Foreign Sheikhs, Angry Squatters, Impoverished Councils: the Truth Behind the Battle for London's Housing
It's a bit of a mess.
The eviction of Rushcroft Road. Photo by Jake Lewis.
Last week, police and bailiffs descended on Brixton to evict a community of squatters. However, when they arrived on Rushcroft Road and poured through the six buildings owned by Lambeth Local Authority, they found the properties empty and abandoned. “Most of the people left over the weekend,” explained one resident, hurriedly loading their belongings into a van a few hours before the eviction teams arrived. “They were scared they might have a another ‘Clifton Mansions' on their hands.”
Located on nearby Coldharbour Lane, Clifton Mansions used to be one of London’s most famous squats. Once derelict council property, squatters first occupied its 22 flats in the 1990s, turning them into a de-facto cultural centre that apparently provided the artist Jeremy Deller and Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan with temporary shelter. Condemned by the council for “anti-social behaviour” and sold off to a private company, ten vanloads of police assisted in evicting its residents in July 2011. The building was converted into luxury apartments, some of which are currently fetching rents of £535 per week.
Today, the memory of this – as well as the chaos of Clifton Mansions’ “leaving party” – has ostensibly driven out many of Rushcroft’s residents before the death knell. Clifton Mansions’ final bash had been intended as a swansong to its legacy. What unfolded, however, was an over-attended party that descended into gate-crashers urinating from the roof and others attempting to strip the building of valuable copper piping. One man was also assaulted and robbed by strangers.
In a written press release, Lambeth’s cabinet for housing councillor Peter Robbins was unapologetic about evicting the residents of Ruschcroft Road. "We are taking this action because it is unfair on the thousands of residents in need of housing in Lambeth that a small minority are unlawfully squatting in six mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road and not paying any rent or council tax,” he said.
In response, protesters began gathering on Rushcroft Road at 7AM, claiming that Lambeth’s motivations lay elsewhere. “The council has already had property guardians living in some of the flats for the last three or four months,” said one ex-resident, noting that during the period between the evictions of Clifton Mansions and its subsequent renovation, property guardians – custodians who waive tenancy rights in favour of cheap “rent” in properties that frequently contravene housing legislation – were also installed to prevent squatters reoccupying the property. “There wouldn’t be so much resistance to this move if these houses were all being returned to social housing stock,” suggested another protester. “But they’re not. They’re going to be sold as million-pound flats.”
Marginally outnumbered, the protesters doggedly attempted to prevent bailiffs from entering the designated properties with no success. By law, bailiffs are permitted to use reasonable force against householders attempting to protect their goods. On this occasion, they seemed violent. When approached about this subject, police dithered, maintaining that they were preventing a breach of the peace. Nonetheless, protesters defied the council’s decision by blocking entrances and lighting fires. Conspicuously absent were the snatch squads and riot police that have become regular features of demonstrations in London. Instead, a mixture of police and community support officers confidently escorted bailiffs from property to property, unfazed by the protesters’ resistance and responding to hecklers with opinions including: “We have a law in this country that if you own something you can do whatever you want with it.” And, “You’ve had a long time to organise something, is this all you can come up with?”
Bailiffs break down the barricades at the Rushcroft Road evictions. Photo by Jake Lewis.
Indeed, the question of what to do with Rushcroft Road has concerned Lambeth for years. It bought the flats in 1975 with a view to demolishing them as part of the abandoned “Barrier Block” regeneration scheme – in which plans were made to erect more than a dozen 50-storey blocks of flats to soundproof the noise caused by a planned flyover through the centre of Brixton. Today, the only extant part of the scheme is the long, sloping, brutalist housing block, Southwyck House. Following the scheme’s abandonment, the flats on Rushcroft Road were occupied by squatters and subsequently designated as “short-life” homes by the council, in which its tenants were expected to pay little or no rent while the authority deliberated over a long-term decision. Until this week, the six blocks on Rushcroft still hosted a mixture of council tenancy and short-life dwellings, as well as the squats that became prominent after 2000.
In April, Simon Childs reported for the Guardian noting that Lambeth is also “[the] last borough to deal with its short-life portfolio, which peaked with about 1,200 properties. It is now looking to sell off its remaining 50 homes. At the end of last year, Lambeth council committed to bringing its existing council housing stock up to the Decent Homes Standard. However, with only £450m raised there is a £56m shortfall.”
The need to refurbish council housing elsewhere in its jurisdiction means that, from a council perspective, the sale of three of its six properties on Rushcroft Road for an estimated £5.5 million is not without reason. Since 2010, Lambeth council has also had its local authority budget cut by 45 percent as part of government austerity measures, so its commitment to returning the remaining three blocks on Rushcroft Road to social rent isn't without its merits. However, the positive impact of providing more council housing is undermined by the fact that, in doing so, they will make other people homeless. Julian Hall, a spokesperson for the campaign group Lambeth United Housing Co-Op, is concerned.
