Who Dares Wins! Occupying for Housing Justice

by John Hamilton

A combination of direct action, community organising and local democratic politics has put housing back on the politics agenda in Lewisham, South London.

First published: 26 November, 2012 | Category: Activism, Housing, Politics

Local newspapers in South London have this year been peppered with the story of how a radical, broad-based party, opposed to privatisation of public services, prevented the sell-off of seven council houses in Lewisham through mobilising public support for their occupation of the buildings.

Lewisham is an inner London borough with a population of around 275,000 which has been dominated by the Labour Party since the early 1970s.  It is one of the few councils in England to have a directly elected Executive Mayor – a Blairite wheeze emulating the USA model which hands all power to the Mayor, leaving very little with councillors.  With just a single person in charge, companies like Capita need only ‘influence’ that one individual when lobbying for the outsourcing and privatisation of public services.  Under the reign of Steve Bullock, Mayor since the system was introduced in 2001, more and more services have been privatised and council owned sites have been sold off to developers for private housing, leaving nowhere to build new schools.

A movement against the Mayoral system emerged from a number of local campaigns involving hundreds of residents, including a successful campaign for a new secondary school and another opposing the demolition of the best swimming pool in the borough.  This led to Labour losing its majority in 2006.  Late that year, two pool campaigners initiated a campaign to abolish the post of Executive Mayor called ‘Bring Back Democracy’.  It united Lib-Dem, Green, Tory and Socialist Party councillors, but failed to gain a majority for a motion for a new referendum because the Tories failed to turn up for the vote.  The Socialist councillors then took the initiative of inviting activists to discuss ways of better supporting each other in different campaigns and this group gradually gelled into Lewisham People Before Profit, which is both a forum and a political party.

People Before Profit fought the local elections in 2010 with a candidate for Executive Mayor, candidates for councillor positions in all 18 wards and even a candidate for the Lewisham East parliamentary seat. We were supported by around 6,000 voters and have gone on to fight three council by-elections, a parliamentary by-election and the Greater London Assembly Greenwich and Lewisham election.

But People Before Profit has not limited itself to electoral politics.  After leading the occupation of one of five libraries threatened with closure we learned by chance that five council-owned family homes were to be sold off at auction at the ridiculously low guide prices of £140,000.  Another two homes were also scheduled for sale at a future date.  The weekend before the auction in February this year we occupied the houses and called on councillors and the community to intervene with the Mayor to have them refurbished using local tradespeople, who would also provide training for unskilled workers, and then re-let to families on the housing list. We also upgraded one of the houses ourselves so that a family with three children under five could move in.  We distributed 20,000 leaflets in ten days explaining what we’d done and kept the pressure on the council through articles in the local papers, coverage on radio and London TV and further occupations.

On 30 May we discovered that the Mayor had agreed to all our suggestions for renovation and that three not-for-profit ‘Community Interest Companies’ (or CICs) would be approached to take on the work.  We contacted them, assuring them of our co-operation, and making it clear that we would be happy for our occupiers to move out as the work neared completion.

We decided that we didn't want to be seen as only attacking the council for selling off homes, since housing associations were doing the same, and a trawl through the auction catalogue revealed a Victorian house built as two flats owned by London & Quadrant Housing Association which had been transferred to them from Lewisham Council 18 months earlier.  The Housing Association had simply moved out the tenants and wanted to sell the building for around £300,000 at auction, citing ‘prohibitively high renovation costs’.  We obtained a quote of £9,800 to put the two flats into good repair and offered to pay to have the work done from a collection among our members, asking only that the money be repaid over the coming year from the rental income.  London & Quadrant refused our offer and initiated eviction proceedings, which we did not contest.  But for the two months the occupation lasted, it provided a home to a 60-year-old grandmother and her grand-daughter who had been living in a severely overcrowded studio flat together with the little girl's father and his new partner. They are now back in the same situation having chosen not to push for re-housing by the council.

