A determined coalition of residents in east London, including a 94-year-old woman who is one of the original residents, have won their battle to save their homes from demolition by the council.

Residents of the two blocks, in Whitechapel, which stand on prime real estate land, lauded the U-turn by the local mayor, John Biggs, at a meeting on Tuesday night as a victory against social cleansing in the capital.

Tower Hamlets council had been looking at demolishing the Whitechapel blocks, Treves House and Lister House, which contain 51 flats, for several years. At a public meeting two years ago residents were dismayed when Biggs admitted the option of building private flats on the land was under consideration, and that discussions had been going on for a year behind closed doors.

Residents planned their fightback to save the blocks from the Treves House living room of Sophie Spielman, who turns 95 in a couple of weeks, and joked that her home was the HQ of the campaign.

Spielman originally came to the UK from India and is not only the oldest resident but also the one who has lived there the longest.

Her late husband, Nat, who opposed Oswald Mosley’s fascists during the Battle of Cable Street, was the first to move in, in 1959. She joined him a couple of years later.

Spielman sat in the front row of Tuesday’s meeting, listening intently to every word uttered by council officials. She smiled when Biggs confirmed the blocks would not be demolished.

“I’ve been happy here for 57 years. I can’t imagine life anywhere else,” she said. “All I want to do is live here for the rest of my days and now I’ll be able to do that.”





Spielman’s flat, in Treves House, became the informal HQ of the anti-demolition campaign.



Spielman’s flat, in Treves House, became the informal HQ of the anti-demolition campaign. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Neighbours from a wide range of backgrounds, including Kay Ballard, who says she can trace her cockney roots back seven generations, and the British-Bangladeshi resident Khayrun Begum, were also involved in the battle to save the blocks of flats.

The high-spec, brick flats were built in the 1950s in the new brutalist style designed by Count Ralph Smorczewski for Stillman and Eastwick, one of the foremost architecture partnerships of the postwar reconstruction years.

At the 2017 meeting which sparked residents’ concerns, Biggs said: “You would have to do a deal in which you would build a large number of properties – you would build 100 or something and sell off a large chunk.”

He said building some flats for sale on the open market would generate enough income to also provide some social housing on the site.

Guardian graphic.

The justification for the demolition plans was derived from an expert report which said a lot of costly structural work would be required to make the blocks habitable, in the region of £6.2m, so destroying the blocks and rebuilding of the prime site was the preferred option.

It came at a time of dwindling supply of council housing in the capital and an ever-lengthening housing waiting list. Similar battles over the destruction of council housing are being fought in many other London boroughs.

At the meeting two years ago, Biggs agreed to set up a working group. A new expert report was commissioned and completed in June this year. It found just £1.8m of works were required to refurbish the blocks, rather than the £6.2m originally cited. “It is agreed the building is generally structurally sound,” the new report stated, with ew roofs and windows required.

After announcing demolition was off the table, Biggs said: “I do appreciate it’s been pretty stressful for all of you.”

“The plans to demolish the blocks were social cleansing,” said resident Syed Ali. “Had they gone ahead we would not have been able to afford to live in our own neighbourhood. I’m so relieved about this decision. It’s not just the anxiety about where we would go if the flats were demolished but the sentimental value too. I was brought up in that flat and all my memories are tied up with it.”


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