Housing for the Counihan family! - No to social cleansing in Brent!

In a letter to The Guardian on 12 November, the Labour leader of Brent Council, Muhammed Butt, lamented that the overall benefit cap in April 2013 will mean ‘that a family struggling to make ends meet ... will have to choose between paying rent and feeding their children... in Brent, over 2,500 households will have their benefits severely cut, some by over £50 a week.’ He goes on: ‘the council simply cannot afford to house all 2,500 households in the middle of London with £10m less funding’ and concludes: ‘Moving residents away from their communities (and in many cases, families) is absolutely the last thing I want to have to do but councils have been put in a terrible catch-22 situation.’

This is sheer hypocrisy. Brent Council has already expelled working class families to Hastings in Sussex, and The Coventry Telegraph reports that Brent is planning to send more poor families to Coventry. The Counihan-Sanchez family from Kilburn were made homeless after declaring £18 a week from a plot of land they inherited after the death of their grandfather. Isabel Counihan-Sanchez and her five children were all born and raised in Brent and Anthony Counihan works as a bus driver in Cricklewood, but Brent has refused to reinstate the family’s Housing Benefit and to put them back on the social housing list. Brent sees the Counihan-Sanchez as a test case in its undeclared policy of social cleansing of working class families.

On 6 November Brent Housing instructed Apex Housing to ask the Counihans to leave their temporary accommodation by the next day. After the family solicitor contacted Brent, they admitted that they had got this wrong. The housing benefit tribunal due for 9 November was also cancelled at an hour’s notice. All this has added significantly to the family’s stress.

On 10 November the Counihan-Sanchez Family Campaign (CSFC) protested outside the Open Day of the new Brent Civic Centre in Wembley, condemning the council for wasting £102m on this building while claiming there is no money to house the Counihans or other families, or to keep open the seven libraries closed by Brent. Councillor Butt has recently announced that £100m – 28% of the council’s budget – will be cut by 2015.

On 12 November CSFC supporters protested at the Brent Council executive meeting after we were denied the right to speak and, for a second time, councillors abandoned their public session and scuttled off to a ‘secure location’. On 15 November Isabel Counihan was finally given an opportunity to address councillors at the Budget Scrutiny Committee. She said that her family were one of thousands of homeless families in the borough and that social services had threatened to take her children into care. She had told them how expensive that would be, particularly as some would need special needs support, compared with helping the family with their rent. Isabel concluded by saying that Brent had got its priorities wrong and backed calls for Brent to set a budget based on local people’s needs. Graham Durham of Brent Fightback also addressed the committee, arguing that a Labour council should not attack the people of Brent.

Brent Council is escalating its attacks on working class people. In response, the CSFC has gone from strength to strength. On 6 October over a hundred people marched through Kilburn, receiving tremendous public support. The campaign worked with FRFI and Liberty to resist demands by the police and council that we should give 12 weeks’ notice, pay £1,200 costs and march on the pavement. In the end we got a letter from Scotland Yard legal department saying that the threat was due to a ‘misunderstanding’ and we proudly marched down Kilburn High Road, singing: ‘You can’t kick this family out of Brent’.

On 17 October CSFC held its second public meeting on the South Kilburn Estate, attracting 60 people, many of whom are suffering directly from the cuts, such as Joe McPhillips who was denied the correct treatment for his mental health problems despite four suicide attempts. Joe has been a great worker for the campaign and now seems to be getting better care. Isabel has also worked to help the Frimpong family from Kilburn who were under threat of eviction until recently.

The CSFC will fight until the Counihan family are rehoused in Kilburn. After that we will continue to defend the poor and the vulnerable against Brent Council’s social cleansing. In the words of Sarah Counihan, aged 15: ‘We are growing and not going’.

We ask FRFI readers to join our march on Saturday 1 December demanding Housing for the Counihans! No cuts in Brent! Assemble at Kilburn tube at 1pm and march to the Peel Precinct, South Kilburn Estate. Join us on Facebook: Counihan Battlebus

Jimmy Mac

FRFI 230 December 2012/January 2013


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