The Assault on London Housing Rights

Guiness Trust pic2 We wont GoGraham Campbell reports on two local struggles to defend council housing in London, and draws some conclusions about the social significance of the Coalition’s assault on social homes.

February 14th to 23rd is designated by Radical Housing Network as Housing Action Week, and it certainly has been. Leading up to the actions of the past week, London has been the site of at least five different housing demonstrations and occupations in Newham (Focus E15), Barnet, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth (Guinness) and now Southwark (Aylesbury).

This comes as a direct result of the removal of the requirement imposed by Labour of having at least 20% of homes in new private developments reserved for social housing. On top of massive cuts in boroughs like Southwark (£31m) and Lambeth (£90m), which have cut housing to the bone, developers are simply not building homes for social rent. Social landlords are now acting like property developers, selling off council sites so that developers can demolish them and build entirely new private schemes.

The social movement of resistance to this process has emerged suddenly as a potential mass struggle because of the scale of the housing crisis and the desperate circumstances forced upon the capital’s working people. The crisis in social housing, which was already bad under Labour, has been exacerbated by the tightening of anti-squatting laws in England by the ConDems.

According to the Squatters Legal Network, “squatting is getting harder than it was. Partly due to introduction of section 144 [of the housing act 2012] which criminalised trespassing with the intention of living in a ‘residential’ building – in September 2012. Since the law changed, some squatters have been threatened, arrested, charged and convicted of the new criminal offence. Many others have been evicted sometimes unlawfully without notice and/or violently.”

Guinness Trust occupation ends with a partial victory

Poster in the Guiness Trust occupation (credit: Shanice McBean)

Poster in the Guinness Trust occupation (credit: Shanice McBean)

On Thursday Feb 19th, around 50 activists gathered to occupy a flat in defence of Arinola Adefuwa and her family. Guinness Trust, the owners of the Brixton estate currently being demolished to make way for new private and social housing, had served 44 families with notices to quit and threatened to send bailiffs in a process of forced decanting and demolition. Guinness promised to give tenancies, but then withdrew this offer.

Tenants mobilised with local Unite community activists. They support the call for an end to evictions, to defend social housing and stop the increasing gentrification of inner London through social cleansing. Unite community campaigner Grace revealed that Lambeth sends the most bailiffs of any council in London, serving hundreds of evictions a month – mostly for rent arrears resulting from the changes to housing benefit rules.

Arinola won a last minute stay of her eviction after the social landlord Guinness Trust caved into pressure from housing activists gathered in support. It was agreed at the occupation meeting inside the family’s flat that the occupation could end, the eviction having been postponed. However, the 44 families remain at risk of eviction and will need further mobilisation to defend them, as Guinness has only offered cash settlements in exchange for their departure.

Aylesbury Estate fights back

Aylesbury was the estate where Tony Blair gave his first speech as Prime Minister in 1997, making the first of many broken promises about social housing. As the occupiers say: “Since then over the last 18 years… Southwark Council and their developer friends have come up with one misguided scheme after another.” It was then the front line of failed efforts to demolish council housing in 2001, the year 73% of tenants voted no to a stock-transfer privatisation and demolition scheme. Blair and his pro-developer friends on Southwark Labour council were defeated thanks to massive resistance by tenants and housing campaigners which included standing candidates against them and a significant local split from the Labour party.

Southwark Council pledged to accept the decision, but since then Aylesbury has been a prime target for demolition. Greedy developers have coveted the site close to the revamped Elephant & Castle shopping area. Social cleansing began with clearance of the neighbouring Heygate estate, chipping away at Council owned land to build private homes. The new Elephant & Castle regeneration plans contain very few social homes, despite past promises made to tenants.

On 31st January, a 5000 strong March for Homes took place uniting activists and communities from across London – by far the largest such example of action in a generation. A section of the march broke away and about 150 occupation took occupation of Chartridge House, part of the Aylesbury Estate and one of the main blocks being emptied for demolition and private housing development by Southwark Council in south-east London.

At the occupation I spoke to longstanding activists from 56a Infoshop, which was set up by anarchists and squatters in the late 1970s in Walworth. They joined forces with veteran tenant campaigner Piers Corbyn of Defend Council Housing and Aylesbury tenant activist Aysen Dennis, who led the successful fight to stop Aylesbury demolitions in 2002. They were all glad of the squatters’ action, coming in to physically resist this process of social cleansing. Occupiers acknowledge through social media how vital it was to have legitimate tenant support for their actions.

The squatters’ leaflet stated it simply: “Better to Squat than Let Homes Rot! – We are in Occupation of 77-105 Chartridge – a block on the Aylesbury Estate left empty by Southwark Council who are attempting to do the same to the Aylesbury as we have seen happening on the Heygate – i.e. forcing residents out of their homes and trashing the community in order to demolish the existing blocks and build new flats for the rich.”

