Islington (in north London) has an interesting housing history. In the 1930s and post-war period some of the biggest and best council house building programmes took place under the guise of the radical Finshury Council. In the 50s and 60s the borough was one of the main areas of business for Peter Rachman whose spectre continues to haunt memories of unregulated private renting. In 1964, the sociologist Ruth Glass described affluent people coming to the borough buying up run-down Victorian houses and gave birth to the concept of ‘gentrification’ the ultimate pesonification of which was former resident, Tony Blair. Islington also has the highest concentration of independent tenant managed and co-operative housing in the country. Today it’s in the eye of a storm of speculative property development driving up house prices to the point where, in the words of one local councillor, ‘the bricks are made of gold’.
It’s a combination of these forces that drew 600 people to a meeting about the Housing and Planning Bill – State-sponsored Rachmanism – in the town hall last night.
It’s important to note that the meeting took place on International Women’s Day. The movement that’s growing against the Housing Bill is being led by women who see it, rightly, as a threat to their families’ futures.
The meeting was called by the Council on the back of accumulating pressure from a grass-roots local campaign against the Bill. As well as the size, the mood was significant. Moderate sounding top-table speakers, some of whom appeared like rabbits caught in the headlights, were quickly outflanked by speakers from the floor, captured by one very angry man who said to Councillor James Murray (lead member for Housing) ‘If you don’t stand with us on this, you can fuck off!’
Councillor Murray, who is involved in co-ordinating the Labour Party’s parliamentary opposition to the Bill, is treading a delicate and at times wobbly line. Despite his well-expressed condemnation of the legislation, he is repeatedly vulnerable to the question ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Some are demanding that he declare a ‘no evictions’ policy, but I can understand why he can’t agree to that. Demands need to be more precise. The Southwark Tenants Council has adopted a model that could be taken up elsewhere and is based on action that local authorities can take if they are serious about fighting the Bill. They include:
- Refusing to collect data about tenants’ income.
- Refusing to raise rents under ‘Pay to Stay’.
- Refusing to sell off their ‘high value’ homes as they become empty or to pay a levy to housing associations to subsidise Right to Buy discounts.
- Continuing to issue secure tenancies to new tenants.
These are not abstract slogans, but can form the basis for a national campaign that can beat the Bill. It can’t happen in one borough, but Islington Council should take the lead in building a cross-borough alliance with other councils and instead of trying to neuter it, harness the passion that was in the hall last night. The leader of the Council, Richard Watts, appeared to recognise the potential when he said that he didn’t want to talk about how the Bill would be implemented, he wants to stop it – and encouraged everyone to join him and other councillors on the national demo this Sunday.