How 29 single mothers became unlikely heroines in the campaign for better housing
Who would have thought that spawning a London version of MIPIM − the annual developer jamboree in Cannes − would be the cause of such commotion? Last month the event’s debut in Kensington was forced to close its gates after being stormed by protesters, who accused the plutocratic delegates of the ‘social cleansing’ of London’s neighbourhoods. This alarming phrase has been used to describe the wave of gentrification sweeping London by activists, writers and Mayor Boris Johnson alike and seems to tap into the strength of feeling that surrounds the broken British housing system. Some of this public anger can be traced to the agitation of an unlikely group of 29 young mothers from Newham in East London. On being served with eviction notices last year, the women banded together, as a campaign group called Focus E15, to protest against proposals to rehouse them over 200 miles away from their communities.
Over the year since their original eviction, public support for Focus E15 and the list of the mums’ achievements has grown. They now turn out at court hearings of evicted families, knock on doors of those facing eviction to inform them of their rights and help them to appeal those decisions. This month they prevented bailiffs from evicting one family and were instrumental in shutting down the MIPIM spin-off in Kensington. In September the mums turned their attention to the Carpenters Estate − 600 council homes adjacent to the Olympic park standing empty as the council attempts to sell off the estate for demolition, despite the 24,000 families in the borough waiting to be housed. Under the auspices of a family fun day the group occupied a block of four boarded-up flats, turning it into a temporary community centre and campaign HQ, only vacating when the council agreed to let the flats again.
What makes the work of the women involved in Focus E15 so remarkable is the scale of their ambition. Previously apolitical, they now see their actions as part of a wider struggle: a turf war for the city and their home. Architects such as Ralph Erskine, Samuel Mockbee and Walter Segal were pioneering advocates of a consultative design process but today what passes for consultation can be little more than a box-ticking exercise. Focus E15 on the other hand has galvanised the real thing − a popular interest in the byzantine world of planning policy. ‘This is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis!’ yells one activist while lighting the final firework of a display put on with the help of the Fire Brigades Union who are seeing fire stations close as they too feel the impact of government cuts. Their campaign is uniting the issues of social housing, development, political accountability and sweeping public sector cuts in a single battle for working-class communities’ ongoing existence.
But this isn’t a storybook community, and nor are the houses altogether desirable; they are squat, pebble-dashed and grey, and pushed into a corner where two large railways intersect. There are cliques here, of hardened activists and of locals, newcomers and the founding 29, but there is a convivial solidarity between the cocky teenagers, misfits, battle-axes, single mothers and children. This is the kind of community created by sharing a common goal and occupying a common space which, despite its flaws, provides decently sized homes, public and green spaces, a roof overhead and the possibility of a secure future.
Great architecture enables people to mix and thrive in their environments. In Newham, the council is felt to be emptying social housing and boarding it up until it deteriorates so that they can declare it uninhabitable, tear it down, and sell off the land. While some anodyne new-build will doubtless arrive in place of the estate, this socially destructive process is the opposite of responsible architecture. Instead development should respect communities and protect their right to continue existing. Not tearing down homes for something more luxurious, but consulting the needs, hopes and fears of residents.
Development too often plays a role in displacing existing communities and destabilising lives. Developers and local government repeatedly let down those communities by failing to recognise and mitigate the damage they can cause. Selling off their cities at MIPIM is not a solution for these women, nor the growing movement of which they are part.
A large poster hung in the hallway of the occupation showed a map of London bearing the caption, ‘We Are Not Alone’. Dotted with 30 crosses it marks the locations of other ongoing battles for the rights of residents around housing, evictions and renovations. MIPIM delegates were taken by surprise with the resistance of Focus E15 and their allies, but as the British public becomes increasingly informed, frustrated and willing to take direct action, it is becoming harder for the powerful to ignore those people who deserve − and are starting to demand − better.