Following the occupations we were contacted by dozens of people either in need of help with housing issues or reporting empty houses they wanted us to occupy.  In early March we were alerted to six flats owned by Hyde Housing Association, three of which had been left empty for several years. Our informant was a tenant in the block who was worried that Hyde might be planning to sell all six flats.  We reported this to the council’s Empty Homes Officer who ordered Hyde to offer the flats to tenants from the housing waiting list within 28 days.  They did nothing and on the 37th day we took control of all three flats, housing people who would otherwise have been homeless.  Hyde got in touch saying they wanted to renovate the flats and threatening legal action to get us out.  But by explaining our motives to Hyde we came to an agreement that they would refurbish the flats one by one and we would vacate the flats as they were needed.  Two of the flats have now been refurbished and let and everyone is happy!

The same month we also decided to occupy a workshop owned by the council which had been in the same auction as the original council houses.  In their incompetence the council had simply pulled all its properties out of the auction when they realised that we had occupied the houses.  A large meeting of our housing activists decided that the workshop should also remain as communal property and we set about converting the long disused building into artists’ studios and a space where other activities can take place, such as workshops on solar panel manufacture, children's art groups and choir practices.  We now hold an art exhibition roughly once a month with live music and free entry.  Because the council still says it wants to sell the building we have organised a consultation which is nearing its completion.  So far we have found 100% support for keeping the building in council ownership. We'll be delivering the consultation in the form of a petition to the next council meeting and suggesting that negotiations start to formalise Harts Lane Studios, as we have named it. 

Since the initial occupation in February, the Mayor and council have announced plans to build 250 council homes in various vacant sites dotted around the borough – not a vast number considering that there are around 400 families in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation, but this will be the first new council house building in the borough for over 30 years.  While we cannot take all the credit for this decision, our direct action has helped those within the ruling Labour group who support public housing to press the case for new social housing to be built.

As a result of the interest generated by our action we also decided to hold a Housing Conference on in September, which was attended by around 60 people. Workshops were held on countering the new law criminalising squatting in residential buildings, on housing inequality, on the likely impact of the introduction of Universal Credit on self-build and self-renovation options.  We also agreed to set up a rapid response unit to counter any move by the police to enforce the new squatting law in the borough.  Those who have chosen to be part of this unit are committed to immediately making their way to the scene of any attempted arrest under the new act.  There are two levels of commitment. One involves being an observer with notebook and camera.  The second, for those willing, is to turn up with a sleeping bag and a few clothes and declare that you are planning to live in the building and challenge the police to arrest you too.

The key to Lewisham People Before Profit’s effectiveness is its broad-based approach.  It is not a socialist party, though socialists and communists are involved.  It welcomes all those opposed to privatisation and the corruption which goes hand-in-hand with that.  We have no wish to become a national organisation with a top-down structure, but will actively support groups being set up in other parts of Britain.  There is a fledgling Greenwich People Before Profit group and we have contacts interested in setting up groups in Southwark, Ealing, Hounslow and Birmingham.  In a recent by-election in Lewisham’s Whitefoot ward our vote increased from 3.2% in 2010 to 10.9% with a high recognition among voters canvassed of our housing campaign.  With Labour gaining the seat from the Lib-Dems with a vote of 40.6% (only up 0.3% since 2010) we clearly have a long way to go win a council seat, but we are continuing to work in Whitefoot, where we now have a nucleus of supporters (most of our activity had been in the north of the borough around New Cross and Ladywell).

Although we campaign on a wide range of issues, housing has been central.  Our core policy, as set out in our manifesto pledge of 2010, is to build council housing with direct labour and in so doing, employing and training the unemployed and underemployed of Lewisham.  Environmentalism is also important and we have pledged that a People Before Profit council would build low energy homes, with thermal solar panels and would also install solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on all existing council owned buildings, as well as offering free installation on private homes.  We have developed good contacts with people from other housing campaigns, such as Defend Council Housing and Housing for the 99%, as well as with campaigners in Southwark and Lambeth; and will work with them to bring the issues of unaffordable rents, empty properties and insecure tenancies to the top of the political agenda.

This article is part of NLP’s series on the politics of housing.

John Hamilton is Secretary and Campaign Officer at People Before Profit.

Lewisham People Before Profit normally meet on the first Monday of the month in Brockley, all welcome.  Visit the People Before Profit website for more information and to download a manifesto.

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