Photos and Essay: The Inspiring Council House Occupation in Stratford That Is Resonating Across London

1.10.14

See my photos of my visit to the Focus E15 Open House Occupation in Stratford here.

On Friday, I paid a visit to the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, in east London, to show solidarity with the Focus E15 Mothers, a group of single mums, from Stratford, who were recently kicked out of a hostel where they had been staying, because of budget cuts, and were threatened with being scattered across the UK.

On Open House Weekend (September 20-21), making a great political point while the rich and powerful opened up prestigious properties for a day or two, the mums occupied a small block of flats, in perfectly habitable condition, which had been boarded up for years as part of the Labour-controlled council’s ongoing attempts to empty the Carpenters Estate so that it can be sold to housing developers.

In an article for the Guardian last week, Aditya Chakrabortty succinctly analysed the current situation regarding the Carpenters Estate,” which, he wrote, “was long ago cleared of most of its residents as Newham council tried to flog the land. Except the last deal fell through, leaving around 600 council homes empty. This is in a borough where more than 24,000 households are waiting for somewhere to live, and where, last winter, the shopping precinct was full of rough sleepers.”

The campaigners I met on Friday — augmented by other housing activists, and with visitors not only from Stratford but from across London — were friendly, articulate and committed. While I was there, they won an important court victory, at Bow County Court, when a judge told Newham Council that a possession order, issued at noon for an appearance at 2pm, was unjust, because it was an unacceptably short amount of time for the campaigners to prepare a case. As Zoe Williams noted in the Guardian, around 30 people gathered outside the court, chanting, “Housing is a human right, here to stay and here to fight, they are wrong and we are right, housing is a human right.”

A new hearing has been set for Thursday, October 2, at 10am, and anyone who supports the occupiers can join the Facebook page here, and, if you can, turn up to support them.

Last Friday, after the victory, the campaigners continued to involve the community in their campaign, setting up a free food stall outside the flats, and a free shop on a small patch of embanked grass nearby where donated items — clothes, books and toys, for example, were made available to anyone who needed them. Upstairs, in the media room, a press release was prepared, while outside others involved in the campaign added events to a blackboard, beginning with an open mike session at 6pm.

I had to leave at 5.30, sadly, but was in no doubt that what I had seen in action —  real community solidarity — would continue. And the power of their actions was confirmed the moment I arrived at the occupied block of flats, when a resident — a black woman in her 50s — told me, a stranger, how happy she was to see the flats occupied, and how it was something she had been praying for for years.

In contrast to the needs of the estate’s residents — and the tens of thousands of people on Newham’s housing waiting list — the council has long claimed that it needed to close down the estate, and move residents to other locations, because it was too expensive to refurbish the three tower blocks that make up the bulk of the estate’s homes. However, that argument has not convinced numerous residents.

In June 2012, when UCL was in talks with Newham Council about creating a new campus on the estate (a plan that later fell through), one long-term resident, Mary Finch, who had lived on the estate for 40 years, told Dave Hill of the Guardian, “I think that the Olympics has lost me my home. I think they’re gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that’s got nothing wrong with it, that’s standing solid? I do not want to go.”

Back in June 2012, Dave Hill noted how “[s]low dispersal of the estate’s residents, mostly to alternative dwellings nearby, ha[d] been in progress for some time,” and wrote about how Newham’s executive mayor, Sir Robin Wales, claimed that this was justified by “the need to embrace a host of development opportunities created not only by the draw of the [Olympic] Games and the [Olympic] park but also … by the economic arteries formed by the improved transport hub at Stratford station.”

Wales told Hill, “It’s always a balance if you want to do something for an area. What is the wider community getting at the expense of the inconvenience caused to local residents? People in Carpenters are concerned. I would be too. I completely understand that. But with UCL we would get an amazing, top university coming to the area. Our vision is for science and hi-tech providing jobs and skills. It would be such a good offer from the point of view of our kids.”

Two other Carpenters residents saw through Wales’ dissembling. Joe Alexander and Osita Madu of the campaigning group CARP (Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan) pointed out that the estate “works well as a community, so why dismantle it?” Madu said, “We’re not some kind of social ill or blight on the landscape that needs help. Somehow Newham council thinks we’re a social problem that needs to be addressed.”

Anyone who has seen the way in which Newham embraced big business for the Olympics cannot disagree with Osita Madu’s analysis of how the Carpenters Estate and its residents were perceived, and this conclusion was reinforced for me on Friday when, to reach the estate, I not only had to pass the cluster of private high-rises that were built for the Olympics, but also a number of building sites for further towering monstrosities that filled every piece of land in the vicinity of the Olympic Park, with the exception of the land still occupied by the Carpenters Estate.

The opinions expressed in 2012 are no less vociferous now, and with good reason, as the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to grow, with politicians, for the most part, interested only in developers and their narrow market — generally, rich Londoners, and rich foreign investors. Across London, unaffordable housing continues to rise up, as part of a wildly distorted housing market that is deliberately untamed by government or the banks, accompanied by various strategies — including benefit cuts, and cynically packaged regeneration plans for those living on estates like the Carpenters —  which are designed to move those on lower incomes, as well as anyone who finds themselves unemployed, out of London altogether.

