Look Back In Anger: Lambeth’s Betrayal of Commitment to Social Housing

487757aChuka Umunna, Tessa Jowell and Lib Peck recently called for an extension to the law forbidding squatting to include commercial properties as well as residential. Clearly they are on the side of property developers and landlords against the homeless and those great experimental centres of creativity, artistic endeavour and learning that have been made possible by squatting. See examples (here, here and here)

I have visited several of these places and I am well impressed by their achievements. Did those three visit any of these establishments or were they running on the pure, unadulterated juices of prejudice, hearsay and the tired old Tory canard of squatters stealing peoples homes?

Paranoid Posturing
They clearly subscribe to the alarmist views fostered by the ConDem government that there is a paedophile under every bed, a terrorist or a mugger round every corner and that the trade unions should be shackled in the national interest of profit-making. All this panic mongering does is create the right conditions for the introduction of repressive legislation and a witch hunt mentality threatening our freedoms.

New Breed of Career Politician
With record levels of home repossessions, evictions for rent arrears and the closure of shelters for the homeless you would have thought that they would support any initiative that houses the homeless. They represent the worst of the Thatcher/Blair breed of new Lib/Lab career politicians whose only purpose is to follow the Tory lead of creating a ”business friendly” environment against any notion of social justice for the poorest in society or solidarity with all those affected by austerity measures.

Back to the Future?
Things were not always like this. In the not too distant past left-wing Labour politicians and councillors stood up for social justice and were on the side of ordinary working people, the poor and dispossessed. Not only that. It became clear to many at the time that squatting produced some of the most productive social experiments and pushed sluggish local councils into housing people as the following account below will testify.

Squatters Create the ’Big Society’
During the 1970s/80s in the wake of the bureaucratic inability of Lambeth Council to bring into use hundreds of abandoned, empy properties and with tens of thousands of people on the homeless waiting list the borough was ripe for squatting. Sometimes whole streets were squatted.

Notably St. Agnes’ Place and Villa Road. Railton Road and a Cluster of adjacent streets (the ’Poets’ roads) saw many groups and individuals occupying buildings among which were The Race Today Collective (a radical black group), Two Womens’ Centres, a local squatters group and Claimants’ Union, The Brixton Advice Centre (possibly and rarely not squatted), The Peoples’ Alternative News Service which also housed ’Icebreakers’ a radical gay liberation counselling service, The South London Gay Community Centre, The Anarchist Bookshop, a food co-operative (originally raising funds for the famine in Bangladesh but now Brixton Wholefoods).

In St.George’s Residence there were a number of squatted households (now a gated community) and Union Place Community Resource Centre on Vassall Road provided printing facilities and welfare advice for local communities with outreach work on neighbouring housing estates. Later in the 1980s another Womens’ Centre and the Monochrome Collective, producing a radical free newspaper, were squatted on Acre Lane.

Search and Destroy or Peaceful Coexistence?
At the time Lambeth Council had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards squatters. At one end of the spectrum council workmen poured concrete down toilet bowls, ripped out gas and water pipes, and boarded up windows and doors to render the buildings uninhabitable or to prevent the dwellings from being reoccupied by evicted squatters. On the other hand the council would adopt a more conciliatory approach and negotiate temporary ’short life’ tenancies with squatters pending redevelopment sometimes in partnership with Housing Associations and Housing Cooperatives. All this was at a time when a huge redevelopment programme was being discussed especially around the Railton/Mayall Roads area.

Days of Hope
When I first came to Brixton in 1974 I squatted in abandoned Lambeth Council property on Railton Road. Eventually as a gay community we squatted the above mentioned gay centre and twelve houses back to back on Railton and Mayall Roads with a communal garden in between. The gay centre and one of the two mentioned womens centres next door were eventually demolished to gentrify the entrance to St. George’s Residence. All of the houses belonged to Lambeth Council and with no policy for housing single people at the time it was fortunate that squatting was an option for us as gay people. Also in those days there were left-wing labour councillors that supported our squatting acitvities. They defended us in court when we were arrested and charged with criminal damage and even joined our pickets and sit-ins at various pubs were were thrown out of for holding hands or kissing.

In those days the Housing Corporation was set up specifically to fund various organisations providing social housing with a guarantee of cheap rents and secure tenancies. Often as an interim measure pending redevelopment the council would grant squatters ’short life’ tenancies. I am not sure how this arrangement came about but the council negotiated with the Solon Housing Association to take over the properties we occupied as well as others in the area for redevelopment. Having done this, far from evicting us to take vacant possession of the properties, we were decanted into other dwellings while also becoming members of the self-managed Brixton Housing Cooperative. During that period the architects appointed by Solon who were responsible for redesigning the new flats liaised with the decanted squatters and we were encouraged to design our own living space. Where to put our bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, lounges etc. Eventually everyone moved en masse back into the new accommodation and we are still there today as secure tenants.

If then why not now?
The question raised by all the above is this – why can’t Lambeth Council make similar arrangements now as they did then? Instead of evicting squatters as in Rushcroft Road and potentially elsewhere why could they not have negotiated a different route instead of flogging off homes to profit- hungry property developers whose main aim is to attract a more cash-worthy clientele? Social cleansing of ordinary working people, the poor and disadvantaged is abhorrent and should have no place in a so-called civilised society. It seems that the requirements of capitalism and the profit motive take precedence over the right to a decent roof over our heads. Without secure homes, a basic need, human progress is not possible. With the bedroom tax, welfare cuts, increased housing costs, the collapse in house building and repossession of homes due to unaffordability I can see a time when things will become as bad as they are in America where the homeless have been forced to occupy public land and build tented cities to live in.

HOMES FOR NEED NOT GREED!

Ian Townson
QUAC (Queers Against the Cuts)