Monday, 28 April 2014

Social Housing, Not Social Cleansing

Campaigners of all ages at the South Kilburn Estate  Photo: Sujata Aurora

Last Saturday afternoon I joined other members of Brent Housing Action on a ‘Housing Inequality Bus Tour’ highlighting the harsh human consequences of London’s deepening housing crisis. A double-decker bus hired by the union UNITE set off from Bishops’ Avenue near Highgate (also known as ‘billionaire’s row’) and made stops at key sites where regeneration schemes are contributing to housing injustice, including the Jubilee Sports centre near Queen’s Park and the South Kilburn Estate in Brent.

The nature and dynamics of this housing crisis are of course complicated, involving the drastic decline in the supply of social housing and its replacement by private rented accommodation during the Thatcher years; New Labour’s promotion of London as a property honey pot for the global super-rich; and now the ConDem government’s use of welfare reform to socially cleanse large chunks of the capital - including Brent, as a recent BBC Panorama programme illustrated.
The community mobilises to save the Jubilee Sports Centre Photo: Pilgrim Tucker

The really insidious aspect of this process, however, is that, whilst the drivers of the housing crisis may be global, their implementation is very local. Not a week goes by in our city without another neighbourhood asset and community space being picked out for lucrative ‘redevelopment’ – almost universally with the assistance and complicity of local authorities. In Willesden Green, the Library re-development is the most blatant example of putting profits before people. In neighbouring wards, the ongoing saga over the former Kensal Rise Library and the recent cross-Borough decision to demolish the Moberly and Jubilee Sports centres in order to build 155 housing units, only 12 of which will be ‘affordable’ represent further instances. Even the much-trumpeted South Kilburn ‘regeneration’ is in fact  ‘decanting’ many existing residents out-of-Borough to make way for one-bedroom flats with price-tags starting at £284, 950. Anyone chasing an ‘affordable’ home should expect to cough up 80% of that market price. 

The Willesden Library Gated Development for Sale in Singapore
Local campaigning groups like Brent Housing Action have sprung up across London and the rest of the country in an effort underline the connections between Council-led ‘redevelopment’ and social cleansing, and to join-up the dots between seemingly parochial regeneration schemes which are rapidly changing the social mix of the whole of London. 

One of Make Willesden Green’s slogans is that our campaign is local but not parochial. That’s why our focus on the scandalous Willesden Green Library centre re-development is not simply about unwanted changes in our own backyard – it is also fundamentally about promoting a different housing model that allows Local Authorities to build more social housing, apply rent controls to the private sector and reverse the promotion of ‘buy-to-leave’ properties.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Commemorating the Grunwick Strike


An area’s regeneration can take different forms, and one of them is surely to offer opportunities for learning and self-education in and about our community. The Birkbeck PopUp University has, in partnership with the Willesden Green Town Team been doing just that over the past weeks, with plenty of stimulating talks scheduled until the end of May on subjects ranging from Willesden’s conscientious objectors in War War I, the history of Britain’s urban public parks and green spaces, and the the politics of social housing in London, as well as regular slots on careers advice, counselling and returning to work and study.
The commemorative plaque at the former Grunwick site
This Thursday 24 April, the PopUp University will be hosting an evening of debate and discussion from 6-8pm on the Grunwick Strike of 1976-78. Together with the 1984-85 miners’ strike, the Grunwick dispute is one of the signal moments in the postwar labour history of this country - and it all unfolded in the back streets of Willesden Green. For a brief but intense period, striking workers in our neighbourhood, led by the emblematic Mrs Jayaben Desai, put collective struggles against racism, patriarchy and workplace exploitation at the centre of national politics.

These struggles are far from over. Although the Grunwick processing plant has long disappeared, episodes like last summer’s Home Office xenophobic van campaign or the Willesden letting agent who was shown to openly discriminate against African-Caribbean would-be tenants remind us of the everyday racism still plaguing our streets. Similarly, our local Homebase cuts costs by using unpaid staff under the ConDem government’s workfare programme, while local Labour politicians rail against striking teachers fighting the privatisaton of our schools.

Thursday’s event therefore aims to be as much a commemoration of the Grunwick strike, as an opportunity to consider its legacies for today’s campaigns for social justice and equality in our neighbourhood and beyond. After screening the documentary “The Great Grunwick Strike”, we’ll be joined for discussion by Pete Firmin from Brent Trades Union Council and Dr Sundari Anitha and Professor Ruth Pearson who coordinated a research project on  “Striking Women: South Asian workers’ struggles in the UK labour market from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet”. The event is completely free, but online registration is required HERE.

The Opening of Birkbeck's PopUp University on Queen's Parade in March

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Trouble at the Old Police Station

Over the past few weeks Willesden Green has felt like the last frontier town in the Wild West. With bulldozers at work on Electric House, the month-long road closure and bus-diversion in and around the Library centre redevelopment, and further construction next to the Buddhist Temple on Willesden Lane, it’s almost like residents have to ask permission from contractors to move around our own neighbourhood, not the other way round.  

The most recent and potentially worrying new development is at the former Willesden Green Police Station, where talk of  sheriffs and cowboys is sadly not entirely fictional. Neighbours on Huddlestone Road have been alarmed by irregularities in the development of that site – including dangerous manoeuvring of HGV vehicles in a narrow residential street, stacking of building materials on third party walls, burning of materials on the site as well as noisy work conducted on weekends and early mornings. Constant monitoring by residents, and persistent complaints to the Council have brought some enforcement action, but there still remains real concern and some confusion about what will replace the former Police Station. The residents were first advised that the Police Station would be converted into a nursery. Within weeks a building control application was submitted to reconfigure the Police Station into a hostel. A few days ago this application was revised to a four storey building with commercial units and twenty-four residential units and there is no accompanying planning application. Residents can only speculate that the much loved Victorian Police Station will at some stage be demolished and replaced with flats and commercial units, but even this is guess-work given the lack of communication from either developers or the Council about what is going on in that address. 

Narrow manoeuvers
Neighbours from Huddlestone Road made it very clear at the recent Brent Connects meeting that all they are asking is for the redevelopment of the former Police Station to happen lawfully and with due respect for local residents and Council regulations – they are not objecting to the refurbishment as such, but to the way it is conducted and the lack of information about the future of that site. It has been brought to their attention that the works are being carried out by a contractor who has a history of unauthorised building work in Willesden Green, and who has in the past been heavily fined by the Health and Safety Executive. They have also been advised that the contractor is using a private building controls firm, rather than the Council and this is an additional source of anxiety for all of us living in the area. 

Busy, but Early and Noisy too
All this unfortunately does little to dispel the sense that our Borough, and Willesden Green in particular is a soft target for unscrupulous developers. With the Council encouraging unfettered redevelopment of our neighbourhoods (and at least one ongoing investigation into fraudulent support for the library conversion in Kensal Rise) it seems easy for rogue contractors to give the already understaffed inspection and enforcement teams the run-around. In the meantime, it is residents that are acting as full-time, unofficial inspectors of building sites. It’s hard work, living in the wild frontier.