Protest outside Westbrook Partners HQ in Mayfair on December 1. Photo: The Guardian

Private rented accommodation holds no answers, the New Era Tenants are right, we need council housing argues homeless worker Norbert Lawrie

Homes and communities are words that property developers do not understand and there’s a growing consensus in London’s East End and beyond that the housing needs of people should be put before profit.

In Hackney, private rents are obscenely over £2,100 a month on average – one of the highest in London. A million people across Britain are in “housing need”. Thousands are sleeping rough on the streets or stuck in hotels as a consequence of both asset stripping of social housing and now austerity.

In the good old days we had council-built social rented housing. It was a simple idea in which rents were based on a formula that combined local wages and local property values so that, for much of southern England, rents would be set at around 50% of local market rents – even lower in very expensive areas. Social housing rents allowed people to work without being dependent upon housing benefit.

No more. Now, councils and housing associations have been told to replace social rented housing with a new product called, confusingly, affordable housing where rents will be set at 80% of local market rent.

Across whole swathes of southern England affordable rented properties will simply not be affordable to people on low incomes.

High rents across much of southern England reflect the over-heated property market, but to pretend that poor people will be able to take on a new affordable rent home in these areas without ending up trapped in benefit-dependence is disingenuous.

During the course of the last year housing provision – or rather the lack of it – has been moving up the political agenda, driven by working people taking direct action to highlight what is now a National Housing crisis.

The young mothers of Focus E15, formerly housed in a hostel, fought evictionn and Newham’s (Labour) mayor Sir Robin Wales. They occupied vacant east London flats on an estate in protest at plans to demolish good council housing. It came to be seen as a microcosm of London’s acute housing crisis. Their campaign was formed last year after funding for the Focus E15 hostel was cut and they were told they would be rehoused outside London.

The Focus E15 campaign were able to force the council to use the empty properties to house admittedly and albeit temporary families marooned and trapped on the council housing waiting list.

On Monday I had the pleasure of attending a protest march to Downing Street to present David Cameron with a petition containing over a quarter of a million signatures in support of the tenants who currently live on the New Era Estate.

We gathered in our hundreds outside the offices of the New Era estate’s owners, a US investment company called Westbrook Partners, in Berkeley Square. The protest was lively and vocal, with mums, dads and younger children singing and chanting slogans demanding not only housing justice but council housing.

They were supported by trade unionists, the Defend Council Housing campaign and of course the celebrity turned political activist Russell Brand. As the protesters started to spill over onto the street surrounding the front entrance of the Westbrook London offices passing traffic sounded off horns in support. Two coach loads of supporters arrived and disembarked, swelling the demonstration to about a thousand – not bad for a Monday I thought.

After a rally and speeches we moved off towards the Ritz Hotel heading to Downing Street to hand in the boxes containing the petition.

The 93 households of Hoxton’s New Era estate have proven to be nothing short of truly remarkable and indeed inspiring, fighting against the real prospect of massive hikes in rents by the profiteering landlords. This is just yet another example of how property developers are destroying people’s lives by socially cleansing vast areas of London and forcing working people and their families out.

There is a major issue of principle here that questions what sort of society we want – do we value people or do we allow social cleansing that allows big money to make profit regardless of the cost to the vast majority?

The New Era Estate has a long history of providing affordable housing and has been home to some people for 70 years.

Soaring house prices have driven ordinary families out of vast swathes of the UK – particularly the capital where the average price of a home rocketed by 18.5% last year.

Britain’s housing crisis is worsened still by weak legal protection for private tenants, who can be forced out of homes they have lived in for years at a few weeks notice.

What New Era tenants and indeed Focus E15 have shown and amplified, is this; we don’t have to take it on the chin or even lying down, we are not down and we are certainly not out, we can and we must fight back. But there must be clarity in everything we do, don’t make the mistake of concentrating too much on a single issue, make sure that we share and feed our experiences into the bigger picture, into the bigger movement such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity – only in that way can we have any chance of winning against what are not impossible odds.

We will see growing young homelessness in Britain if, as is being suggested, welfare support and benefits are further cut or abolished altogether. This will create a crisis that directly reflects a failure in the British housing system, because profit is being put before the real needs of people.

Private rented accommodation holds no answers, the New Era Tenants are right, we want, we need and people are crying out for council housing.

Norbert Lawrie

Norbert Lawrie is a former homeless advice worker and campaigner of many years standing. He has been an executive member of CHAR the former campaign for single homeless people, and has been instrumental in gaining council tenancies for hundreds of homeless people including children living in hostel accommodation. Norbert maintains an ongoing relationship with the London street homeless and the squatting movement.

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