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Broken Promises

My thoughts on the Tottenham riots and the economic decline of the area where I grew up

Wednesday 9 August 2011

I’m trying to understand what went on in Tottenham last Saturday.  Of course I condemn it, unreservedly; and I condemn the copycat crime that’s taken place since then as well. But why did the problem start in Tottenham?

I recently published “Live Eels and Grand Pianos”, a story about growing up in Edmonton inthe 1950s and 60s. My family lived yards away from the borough boundary; Tottenham wasn’t far from the bottom of our garden. At that time that part of the Lee Valley - Tottenham, Edmonton and Enfield – was an industrial powerhouse.  For over seventy years Harris Lebus & Co operated the world’s largest furniture factory from the very same spot in Ferry Lane where a young black man was shot last week. At its peak in the 1940s it employed over 6,000 people on a thirty-six acre site.  The factory closed in 1970.

Just down the road was the Gestetner Cyclograph Company which produced stencils, styli, ink rollers, etc, which enabled an ordinary typewriter to produce documents that could beduplicated in purple ink. People of my age will remember these purple ink pages from our schooldays. They were used to send out invitations to parents’evenings and school plays. The Gestetner works opened in 1906 and employed several thousand people until the 1970s when it lost its reason for existence.The photocopier had arrived. The Gestetner site is now the Tottenham Hale retail park that was trashed and looted last Saturday.

Almost every gas cooker used in British homes after World War II was made by Glover and Main at the Gothic Works in Angel Road Edmonton, which closed in 1983. The land was derelict for over twenty years until an IKEA Store opened in Glover Close (named after the factory) in 2005. Guess what happened – just before opening day IKEA distributed handbills that offered ludicrously low prices to every home in Tottenham; thousands of people turned up for the opening and there was a near-riot as security and police couldn’t control the bargain hunters.

In the 1960s the MK Electric Company employed over 3,000 people at twelve factories in and around Edmonton. MK produced virtually every 13 amp plug and socket that was fitted in the UK. MK was created and owned by the Belling and Arnold families; the same families that had founded Belling and Sons in the early twentieth century. Belling electric ovens and electric fires could be found in most British homes. Charles Belling was also a partner in Belling and Lee, based in Ponders End, the first company to manufacture mains radio receivers in the UK.

Belling’s electric cooker factories were in Southbury Road Enfield, next door to the huge Thorn Electrical Industries complex on the A10. Jules Thorn created an enormous industrial empire and Enfield was its heart. His local factories produced televisions and radios, lighting, the first MRI scanners, and his empire controlled EMI which brought the Beatles to our hi-fi sets – made by Thorns of course. Thorn’s researchers – based in Enfield –designed and engineered the first colour TVs that British families were able to buy in the late 1960s. Enfield was a centre of innovation, not just manufacturing when Jules Thorn was alive. He went on to buy out his local competitors, Belling, and Glover and Main. After his death his business was sold off in bits. Very little of it remains, none of it in Enfield.

Most of these industrialists – Lebus, Gestetner, Belling and Arnold - lived locally and contributed to the local civic society. The Belling foundation still exists to provide educational facilities for Enfield residents. The name of Charles Arnold (the MK founder) lives on as he left his home on the Ridgeway to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation which now operates itas a care home.

I am a trustee of a charity based in Edmonton. As we’re always on the lookout for funds, especially as local government funding has been cut – I tried to think of any substantial, nationally known business that was headquartered in this part of the Lee Valley and employed large numbers of local people and which might have the community’s interest at heart. The only one I could think of was Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, and that fails at least  two of the tests – they don’ t employ large numbers of people (and few of those are locals) and their record as a corporate citizen is lamentable.

Even before last Saturday the north end of Tottenham High Road was full of boarded up properties. Why? Because Spurs had bought them all and was negotiating for planning permission to enlarge its stadium. Then it decided to abandon its roots and move to Stratford, leaving a legacy of economic decline and boarded up shops and homes behind. Spurs are not much of a corporate citizen today but that’s hardly surprising. For most of the club’s history it was controlled by people who were either born locally and/or lived locally. But in 2001 Alan Sugar sold it to Joe Lewis, a British born but Bahamas based billionaire who is reputed to have made his first billion dollars speculating against the pound on ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992.

In the past fifty years thousands of relatively well paid manufacturing jobs that  provided apprenticeships, a sense of shared community values and above all dignity have disappeared from Tottenham, Edmonton and Enfield. New jobs have been created in Central London in financial services and tourism, but they don’t go to local youth. London is the most unequal city in the developed world –London’s richest 10 per cent are worth 273 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Over 8% of Tottenham residents are claiming benefits. The London average is 4%.None of this excuses what took place last weekend in any way. But what it does show is that economic decline creates conditions where only evil people such as gangsters and looters flourish. They become role models for young people with few prospects.

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