Below I’m cross-posting an article written for the Guardian last week by Jasmin Stone, one of the Focus E15 Mothers, which eloquently explains how the occupation came about, as well as providing a number of important rallying cries — pointing out that housing “is a basic human right, not a privilege,” and explaining that this is why the campaigners “are demanding social housing, not social cleansing.”

Why I’m occupying a boarded-up east London council house
By Jasmin Stone, Guardian, September 23, 2014

A group of local mothers are squatting next to London’s Olympic Park to tell the government we need social housing, not social cleansing

My daughter was 13 months old when I received the eviction notice. I was living in a hostel in Stratford, London E15. The letter said that we had two months to get out. We were homeless; that’s why we were in the hostel in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were 210 other young women living there. Now it’s luxury flats. The council said they would rehouse us, but it turned out they were threatening to move us hundreds of miles away, to Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham.

When we met Newham’s Labour mayor, Sir Robin Wales, he told us: “if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham”.

We grew up in Newham. We find this attitude disgusting. No one on low wages or benefits, or even an average income, can afford to live here.

Newham is a place for a variety of people, not just one class. We know that Newham is not alone either – people are being displaced every day from boroughs all over London. This is why we formed the Focus E15 Mothers campaign to fight for decent, local social housing for all those who need it.

This weekend, the Open House event ran across London. It gave people the opportunity to go inside buildings across the capital that are usually closed to the public. We decided to participate by opening up a closed council house on the Carpenters Estate, a large public housing estate next to the Olympic Park. Many residents have been evicted and cleared out of here by Newham council, which is trying to capitalise on the Olympics by selling the land off to private developers. They have tried every trick in the book to get rid of the remaining residents. They even told them there was asbestos in the tower blocks to get them out before the Olympics, and then let al-Jazeera and the BBC use one of the blocks during the games. Now the estate remains empty except for a handful of people.

The boarded-up house we have opened is in beautiful condition. It has running water, a power shower, working gas and electricity. Just by adding a sofa, table and chairs and some plants, we have turned this house into a home, and solved the housing crisis for one of the 6,500 rough sleepers or thousands of other homeless people in London. Newham council claims it can’t afford to house us, yet it found the money to hire dozens of private security guards on Sunday to try, unsuccessfully, to keep us out of the empty properties on the Carpenters Estate.

There are more than 2,000 other properties on the Carpenters Estate alone that could be made available as homes almost instantly. But the council leaves them to rot and deteriorate through weather damage, so they are in a bad enough way for the council to say they are in an unliveable condition.

Housing in London is now a commodity that the super-rich buy, like fine wine or art. It has been dubbed the “tax-haven on the Thames”. At least £122bn of property in England and Wales is held through companies registered in offshore tax havens, resulting in the loss of billions of pounds of tax that could be used to rebalance the housing market.

We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis.

This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.

A new type of housing has been put in place called “affordable housing”, which has replaced social housing. It sounds good, but affordable housing costs up to 80% of the market rate – and is still ridiculously unaffordable. It makes no more sense to have a free market in housing than one in education, water or healthcare.

Housing, like these other things, is a basic human right, not a privilege. This is why we are demanding social housing, not social cleansing. In addition, rent caps to limit out-of-control rents, mansion taxes and higher stamp duty for the wealthiest would be simple reforms that have a dramatic impact on housing. Simply taking action to restrict the privileges of the 1% could result in a relatively fairer housing situation in London.

A link to the photos is also below:

These People Need Homes

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    After I posted the photos on Flickr, I posted a link on Facebook, and wrote:

    Here are my photos of my recent visit to show solidarity with the wonderful ‪‎FocusE15‬ campaign in Stratford, in east London, where, on September 21, 29 local single mums, kicked out of a hostel where they had been staying because of budget cuts and threatened with being sent hundreds of miles away, occupied a block of four flats on the Carpenters Estate, where hundreds of perfectly habitable flats lie empty, as the disgraceful Labour-controlled council tries to flog the land to the developers who continue to make London unaffordable for ordinary people.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    And when I posted the link to this article on Facebook, I wrote:

    To accompany the photo set I just posted on Flickr, here’s my detailed article about the inspiring occupation of a block of four council flats on the Carpenters Estate in London by a group of single mums, the Focus E15 Mothers, who were threatened with being sent to live hundreds of miles away, as politicians and developers continue to reshape London as a place only for the rich. This is a campaign that has a resonance not just for Stratford, but for the whole of London.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote:

    glad they have somebody like you to stand beside them, Andy

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    There seem to be a lot of people supporting them, Mo D’oh, which is good news. I’m hoping the momentum continues, as what they’re addressing is a genuine crisis that is destroying London as a city containing all kinds of people, and redefining it as a place where the rich and super-rich rule with impunity, the poor are exiled, and everyone else is squeezed as ruthlessly as possible.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote:

    a city where teachers, nurses, street sweepers and for that matter single parents can not afford to live, is not a viable city, Andy

