Update 27 September:
Big day yesterday. To begin with, the council turned up at the Carpenter’s estate to turn off the water at the occupied flats. Jasmin Stone told me that she was sworn at when she asked why people were there to cut the water:
“We just asked them what was happening and the response we got was “don’t fucking record me or I’ll smash your camera on the floor.”
I’d ask the council for a comment on that, except that the council has refused to talk to me since the start of this year. Suffice to say for now that those of us who’ve spent time with this campaign have come to expect aggression and a not-so-latent misogyny from those who oppose it. There has been something nasty and unnecessarily confrontational about the council response from the start. I’ve often wondered why the council and its PR advisers didn’t make a better attempt to work with the women, at least at various junctures in their campaign. It would have been smart, for instance, for a councillor or two to have accompanied the women when they took a petition for social housing to Boris Johnson earlier this year. There have been chances like that which a Labour council might just have taken.
That hasn’t happened and it’s hard not to conclude that the council made a mistake by not opening things up for discussion, rather than trying to close them down. The women told me months ago that Robin Wales told them he was annoyed at their campaign. I saw that fury again earlier this year (here on video) when the council rushed from a council meeting to avoid the women and again when Wales rushed from me to avoid questions about his attendance at a property fair in Cannes. The upshot of all this is that the council now has a problem. People all over the country are watching this campaign and responding with enthusiasm. As Jasmin told me yesterday – people starting donating bottles of water as soon as news of the water being cut started to circulate on social media. I noticed a man distributing further bottles of water outside the court yesterday, too. As I said yesterday on twitter, I’m starting to get the feeling that half of Newham has been waiting for the chance to subvert Newham council. Chickens do come home to roost. I’ve spoken to residents on the Carpenter’s estate, as you can read below, and noted their enthusiasm for the campaign. They are not securely housed themselves.
As for the council’s botched attempt to fast-track an eviction yesterday – well, we all know what happened there. I spoke to Ravi Naik, one of the attending lawyers, who said:
“We were only instructed about an hour before the hearing so I had to rush to get there.
“The Council had made an application for an interim possession order – which means asking for possession of the building which would have had the effect of ending the protest. For this to be lawful, they have to give three days’ notice to the group. Obviously, the group would want to have that time to consider the position and properly defend themselves. The council wanted to shorten that time period to two hours – that’s from three days to two hours. This would have undermined any hope of legal representation.
We made the point to the judge that we’ve got all these complex legal arguments, but we haven’t had any chance to consider them with the group or look at the Council’s evidence; we only met the clients about an hour before. We didn’t have any chance to consider this with the group. The judge agreed with our position. In the rules governing civil procedure, the key rule is the Overriding Objective. This means that cases must be considered justly and fairly. The judge said that there was no chance that this case could be considered justly and fairly in the circumstances. I don’t think they expected the group to put together a legal team so quickly.”
Update 23 September: more perfectly serviceable flats on the Carpenters’ estate:
This is a video I took a couple of weeks ago of another of the flats in the Carpenters’ estate tower block. The film is a little jumpy as I couldn’t see what I was doing – had to stick my hand with the phone camera under one of the metal security doors to film this. I believe this is one of the flats used by the media during the Olympics. Would ask the council about this to confirm, except that the council refuses to talk to me. Boo. Anyway – again, you can see these are of a good standard. There’s a video of another of these flats at the end of this post.
Another update: September 23 2014 – the many people in Newham who are struggling for housing:
Every week at their Saturday stall on the Stratford Broadway, the Focus E15 mothers have asked local people to write their own housing stories on sheets that the women taped to the pavement.
The Focus E5 women have collected all sorts of stories about people’s housing problems this way. It’s been interesting to see. There are a lot of sheets and a lot of stories. This is one of the reasons why the Focus E15 campaign for housing is so significant – and the reason that Newham Labour can’t ignore the campaign, even though it is trying very hard to right now, as the women continue their occupation of the Carpenters’ estate. A great many people have housing problems – they’re stuck in B&Bs, or temporary housing, or in the private sector where they can barely afford the rent. Those people and those problems won’t go away, even if Newham council does ultimately decide to drag the Focus E15 women out of the flats they are occupying. (Mayor Robin Wales is speaking at a Labour party fringe meeting on winning back “left behind” voters tonight, which is hilarious. When you read the comments on the sheets, you get the feeling he’s left quite a few voters behind).
You can see some of the comments people have written on the sheets in the pictures below (click on the images for a bigger pic):
“Single mum in B&B – for three years with my children.”
“Private landlord threw all my daughter’s clothes and furniture in a skip.”
“The council sent me to temporary accommodation in Barking. It was so disgusting with mice running around. I was there with my children for two years. The council did not listen to us. My children had to travel far every day back to Newham.”
“I live in a house with 10 people and only one toilet. I pay £500pm.”
On it goes.
Update to beat all updates September 23 2014 (h-t Clifford Singer): Can Robin Wales – mayor of a borough where young homeless women who’ve been fighting him for housing all year are occupying abandoned flats – REALLY be speaking tonight at a Labour party conference fringe on “bringing insights on community organising and movement building?” What – is he going to talk about the Focus E15 campaign that has wrongfooted him at every turn? Will he show this video – the one where he spat the dummy at one of the Focus E15 mothers (an action for which he now finds himself the subject of an official complaint)? Don’t often say this sort of thing – but that’s a Labour party fringe event I wouldn’t mind attending.
