Focus E15 campaign fights to win /FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

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‘The Focus E15 campaign has succeeded in ensuring that all the mothers from the E15 hostel are rehoused in London, however it may not be for long. All mothers have been given short-term private tenancies which means we may have to move every year. It’s unstable for our children. Some mums have also been left behind at Focus waiting to be housed. The problem is a lot wider than just our hostel, we meet many people who are facing social cleansing and expensive unaffordable rents. The fight will go on – we will keep fighting for social local housing for all no matter what your gender, age or working status everybody has a right to decent affordable homes. The bigger we grow, the louder we become, let’s all work together and fight this issue!’

Jasmin Stone, one of the leading mothers from the Focus E15 campaign

With a series of imaginative and lively events, the Focus E15 mothers have refused to give way to Newham Council’s social cleansing strategy. We have won a partial victory: not a single mother has been rehoused outside of London. We have publicly challenged Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, over his empty ‘affordable homes’ promises. We have chased Newham Mayor Robin Wales around the borough, insisting that he meets the demands of the campaign. We will continue to fight for decent social housing for all the mothers: we are not going to give up because the privately-rented accommodation we have been given does not meet our needs.

On 21 February, the campaign chartered an open-top bus, decorated it and installed a sound system, and took the mothers and babies to City Hall to hold a birthday party and then to hand in thousands of petitions to Mayor Boris Johnson. Johnson has said that ‘The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs... I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together.’ Johnson would not meet the mothers, sending a message that ‘I am unable to intervene in your individual cases… [but] we are currently on track to achieve my pledge that over my two terms in office, 100,000 new affordable homes to rent or buy will be built.’ However, an affordable rent is one set at 80% of the private market rate, and that is out of the reach of working class people.

Next was a challenge to Mayor Sir Robin Wales, mayor of Newham, at a council meeting in East Ham. When we arrived, however, we found the public gallery was closed for refurbishment (and has been for months and won’t open till next year). Only a select few who had applied weeks before could get inside. We were put in a room with a screen to watch the proceedings and saw NUJ card-carrying journalist and Focus E15 supporter Kate Belgrave being refused entry to the council meeting. We were not going to accept that censorship, and we made sure our message was loud and clear: Newham’s Labour council is operating a policy of social cleansing. It is forcing young vulnerable homeless people including mothers and children out of London while council properties in the borough remain boarded up.

Robin Wales, the councillors and other officers left the meeting hurriedly under a barrage of protests, protected by security guards and staff from the town hall. Robin Wales is a coward – he vilifies the homeless in Newham, supporting council officials who, along with the police and UK Borders Agency staff, are threatening rough sleepers with ASBOs and running random immigration checks. He may seem imposing in his office and his town hall meetings but he runs away when he faces real anger from those he is trying to kick out of Newham.

We met Sir Robin Wales again on 15 March as he visited Stratford library. ‘Raise it with the government, not with me’, he said, ‘I'm not responsible for people.’ Wales receives £81,000 per annum as Mayor, and more from other outside interests. He is not bothered about the poor. He had just come back from Cannes in the south of France where he attended the world’s biggest annual property fair, the International Market of Real Estate Professionals (MIPIM). 20,000 people at a cost of €1,600 each attend this jamboree, where government officials meet multinational companies and property developers from all over the world to work out how to make the most profit out of housing.

Wales was shameless about his freebie: ‘it’s not costing the public purse a penny, it’s all paid for by our development partners.’ Some would call this corruption. Companies present at MIPIM include LendLease which bought the Heygate Estate in south London and demolished 1,000 council houses: just 71 of the new homes being built will be social housing. Wales has announced that property firm Galliard has bought the eight-acre West Ham Upton Park stadium and grounds, valued at £71m. It plans to build up to 700 homes on the site by 2018. Wales has yet to disclose whether any of the new housing stock will be council or social housing and affordable to local people. However much he tried to wash his hands of any responsibility for the Focus E15 Mothers and other working class people in Newham, the campaign will not let him off the hook.

Hannah Caller