Radical political analysis, commentary and discussion in Wales
Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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The Billybanks is our home

The Billybanks is a large council estate in Penarth that has been abandoned for 9 years. It has been voted the ugliest unique eyesore in Wales as well as having won awards for architecture. In its time it’s been known to have its fair share of shady characters and dodgy deals as well as a vibrant and bustling community. The dilapidated buildings are covered in the rubbish from fly tippers but are also smothered by thriving wild plants with flowers and berries. It has been the location for several films and many photographic projects as well as being regularly frequented by graffiti artists, dog walkers and boy racers. And it’s where we currently live.

The Billybanks housed around a 1000 people for several generations until the council decided to redevelop it in 1998 and had it largely emptied by 2002. They realised the potential money in the incredible views of Cardiff and wanted to build a range of luxury flats, despite inevitably causing the displacement of hundreds of families. Apart from a handful of residents who refused to be bullied out of their homes the Billybanks lay uninhabited until August 2009 when a group of friends parked on one of the roads with their vans, trucks and caravans.

The initial reaction to our arrival was mixed. The local paper, the Penarth Times, read ”Travellers not welcome” and quotes from neighbours such as
”The travellers haven’t caused any trouble as yet, but I do worry that they will increase in numbers and then you just don’t know what will happen”.
It was not long before we were given eviction papers by the council including an attempt to ban us from staying in our vehicles anywhere in the county. This was obviously extremely disproportionate and not strictly within the councils power to enforce. We went to court and pointed out their misuse of the law and lack of justification for their actions and called for a judicial review. The case was postponed and a month later the council conceded and we have been enjoying living there ever since.

From our perspective, most of the people we met were friendly and welcoming and a month later the same paper quoting a local read:
“(The Travellers)... have been no nuisance since arriving in August and have kept the site tidy...Indeed; their presence seems to deter vandalism.”
The local fire brigade told us they love us living here because they used to attend weekly fires in the buildings and since we’ve arrived they’ve been here less than a handful of times.

The Billybanks has an incredible sense of history and community. Everyone you meet has a different story to tell you about their time living or visiting here. One ex-resident made a film about the Billybanks where she says
“We had nothing in those days, no money, nothing, we were totally skint but they were the happiest days of my life. Such a happy time, everything was open planned and everyone knew each other...there was a massive sense of community which you don’t see anymore.”
Many tell of the notorious DIY bonfire night parties where all the residents got together and watched the fireworks go off all over the city. Others describe exploring the huge rows of buildings after they had been emptied to find clothes still on washing lines and toys scattered in the gardens.

Many local people are disgusted at the councils £100m ‘Penarth Heights’ development scheme and have called for redevelopment of the old flats or the building of affordable housing. Despite the years of debate and lack of a development contract due to the credit crunch the project is going ahead and half the estate is currently being developed, with a supposed 20% social housing. One resident and his family still live in the Billybanks, refusing to leave until they’re offered one of the new builds arguing that they bought their house because they want to live there and local people can’t afford to live in the council’s new development. The council have threatened compulsory purchase several times but cancelled court at the last minute in a clear attempt to intimidate them out of their home.

It has been called the ugliest eyesore in Wales yet the council plan to flatten the woodland that surrounds the estate and build cubed, beige, wood-clad flats and houses. The area was known by many as the ‘heart and soul of Penarth’, yet how much community and soul will remain in the new ‘luxury’ housing project?

We who have squatted and live at the Billybanks enjoy being part of the community that remains, are proud to inhabit somewhere that the council have abandoned for 7 years and plan to stay here as long as we can. The government are currently proposing to criminalise squatting and make serious changes to traveller law that would make it virtually impossible for people to make use of or live in empty spaces like this. The Billybanks is just one example of the government prioritising profits over people as they evict households, leave buildings disused, make it harder for people to get housing benefit and attempt to make you a criminal if you start your own autonomous community on abandoned land.

One person filming at the Billybanks asked
“What is it that makes such a vile disgusting place so beautiful to look at?”
If you want to find out for yourself come to ‘Life at the Billybanks’: An Exhibition of Lithography, Drawing, Photography and Film' at Kebele Social Centre, 14 Robertson Road, Easton, Bristol BS5 6JY. Exhibition continues from Friday 15th until Sunday 31st July