Update September 22: were these abandoned flats originally adapted and made accessible?
I went back to the Carpenters’ estate this morning. On the ground floor of the building that the Focus E15 mothers have moved into, I found these abandoned flats. They have been left to rot. One of them looked like an accessible flat to me – it had ground floor access with an adapted wet-room bathroom. There’s such a shortage of accessible flats in London. Leaving an adapted place to decay does seem criminal. Pretty sure you can still see a bottle on the floor.
I also talked to several of the other estate residents this time – people who’ve been living at the estate for a while. A few residents visited the Focus E15 mothers in their reopened and occupied flats last night. There’s concern among residents about being identified and targeted by the council – but not about the occupation itself, it seems, at least among the people I spoke with. I spoke to four people and they seemed sympathetic to the Focus E15 fight for homes. That surprised me and didn’t surprise me. Not everyone likes an occupation, or a confrontation with council, but a lot of people can relate to a battle for housing.
Said one of the women I spoke to (she’s lived on the Carpenters’ estate for nearly 20 years):
“They [the Focus E15 mothers] should stay. We don’t mind them here at all. They have to stay longer to make it work, though. Tell them don’t do it for a couple of days and then go. Keep it going. I haven’t got a problem with them putting young mums there. Young mums got to have a place.
“I been here for nearly 20 years. It used to be lovely, with all the kids running round on that grass. But then, people moved out and they didn’t move anyone in. That’s all boarded up there. See, I will show you this place here [she walked me up a small path to another home which was sealed with a metal security door]. That has been closed up now for five years. But you don’t want to say anything. You don’t know now how long your tenancy is going to last now. It never used to be like that. It’s in the last few years.
“That’s a housing officer walking around here (she pointed out a woman walking around with papers and a small bag).
“You’ve not got a problem with that [occupation and banners], have you?” she said to another woman who emerged from her flat then.
“Nah,” the second woman said. “It’s for the right reasons. They’re doing it for the right reasons. People do need homes. The council say they haven’t got any homes, but they have.”
Back to Newham today – where the women of the Focus E15 mothers’ social housing campaign took the admirable step of reopening some of the long-boarded-up flats on the Carpenters’ estate. I hope news of this move has reached those Labour councillors and MPs who are all tucked up nice and warm at conference in Manchester.
Video: entering the flats and being welcomed by the Focus E15 campaigners:
The Focus E15 mothers have been fighting for social housing for a year. Newham council was planning to send them out of London to live, but pulled back from that idea when the women complained and campaigned. The women were placed in private tenancies for a year – but those tenancies will end soon. That will leave the women again with nowhere to live. Meanwhile, the Carpenters’ estate sits, partially abandoned and empty, next to Stratford station, with boarded-up flats all over. Newham council’s housing waiting list is 24,000. The women decided that flats shouldn’t be shut off when so many people are homeless, or struggling to find a decent place to live. This is a borough which likes to slap Asbo warnings on rough sleepers let’s not forget. So, the women arranged for a block on the Carpenters’ estate to be opened. They plan to stay for at least a couple of weeks.
And look at the flats they found inside the estate. I was a little shocked and surprised myself when I saw the flats. They looked pretty good. They certainly looked perfectly serviceable. I’d happily move into one myself. They’re carpeted, clean and the second one in particular looked as though it had a new kitchen. How can it be that Stratford’s homeless people are left to sleep in the Stratford centre, or run out of town entirely, when these places exist right next to Stratford station? How can it be that young women are told there’s no room for them and their children in Newham? I’ve asked the council about its plans for the estate – but no answer, alas. That council refuses to talk to me.
There will be mealy-mouthed statements about safety, planning, new builds and homes for all from the council, but the truth is that there is no justification for empty homes when so many people are homeless. It really is as simple as that. When it comes down to it, who’d rather live outside in winter than inside one of these places? The women are right to raise this issue and to force this issue.
Here’s Focus E15 Mother Sam Middleton explaining why she decided to take part in this operation and why she’ll stay in the Carpenters’ estate for a while.
“We know that if there’s the Carpenters’ estate then there’s loads of other estates out there like this. We thought – do you know what? There’s too many boardedup places and they need people to live in. If you look around today, you can see that the flats are liveable. So why not get families in and do what’s right?”
An unmarked car full of coppers began circling at about 5pm. I went over to ask them if they planned to “do” anything. “We’re just keeping an eye on things,” they told me. “Who are you?” Then, they asked me what “they” (the people who were occupying the flat) had inside the flats. I told them that the occupiers had found a bunch of nice flats that should be lived in. As they have.
I also spoke to one of the Carpenters’ estate residents. He wanted to go inside the reopened flats to see how the flats looked. He said he was worried about getting into trouble with the council, though, and so decided against going in.
Inside the flats: sitting room
This is a video I took several weeks ago inside the tower block at the estate. It’s jumpy, because I had to shove my phone under the boarded-up door of the empty flat I filmed here to get pictures. You can see that the flat is in pretty good condition, though. It’s empty, though.