems we do not create a framework in which this can develop.

If I were a visitor to Forest Hill walking to the Horniman Museum from the station, I would be appalled.

Havelock Walk is a good example of regeneration but it has developed from the efforts of the residents who live and work there with little support from Lewisham Council.

The recent farce of the aborted re-cobbling is a classic example of bureaucratic bungling. Because of a few potholes within the street, the highways department’s answer was to tarmac a major part of Havelock Walk and cover the original cobbles. When I called the planning department, Steve Isaacson – to his credit - agreed with me that this was an act of vandalism on a major scale. There followed meetings, site surveys and the usual reams of paperwork.

Eventually it was decided that the only way Havelock could be re-cobbled was to use new cobbles. When I pointed out that this was a conservation area and that the existing cobbles were part of its history, I was told they would be used somewhere else in the borough, “possibly Blackheath!” I commented that I didn’t want to go to Blackheath to feel that I was standing in Havelock Walk. We were also told that because of financial restrictions it would have to be done in two stages, but we were not able to get any guarantee as to when this second stage would be implemented. We have heard no more.

Havelock Walk is heralded within Lewisham Council as a successful example of regeneration, a vital, lively community and a real example of live/work. Why are they not prepared to help?

The examples I have listed are simple ways in which Lewisham Council could contribute to the regeneration in Forest Hill. Let’s hope we can persuade - or embarrass - them into action.

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