“There does not appear to have been any attempt at reaching a settlement with the residents,” he says. “Irrespective of their legal status as squatters or council tenants, there are some people who have lived at Rushcroft for over 30 years but have not been provided a ‘plan B’. No one will deny that councils are challenged by budget cuts, but Lambeth has reserve funds, so to be purging long-term communities is not a good precedent to be setting.”
Southwyck House. Photo by Matt Brown.
No spokesperson from Lambeth council was available for comment, but a recent document published on its website maintains it has offered advice and assistance to Rushcroft Road’s residents in finding accommodation. Given that there are 16,729 households currently awaiting social housing in Lambeth, the nature of the assistance offered to the 70 evictees is uncertain. Additionally, benefit caps and the Bedroom Tax are likely to exclude some from accessing essential welfare. Eviction plans are also in place for nearby Carlton Mansions, a housing co-op that the council has recently assessed as being unsafe due to a fire hazard, despite having largely ignored the property since it was first occupied in the 1970s, fuelling suspicions of a local land grab.
Regardless, Lambeth is not an isolated example in the UK’s housing crisis. In London, one in ten families are awaiting social housing; in England and Wales, the same figure stands at one in 12. As a result, many households have been forced into the private sector, which has increased 86 percent in the last three years, while others face homelessness, which has risen 26 percent in the last two years. Underpinning this problem is the UK’s lack of affordable housing. Currently, the average British salary is £26,500. Comparatively, the average house price is £238,976 – nine times more than most people will earn in a year. In the last decade, house building has also slumped.
To remedy this, the government has committed to building 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015, which is a sharp increase in construction but insufficient in addressing the one million homes needed by 2021 if the housing shortfall is to be solved. Elsewhere, government-funded financial products aimed at first-time buyers – such as the five percent mortgage – are only likely to burden households with long-term debt, and represent a trend of public money being used to fund private ownership.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who owns £10 billion pounds' worth of property in London, including Harrods and the Shard. Photo via Doha Stadium Plus Qatar.
One major factor in the lack of affordable housing in the UK is that house prices have risen due to property speculation in London from overseas, wealthy investors attracted by the lucrative benefits offered to foreign buyers, including exemption from capital gains tax, inheritance tax and stamp duty. According to "London For Sale", a report carried out by the Smith Institute, 60 percent of new property sold in London last year was bought by foreign buyers. In 2011, overseas investors spent £5.2 billion purchasing London addresses – a figure that exceeded even the budget for affordable homes in the same year.
As such, Lambeth’s sale of one of its most valuable assets is consistent with the global narrative of austerity seen in Greece, Italy, Spain and even the UK. By now, it should be a familiar story, in which the 2008 financial crash and the 2010 Eurocrisis were apparently not caused by the failure of free market economics, but by the profligacy of government spending, which therefore must be ruthlessly cut in order to save us all. And if that means the stripping of vital public assets, such as the Royal Mail and the NHS – as well as scrapping nuisances, like legal aid for immigrants – then all the better.
In the UK, what this narrative conveniently omits is that the spending and borrowing of Labour under Brown and Blair was broadly consistent with the aims and thresholds set by the previous run of Conservative Governments. Nonetheless, when even Labour leader Ed Miliband has indicated that voters should not expect any U-turns on austerity if Labour win the 2015 general election, it seems there are few political institutions left where this myth is not treated as a given.
One such place, of course, was Rushcroft Road. Indeed, it’s not difficult to make the wider connection between these evictions and a broader opposition to anyone deemed to be challenging the nature of property ownership. Last year, Westminster passed legislation banning squatting in residential property. "Squatters who break the law [must] receive a proper punishment,” declared prisons minister Crispin Blunt, in a consultation published before the ban in 2010. “There are avenues open to those that are genuinely destitute which do not involve occupying somebody else's property."
But are those avenues effective? Not only is it extremely difficult to access social housing, but a report by the Resolution Foundation suggests that rent is now unaffordable for two thirds of families on lower incomes. A House of Commons select committee report on the housing crisis published last week highlighted plans to tackle bad landlords and letting agency fees, but not rent control. This weekend, the Guardian’s Patrick Collinson suggested that this is due to the Conservative Party’s concerns that imposing such controls would cause landlords to spend less money maintaining their properties. On a more basic level, it also seems to indicate the extent to which the party is devoted to protecting the rights of property owners over those of their tenants, despite the critical circumstances.
When even councils with a Labour majority, such as Lambeth, are in agreement with this, it seems that the confidence with which the police and bailiffs evicted the residents of Rushcroft Road was not just a matter of tactical conduct, but a symptom of the extent to which the ideology of austerity is now an unquestionable part of mainstream politics – a politics that has now begun dedicating itself to the forcible clearance of centres of opposition.
Follow Huw on Twitter: @HuwNesbitt
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