- Created: Friday, 03 October 2014 11:17
- Written by Hannah Caller
‘For real politics, don’t look to parliament but to an empty London housing estate’.Aditya Chakraborrty, The Guardian
On 21 September, RCG members joined other supporters of the Focus E15 campaign as it marked one year of fighting for social housing and against social cleansing with a birthday party on a largely-boarded up council housing estate in Newham, east London. The party culminated with the opening up of four empty properties on the Carpenters Estate as a social centre, open to all those fighting for social justice and against Newham Labour council’s shameful housing policies. Hannah Caller reports.
Focus E15’s first anniversary coincided with Open House London weekend. The Carpenters Estate, despite being mainly empty after the council has deliberately run it down, had been on the programme, with people invited to go up one of the tower blocks to see the view. At the last minute the tour was cancelled, ostensibly for health and safety reasons, and instead security officers and police patrolled the estate asking residents and the local pub owners to report anything ‘suspicious’.
But this was not enough to stop the party going ahead, making the point that people need homes and these empty homes need people. After a festive morning of face-paints, music and party games, everyone turned to watch the samba band whose rhythmical beats rose to a crescendo as one by one people in the crowd turned back to see the flats behind them open up. Two of the Focus E15 mothers, Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton, appeared at the window of one of the flats to shrieks of delight from the astonished crowd below – a real Open House event.
Carpenters Estate – an example of social cleansing
The flats, boarded up in 2011, were in near-perfect condition, with running water, hot and cold, power showers, flushing toilets and newly-fitted kitchens. It is shameful that perfectly decent housing, fit for immediate habitation, should have been neglected and boarded up by the council. The phenomenal groundswell of support that has greeted its occupation reflects the deep anger felt across the country at the increasing gentrification of our cities. Carpenters Estate, next to the Olympic Village is being cleared of most of its residents because Newham Council wants to sell the land for yet more of the luxury developments and retail outlets that have come to dominate the area.
As Jasmin said, standing in the social centre, ‘It’s amazing to be here; the issue of empty homes is out there now and people can see that these properties are in perfect condition and can be lived in. We must repopulate the estate.’ The local residents have shown nothing but support, visiting and telling their stories about their families, their past. The council’s plans for the site have already failed once: it planned to build a university campus there by 2012 for the Olympics. That struggle was won by the residents, organised in Carpenter Against Regeneration Plan, teaming up with UCL students.
Over the last decade there have been many rounds of evictions of tenants who have ended up far from their community and support networks. When they come back to visit their families on the estate, they can see their old homes still lying empty. Now there are fewer than a handful of residents in the tower blocks and over 600 empty properties on the estate.
The arms-length management organisation on the estate, the Tenants Management Organisation (TMO), says that Newham will not fill the empty properties, so the TMO has boarded them up. The council, meanwhile, says it wants to use the flats – but only for short-term emergency housing run by a private company (it has, so far, failed to do this). This would give occupants, who could be evicted at a moment’s notice (ie, as soon as the council gets a deal to sell the land) no security and, says Newham, is being resisted by the TMO. The council refuses to put the Carpenters Estate flats on its housing list, because what it won’t do is offer secure tenancies. A quagmire of lies and deceit by the council means that the only way out has been to take things into our own hands.
Solidarity – and backlash
Since the occupation started, the open house has been a focal point for community organisation, with workshops, film showings, meetings and discussions. The comedian Josie Long performed a gig at the centre in the first week, and the RCG, which has played a key role in the Focus E15 campaign, showed our film on the battle for socialism in Venezuela. Support for the Focus E15 mothers has come pouring in as their radical action sparks a real debate about housing policy, gentrification, social cleansing and the wider issues of austerity. Practical support is being offered by people from around London and there is massive online solidarity. Suddenly the mainstream press is falling over itself to interview the women leading the campaign, and high-profile left-wing figures including ChunkyMark and Russell Brand have paid visits to the centre.
Inevitably, Newham Labour council is fighting back. Over the last year, Focus E15 campaign has become a thorn in the side of Labour Mayor of Newham Robin Wales, the Labour council and the local Labour MP Lyn Brown. All year these arrogant forces have shown nothing but contempt for the women of Focus E15 and have consistently attempted to ignore and marginalise their campaign. Now that the campaign has burst into the national spotlight, they are using the only tactics they know – intimidation and vicious lies.
Newham has moved Clearway security guards into the flats opposite the Focus E15 social centre to spy on and intimidate the campaigners, and on 26 September, someone arrived in a Newham Council van accompanied by police and smashed up the water pipes supplying the open house.
Just as vital to the reactionaries’ attempts to undermine Focus E15 are their efforts to discredit the campaign, using smear techniques. Within days of the occupation, Newham Council’s mayoral advisor for housing, Andrew Baikie, stated:
‘It is disappointing to see empty homes in the Carpenters Estate being occupied by agitators and hangers-on. It is equally disappointing to see them attempt to misrepresent the truth for their own ends ... No-one should be fooled by the claims of the so-called leaders of the Focus E15 campaign.’
It is an old smear tactic, blaming outside ‘agitators’ for real working class organisation. But it is also a deliberate attempt to separate off ‘independent’ and ‘self-taught’ campaigners from political organisation and socialist politics. It was a chance encounter between a group of the 29 young mothers facing eviction and members of the RCG selling our newspaper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! on the streets last year that was the catalyst for the Focus E15 campaign. The fusion of the women’s uncompromising working class determination to organise against injustice with communist politics and organisation has created a campaign implacable in its opposition to the local Labour council’s housing policies, uninterested in ‘respectability’, and imaginative, radical and daring in its actions. With the women, and members of other organisations, we have built support on the streets, holding a stall in the centre of Stratford every Saturday for the last year. The women have been clear the campaign is not just about them and their housing situation, but about the right to decent, affordable housing for all.
Writing in The Guardian on 23 September, the paper’s economics leader writer Aditya Chakraborrty made the point: ‘This story is really about how the apolitical get radicalised. Because first the 29 mothers did as told: registering as homeless, spending days phoning all the landlords on the three-page sheet given to them as the sole help by the council. When that didn’t work, they chanced upon a revolutionary communist market stall and enlisted their help. They set up their own stall, which can still be seen every Saturday in Stratford centre ... then they began storming council offices.’
Focus E15 is a unified, principled, grassroots campaign for social housing and against social cleansing. We will not allow the lies of the council to divide us. And we will not stop campaigning for justice.
Come and visit the E15 Social Centre – 60-68 Doran Walk, London E15 2JJ.
A family-friendly space for all those opposed to the housing crisis.
On Friday 26 September, Newham Council tried and failed to evict the Focus E15 campaign from the open house. Papers relating to a court hearing at 2pm were served on the occupation at noon, with the council requesting an Interim Possession Order. If granted, the protesters would have been evicted within 24 hours. However, the judge ruled that giving campaigners only two hours’ notice to prepare their case was ‘unfair and unlawful’. Another eviction hearing will take place on Thursday 2 October. As we go to press, the open house is still occupied, and the campaign will continue come what may.
FIGHT RACISM! FIGHT IMPERIALISM! 241 October/November 2014