The squatters’ demands include:

  • No demolition of the Aylesbury estate
  • No Yuppy Flats
  • Homes for All
  • We are here to fight for the Aylesbury
  • We are here to fight for our city
  • We are here to liberate this space and bring it back to life, come and join us.
Riot police evict Aylesbury occupiers.

Riot police evict Aylesbury occupiers.

After 2 weeks of occupation on Monday February 16th, the authorities got a county court judgement for eviction. On Tuesday night, a massive police riot squad operation to smash the protests took place. Campaigners successfully used social media to rally people to their defence. Over 40 arrests were made and several were injured as bailiffs with guard dogs erected a very expensive tall metal fence in order to seal in the occupiers and to obstruct access for supporters to the squatted Chartridge House, which had been cleared of tenants by authorities over the last few years.

The local tenant supporters responded to the police attack by issuing this statement, distributed as a leaflet:

The para-military, expensive night-time police and bailiffs operation and violent arrests to end, after Court decision, the Occupation in the defined single Chartridge Block on the Aylesbury estate was unjustifiable in any terms… We demand Harriet Harman Labour MP for the area say if she thinks this operation was right and call on her to demand the Council end the anti-democratic demolition and social cleansing of the AYLESBURY ESTATE… As long as the demolition of the Aylesbury continues no-one anywhere should vote Labour because the demolition and destruction of community and social cleansing being perpetrated is against democratic values Labour claims to respect… We Fully back the heroic new occupation of another Chartridge block all the way and will support all and any actions to obstruct and resist the decanting, demolition and building process and selling and letting of new flats on the estate and against all agents and flunkies of such anti democratic tyranny…We urge all tenants and leaseholders …to support and visit the occupation and other struggles against demolition and social cleansing in Southwark and London until final victory!

I had a long chat with Piers, Caroline, Benson and a number of others involved in the occupation and it revealed the sheer level of violence involved by the state. This follows on from a housing debate hosted nearby by Brick Lane Debates on February 15th. One of the speakers was Lisa McKenzie, author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. She stressed how civic disobedience and mass mobilisation has become a necessary part of housing campaigning with demonstrations going off all the time over what has become the number one issue of concern for working class Londoners. When you fight for the right to housing you are effectively confronting the state now because of the way the law is used against tenants.

To support the campaign, pass this model resolution through your organisation: “We support the demand that Southwark Council and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, RESPECT the democratic overwhelming ballot (2001) of Aylesbury tenants and leaseholders to keep the estate wholly council-owned and controlled; AND call on Ed Miliband to tell Southwark Labour council to IMMEDIATELY STOP the anti-democratic demolition of the Aylesbury estate and to consult with tenants and leaseholders in the estate and area on alternative plans including refurbishment of existing blocks as council housing.”

The social significance of housing struggles

London has developed from having a working class inner-city core to having an increasingly monopolised private space for the middle class. Meanwhile the formerly middle-class suburbs have quickly become newly created working class ghettos, a Parisian-style ‘peripherique,’ where the remaining affordable private rented properties are. A mass exodus has occurred of working class people from the inner-city to outer London and beyond.

It’s not unusual to pay £1000 a month for two bedroom flats, even in outer London. Even social rented flats rent for over £500 per calendar month. Given the low wages earned by most social tenants, they are heavily dependent on the housing benefit which was capped by the ConDem government’s benefit ‘reforms’. This means that increasing numbers of them fall behind in the rent, and landlords are more than willing to evict with quite low levels of rent arrears.

The struggle over the geography of urban space, especially over where people are allowed to live, is a crucial part of the class struggle against the process which (following David Harvey) we might call ‘accumulation by dispossession.’ By depriving working class people of physical geographical presence and a sense of collective community that can be found in social housing schemes, the ruling class removes the social support base for communal solidarity. Without a sense of community it becomes more difficult for individuals and groups of workers to challenge the general atomisation that takes place in capitalist society over housing.

It is time for Londoners and people in the inner cities to get militant about housing. We need to be demanding rent controls, more landlord regulations, the reversal of anti-squatting laws, an emergency programme of council house building, a stop to further stock transfer privatisation and more tenant control of housing management. We should also demand a stop to absentee landlords buying up housing without living in London.

It is above all time for the revolutionary left to take housing seriously as a basic issue of working class solidarity and self-organisation in communities. There is no doubt that housing rights will feature more and more in the types of community struggles we will see emerging.

For more on the Aylesbury occupation tap these links. WordPress: Fight for Aylesbury, Twitter @FightForAylesbury, Facebook: Southwark Defend Council Housing, www.AylesburyTenantsFirst.org.uk. For the Guinness Trust struggle, WordPress: Guinness Occupation and Facebook: Guinness Trust AST Tenants.

Radical Housing Network have organised a lobby to contest Boris Johnson and the Greater London Assembly’s budget setting meeting on Monday Feb 23rd at 9am at City Hall with speakers music and activities from 12pm-2pm. For more details #HousingAction or @radicalhousing.

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