South London campaigners step up housing fight

Saturday saw more than one thousand council tenants and activists march against the Housing Bill and the demolition of the Aylesbury estate in Southwark. We took our protest to Downing Street, as the Bill is debated in the House of Lords.

Gathering outside the Imperial War Museum in Kennington, the rally heard speeches from local Labour MP Helen Hayes, councillors Lib Peck (Lambeth Labour and leader of the council) and Richard Livingstone (Southwark Labour, cabinet member responsible for housing), as well as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and local campaigners.

Helen Hayes gave an excellent speech, outlining how she had fought the Tories in the Commons sub-committee on the Bill, which she said was “worse than Thatcher’s reforms”. The Bill will:

  • Force councils to pay up front to compensate Housing Associations for the Right To Buy and to sell their own stock to pay for the gimmick
  • Force a couple on the Living Wage to pay market value to live in their council homes
  • Change the definition of “affordable” housing to up to £450,000 in London

Labour spin

Richard Livingstone was much less well received, to put it mildly. He was heckled and barracked throughout. Shouts of “What about the Aylesbury?”, an estate of nearly 3,000 units that is currently boarded up and set for demolition, drowned out the councillor’s claim that they were “building 11,000 council homes in Southwark, more than any other council”.

Unfortunately, genuine concerns should be answered. Richard did not answer the question; instead he gave us spin. Of course it is good news that 11,000 homes are to be built and that the programme has already begun. But the programme stretches over 30 years (that is, 367 a year). In the meantime we have lost the Heygate (1,194 council flats) in the Elephant, being replaced by Elephant Park (74 social rented flats).

For all the spin, Lambeth and Southwark Labour councils are overseeing devastating cuts to local services and housing which will not be easily replaced.

Local residents and Labour Party members won’t be impressed by councillors’ turning up for photo-ops on demonstrations organised by the residents they are evicting.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour should reject the use of spin and refurbish the Aylesbury, not deplete the social housing stock.

We marched off to Downing Street via Lambeth Walk and other estates with national slogans like “Kill, kill, kill the Housing Bill” and “Housing for all – now” mingled with local ones like “Repopulate – the Aylesbury Estate” (nice to hear the word “repopulate” in a slogan).

There was a bit of a standoff outside Reeds Rains estate agents when some protesters tried to take our message into the shop, seen by many as an agent of gentrification. Which of course it is. The demo remained peaceful despite police unnecessarily closing us down here and on Whitehall.

I marched with Hackney Momentum. It was good to see support from outside South London and a Momentum banner there. The group appears to be vibrant and they have already scored some victories over the right, albeit in Diane Abbott’s constituency.

Organising the fightback

While the struggle goes on inside the Labour Party to change its policy, activists and residents can use occupations and direct action to defend social housing and campaign for a massive social housing construction programme that would solve the housing crisis and provide thousands of jobs.

Saturday’s demo was a positive experience, but the lack of many similar actions on what was supposed to be a national day of action shows how much work remains to be done.

Part of the problem is the division and consequent weakness of the national anti-cuts movement. One way to overcome this would be for tenants’ and residents’ associations, housing activist campaigns, local Labour parties, socialist groups and trade unions to send delegates to local committees of action that can represent working class organisations and communities with the aim of coordinating action against the cuts at a local, regional and national level.

It should be a priority to make Labour councils reflect the mood of Labour Party members, trade unionists and tenants by joining the resistance and doing everything in their power to make the Housing Bill unworkable.