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On 2nd October I accompanied counsel Lindsay Johnson to Bow County Court. Anthony Gold and Lindsay Johnson were representing the Focus E15 Mothers against the London Borough of Newham in their attempt to evict them from the empty council flat that they were occupying; as a protest against Newham’s housing policies, and against the housing crisis in general.
Whilst negotiations continued inside the court building, press and protesters gathered outside, culminating in a group of about 400 people chanting ‘social housing, not social cleansing!’. Cars honked their horns in support and passing men and women stopped to share their own stories of housing hardship in London. We heard of possession proceedings for small sums of money owed due to housing benefit mistakes, aggressive private landlords, housing in poor conditions with unaffordable rents and years spent waiting on the Housing Register only to be removed from it completely with a change in policy. These are all familiar tales to anyone working within housing law, but it was striking how many ordinary people walking past the court had a problem and felt sufficiently moved or angered to share it.
The outcome at court was successful – Focus E15 successfully negotiated to stay until the weekend and to leave peacefully on their own terms. The group then marched down the street continuing their chants and gathering more support.
The Focus E15 Mothers campaign was so successful because it drew attention so perfectly to London’s housing crisis. There are not enough homes in London for the growing and increasingly singly living population, the social housing stock is dwindling and continues to as social tenants are encouraged to exercise their Right to Buy and councils sell off estates in prime locations such as the Heygate Estate in Southwark. The huge value of land in London is both the cause and effect of this. If demand was less, rental prices would be lower; if property was not worth so much then tenants would have less to gain from the Right to Buy and mortgage companies may feel less secure lending to them. Councils would have no incentive to sell their housing stock : they may do a different sum and find that homes were more valuable socially than financially. This is known, and there are obviously more factors at work. But the Focus E15 campaign highlighted council flats left empty for years whilst Local Authorities tried to negotiate a sale to private investors. This is a cruel state of affairs when young homeless mothers are being sent away from their families and friends to Birmingham and Manchester – communities struggling with their own problems.
The Focus E15 campaign is relevant to almost all but the richest renters in London, social and private. Their campaign has implications beyond the most vulnerable. We can only hope that their chant is correct: “this is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis!”.