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, agreed, Mo D’oh, and I hope the greedy scum come a cropper before it’s too late. But our so-called leaders – with their obsession with privatisation – don’t care about those priced out. They’ve so successfully made London a global magnet for anyone desperate for work that they think they can use these immigrants instead to do all those jobs – as teachers, nurses, cleaners etc.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Rabab Ghazoul shared this on Facebook, and wrote:

    Thanks Andy Worthington

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Rabab. As I note, this is a genuinely inspiring campaign, and I hope its energy spreads across London.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Rabab Ghazoul wrote:

    Yes, it is, that’s why I wanted to share it, and great to have your direct experience and comments about it, yay, keep up the great work.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Brilliant! Thanks again for your interest and support, Rabab.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    The hearing for the Focus E15 Mothers regarding Newham Council’s application for repossession of the flats on the Carpenters Estate is this morning at 10am at Bow County Court, 96 Romford Road, E15 4EG. My thoughts are with the campaigners, and I hope the judge recognises the significance of their actions. Otherwise, the perfectly habitable flats in Doran Walk – along with hundreds of others on the Carpenters Estate – will remain empty despite the massive need for social housing in Stratford, in Newham, and in London as a whole.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David V Barrett wrote:

    I live in Newham. So far as I know its supposedly Labour MP Lyn Brown has never opened her mouth about anything worthwhile (including the plight of the poor or homeless), while its supposedly Labour millionaire mayor Sir Robin Wales is one of the highest-paid elected mayors in Britain, in one of the poorest boroughs. Most of the other candidates in the last mayoral election promised to slash their salary in half if they were elected. He’s very good at having his photo taken with photogenic local children for the council’s self-promotion mag.

    The supposedly Labour council — 100%, with no opposition whatsoever — has a reputation for trying to force through upmarket property deals that no one wants. Only a determined battle from shopkeepers, stall-holders, shoppers and residents stopped them razing a popular market and building a fucking great hotel and plush apartment block and smart indoor market that would have priced the stall-holders literally out of the market. These guys make the 1970s Gannex mac supremo Lord Kagan and his cronies look like rank amateurs.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you very much for your analysis of the situation, David. Great to hear from you. I have been hearing a lot (nothing good) about Robin Wales’ disdain for those in Newham who are unfortunate enough not to be well-off, but I hadn’t even come across Lyn Brown, which would seem to confirm what you’re saying about her refusal to get involved. As for the council, yes, they were either corrupted by the Olympics, or couldn’t wait for the erasing of the poor to begin back in the run-up to that orgy of jingoism, social cleansing and financial unaccountability in the summer of 2012.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Thanks Andy. How did the hearing go?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Good question, Charmaine. So Newham Council dropped their legal action after those occupying the flats promised to leave by next Tuesday, October 7, which is sad, but probably inevitable. They promised to keep fighting, but to my mind this can only be achieved – in terms of London as a whole – with further occupations elsewhere. As for the Carpenters campaign, I’m not sure how sufficient pressure can be exerted on Newham Council without an occupation taking place, but I hope to find out more next week.

    Anyway, this is the full statement read out by Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton after the hearing (via here: https://www.facebook.com/602860129757343/photos/a.627992970577392.1073741836.602860129757343/769859229724098)

    We are overwhelmed and grateful for the support and solidarity from both the local and the wider community. Also thank you to Anthony Gold, ITN solicitors and our barrister Lyndsey Johnson.

    We have decided to leave 80-86 Doran Walk on our own terms by 7th October, as planned. Newham have agreed to this, with no other conditions and have dropped their Interim Possession Order.

    We have celebrated a year of the E15 campaign, during which we have tried to engage with Newham Council on a number of occasions and they have refused to listen. As a result, our political occupation was the only option to escalate our demands for social housing, not social cleansing.

    We have reached our goal of highlighting the issue of decent homes left empty on the state and we have built lasting links with the residents and the community. This has be broadcast to millions of people. Ultimately this occupation was never about staying indefinitely, but about our demands to Newham Council.

    These demands remain and they include:

    – Repopulating the Carpenter’s Estate with secure council tenancies now
    – An immediate end to decanting and evictions of existing residents
    – No demolition of the estate
    – The management of Carpenters estate by residents and for residents, with no third party or private management involvement

    We will continue fighting to save council housing and to ensure decent housing for all. This is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Thanks for the update Andy. It’s a good start and amicable at the moment. It definitely needs more occupiers, but also high profile supporters do you think? This situation with thousands needing homes, and hundreds of homes going empty was always going to happen since Right to Buy was enforced upon councils. Look at military bases, either empty ready for demolition or sold to housing associations and property developers. I am sure we will hear a lot more from these young ladies in the future. Well done ladies!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Charmaine. Yes, I agree with your points. I don’t know whether “amicable” will do it. I think a huge wave of occupations are needed, but I can’t see it happening, unfortunately. It’s what I’ve thought since Occupy was shut down. I also agree that more celebrity supporters are needed, not just Russell Brand, but again, how many celebs actually care about the poor? For now, though, let us indeed thank the young mums of Stratford for their great protest and consciousness-raising!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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