Housing campaigners and residents held a galvanising and unifying day of activity, reports Jack Sherwood
Protesters occupied a property set to be one of fifteen properties to be auctioned off by Bristol City Council on 20 April, and launched a vibrant and defiant street protest at the heart of the St Pauls neighbourhood in the city centre yesterday. The protest attracted at least 80 local residents and activists from various groups, including Bristol People’s Assembly Against Austerity, St Pauls Community Rights Project and Acorn Community Union, who came together to organise the action in only the 10 days preceding.
‘Stop Selling Our Council Houses!’
The protest assembled on a cold and rainy morning outside the Malcolm X Community Centre, with participants bringing giant placards and banners bearing slogans such as “Homes for People Not Speculators!” and “Stop Selling OurCouncil Houses!”, as well as a bicycle trailer-mounted sound system. Here they were addressed briefly by local community organiser Jose Barco on the key issues at hand. Notably, that Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson, on behalf of the city council, claims to be selling off these properties in order to raise funds for investment in building homes outside the city centre and for more feasible refurbishments (these properties’ refurbishments are deemed too costly). This is a policy which, although it may have some years of history in the council, has been strongly opposed by the groups and residents involved (see above), alongside Labour mayoral candidate Marvin Rees and some local Green party members.
They argue that the consequences of ‘social cleansing’ for the local community, with properties bought up by speculators (as seen widely in London), as they have noted well from recent trends in London, alongside this sale of valuable public assets, are unforgiveable – especially during a housing crisis and growing homelessness – and that Ferguson and the Council should be standing up and opposing the central government funding cuts and housing policies of ‘Right to Buy’, upon which the latter frequently seek to refocus any responsibility. A petition on these lines has now reached well over 4,500 signatures. Equally decried is the complete lack of any democratic voice for the local community over the sale of assets which fundamentally belong to its people – a trend which, as local investigative reporters have revealed, resulted in the sale of “almost 300 homes since 2005”.
Bristol’s current mayor also has a risible record on building council homes (barely any over his four year term of office, despite a 14,000-strong waiting list) and ensuring even minimum rates of affordable homes are built by developers, so protesters ask why on earth they would trust him or the council with revenues from such sales anyway. Furthermore, the costs of refurbishments to these properties could be easily recouped by council rents over years, and this could even mean work for local apprentices, as seen in other areas.
Musical protest, estate agents ejected and occupation
With such strong contentions over these policies of privatisation of public assets and aggravation of social inequalities that will only be exacerbated by the Tory Housing Bill (forced sell-offs, ‘Right to Buy’ for social housing and ‘Pay to Stay’ for social renters), it was no wonder that passions were running high on the streets of the historically working-class and ethnically diverse St Pauls neighbourhood as the protest moved to the first house for auction: 148a City Road. Chants erupted: “Council Houses – Not For Sale!”, “Homes for People – Not for Profit!”, “Speculators – Off our Streets!” and even “Ferguson [the mayor] – Shame on you! – Ferguson – Out out out!”, accompanied by a loud djembe drum and the intermittent sound of rebellious tunes emanating from the portable soundsystem (video here).
This raucous, at times carnivalesque community protest atmosphere was an interesting staging post for Hollis Morgan estate agents’ viewings arranged for the property. First, one potential buyer found himself engaged in a heated discussion with local residents and the agent and other viewers found their plans disrupted entirely as they attempted to shut the door on protesters who instead piled in the door, placards and banners in tow.
The estate agents and viewers quickly departed amidst chants, boos and cheers, and, as the weather brightened, the property was claimed for occupation, with protesters affixing a ‘NO ACCESS to Speculators’ sign at the door and decorating its railings with placards. Chants, music and discussion continued in the streets outside and at the door of the property. This was followed thirty minutes later by most of the protesters agreeing to move on to make a great noise and spectacle outside two other properties for auction along the same road, for which arranged viewings appeared to have been cancelled by the worried estate agents! There was a brief return of all to ‘safeguard’ the occupied property as police arrived, captured here on video.
A short but lively march ensued, gathering support around local streets, and finally all the protesters reassembled outside the occupied property for some final chanting and to discuss in brief what might be done next: organising an ever bigger protest, and possibly disruption, at the Auction itself on 20 April, 7pm, at All Saints Church in Bristol. You can follow the Bristol People’s Assembly, Acorn Bristol and St Pauls Community Rights Project facebook pages for more information.
A crucial campaign in a bigger battle
It was a galvanising and unifying day of activity for the residents and campaigners involved, who managed to disrupt and prevent the auction viewings and attract significant attention from the community (passers-by and beeping cars) as well as some local and national media. They succeeded in launching an unavoidable oppositional intervention (to be continued at the Auction) into these regressive local proceedings of neoliberal Britain, such as which have received increasingly strong resistance from our communities, particularly in London, over the last two years.
Indeed, the fight for council and social housing will and must drive on in Bristol, to score wins such as preventing these coming auctions, and to preciptate, perhaps, the demise of Mayor Ferguson, who has utterly failed to stand up to the Tories’ austerity and privatisation agenda despite cultivating a ‘man of the people’ image, and whose Labour mayoral rival has called for a “moratorium” on selling social housing.
In this spirit, the bigger political battles around this housing crisis in our communities were also put central in the day’s protest as Bristol People’s Assembly activists gave out well-received flyers for Bristol coaches to next Saturday’s “Cameron Must Go!” #EndAusterityNow Demo for ‘Health, Homes, Jobs & Education’, and encouraged other residents to join them at Bristol’s ‘Fountains’ focal point on Tuesday evening (5.30pm) for their own #ResignCameron protest action.
Stemming the Tory tide of the dispossession and super-exploitation of ordinary people by austerity and pro-rich policies is clearly an urgent priority in the housing fight, and one which means forcing this government out now (the watchword of the People’s Assembly). Nonetheless, helping build local struggles - in parallel with mass movements - that seek to reclaim and assert democratic control over common resources, while fighting off the preying capitalists, can only strengthen the growing mass opposition and resistance to the neoliberal agenda (evidenced in the rise of Corbynism for instance), of which Cameron and Osborne’s austerity, doomed as it now seems, is only the latest incarnation.
Jack Sherwood has been an organiser in the People's Assembly and Stop the War.
Based in Bristol, he coordinated the largest demonstrations and public meetings in the city 2014-2019: against austerity, in support of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour, over the Junior Doctors' struggle and against the British bombing of Syria.
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