By Matt Bolton
A group of East London mothers left Bow County Court in triumph yesterday after Newham Council dropped their attempts to have them forcibly evicted from council houses that had been left empty for more than six years. Members of the Focus E15 Mothers group had occupied the four houses on the Carpenters Estate in protest at the Labour council’s housing policy, which has seen nearly 24,000 people languish on housing waiting lists and living in dilapidated temporary accommodation while more than 600 homes on the estate remained empty. The group have turned the houses – some with new kitchens – into a social centre, including a children’s play area and a free clothes shop for local residents. They have reinvigorated the half-empty estate with political meetings, neighbourhood barbecues, film screenings, theatre performances, comedy nights and football matches.
Two of E15 Mothers, Jasmin Stone and Sam Middleton, addressed a raucous crowd of more than 150 supporters waiting outside the court (including a coffee-subsidising, sweet-distributing Russell Brand). They said that the council had backed down on their demands for an Interim Possession Order on the houses, which would have led to the group being evicted within 24 hours, risking criminal prosecution if staying any longer. ‘We have decided to leave 80-86 Doran Walk on our own terms by 7th October, as planned’, they said. ‘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.’ The women then led the crowd on a victory march around Newham, and back to the occupation.
Occupation and the right to protest
Lawyers for the group argued that the occupation of Doran Walk was a political protest, one in which the occupation of an empty house was directly related to the object of that protest - council housing policy. Therefore the council’s demands for immediate possession risked breaching the group’s rights to freedom of expression and association under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The council withdrew the IPO, and instead agreed a possession order by consent, with no attached conditions, to take effect when the group leave on October 7th. The council announced yesterday that it would ‘immediately inspect and repair the property’ after the occupiers had left. Presumably this inspection will take into the account the damage to water pipes allegedly inflicted by the council when it unilaterally decided to cut off the water supply to the house.
The Focus E15 campaign started when a group of young local mothers were served with eviction notices from their hostel by the council, and told they were to be ‘decanted’ to cheaper areas around the country, hundreds of miles away from their family, friends, support networks and each other. After a long and tireless campaign, including weekly street stalls in Stratford, Newham council finally agreed to keep them in the borough. But instead of being given secure tenancies in social housing, the women were placed in short-term, poor quality private accommodation. Focus E15 then stepped up their campaign, broadening their demands to ensure decent, secure, genuinely affordable housing for all people who needed it in the borough and beyond. The response of Newham council, and in particular the Labour mayor Sir Robin Wales, has ranged from indifference to outright hostility, with Wales having to be held back from attacking the protestors as they challenged him about the situation at the Mayor of Newham’s Show in July.
The Carpenters Estate became a focus of their attention as it epitomises the utter irrationality of a council housing policy driven by profit alone. The estate is in the shadow of the 2012 Olympic stadium and village, surrounded by blocks of luxury flats which the council had in effect subsidised for private developers as part of a process of ‘state-sponsored gentrification’. The estate had been gradually emptied – or in the council’s icily neutral term, ‘decanted’ – so that the land could be sold off, with University College London the primary recipients. After a long struggle led by residents and students against the sell off, the deal with UCL collapsed. Since then the estate has remained largely empty, with perfectly liveable flats and houses boarded up in a borough with one of the longest housing waiting lists in the country. It is a bricks-and-mortar testimony to how the housing crisis in the UK is not simply about a lack of supply, but also hugely unequal distribution of property. There are currently more than 80,000 empty homes in London, with owners happy to cream off profits from rising land values while hundreds of thousands of people face homelessness.
One of the major successes of the Focus E15 campaign, beyond the creation of the social centre and the withdrawn possession order, has been to force Newham Council to announce that they now intend to use the estate as temporary accomodation for homeless families. While this is some way short of the demand that the homes on the estate be let on a long term secure basis to council tenants, it still constitutes a remarkable victory for the campaigners, and will hopefully act as an inspiring example to housing campaigners across the country. The people on the Carpenters Estate are by no means the only social housing tenants facing eviction from their homes and communities so that local councils can capitalise on London’s ludicrous land values – similar campaigns have been set up in Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, and the West Henden Estate. Meanwhile, the Focus E15 Mothers are continuing their campaign, staying at Doran Walk until 7 October, and holding weekly street stalls in Stratford town centre. The fight goes on.