Guardian take on Southwark squat protest story

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Dec 1 01:03:59 GMT 2013

£3m for two London council houses in need of repair – and 20 protesters

The most expensive council homes ever sold went 
under the hammer this week in the capital – but 
it came with a group of squatters protesting at 
the shortage of affordable housing
Gentleman - 
Guardian, Friday 1 November 2013 18.45 GMT
    £3m council house sold in London

    * 'The issue isn’t really the fate of this 
house, but the promises that Southwark council 
keeps making and breaking.' Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Lot 60 at the Savills 
auction, held on Monday at the Marriott hotel in 
inevitably attracted huge interest since it was 
advertised in advance as the most expensive 
council home ever to be sold, with a reserve 
price of £2.3m. The catalogue described the 
Southwark property as "an attractive pair of 
Grade II listed semi-detached buildings" in a 
"vibrant location close to Borough market, London 
Bridge, the Shard, the City and South Bank", adding, crucially: "Vacant."

By the time the building was sold, it was no 
longer vacant. Shortly before bidding began, a 
young woman stood up and told the room she had an 
announcement to make. "Excuse me. Sorry to 
interrupt," she began. "We are here to tell you 
that Lot No 60 is a council house that is 
currently being occupied by community activists 
who don't want to see this property lost, because 
we believe that council 
is a public good and it shouldn't be being sold. 
If you want to buy it, you're buying it with 20 squatters."

The announcement did nothing to dampen the 
enthusiasm for the sale, and the buildings sold for £2.96m.

At a time when a new frenzy is developing around 
London property, with average house prices in the 
capital rising by 9.3% year-on-year, the news of 
a £3m council house sale was headline news. The 
activists from Housing Action Southwark and 
Lambeth were aware of the potent symbolism of the 
sale, and seized the moment to highlight their 
concerns about the shrinking of London's council house stock.

Inside Britain's most expensive council house, a 
polite and 
is under way. Volunteers have drawn up a rota to 
ensure that the house is permanently occupied, 
and that there is a nightly team of volunteers to 
sleep in the drafty section of the house that 
they have taken over. One of the activists has 
contacted an electricity company to get a new 
account set up in his name, so that protesters 
cannot be charged with stealing electricity.

The protesters are not 
in a traditional way, since none of them plans to 
live here permanently, and noone has moved 
anything in other than sleeping bags, blankets 
and an electric radiator. Someone has brought a 
Scrabble set to help while away the time; someone 
else has been practising a violin, balancing 
their sheet music on the mantelpiece.

There is a notice on the 
website saying food donations are welcome, and 
the doorbell keeps ringing. Well-wishers arrive 
with sandwiches, cups of tea, and offerings of 
hummus and wine. One couple came from north London with satsumas and bananas.

 From a bathroom window, with views on to the 
Shard, Borough market and the curved brick 
railway arches, activists have suspended sheets 
painted with the slogans: "Stop social 
cleansing!" and "Homes for all!" Inside they are 
at pains to cause no damage to the building, and 
have carefully removed the heavy steel 
anti-squatting door from its hinges and leaned it against the hallway wall.

In a week when a room containing 
lavatory (and a washbasin) near Hyde Park was due 
to be auctioned for £150,000 and research from 
Hamptons suggested that the 
of London boroughs affordable for first-time 
buyers will drop from 15 to four within the next 
five years, it is impossible to know whether the 
Southwark council house sale represents a crazy 
new height of speculation or a sensible price.

This is what you get for £3m in an area of 
central London that has been dramatically 
transformed since the opening of Tate Modern in 
2000: two five-storey 1820 houses, built as homes 
managers of Anchor Brewery, one so structurally 
unsound that a complex mesh of scaffolding is 
propping it up. In the other, there are cracks 
big enough to stick a pencil into creeping up the 
stairway. The house has never been much 
modernised, so even with the light restricted by 
the metal grills bolted to the windows, you can 
see the period features that developers like, 
wooden shutters and fireplaces. The house is 
habitable, only recently vacated by a family with 
several children. Traces of their lives remain, a 
few stickers and scribbles on the children's 
bedroom walls. The nearest shop, about 30 metres 
along the road, is a Paul Smith boutique, selling 
pink woollen children's gloves for £45.

Given that Southwark has made a commitment to 
build 20 new council houses with the money 
generated by the sale of the property, this is 
not a clear-cut issue. Inside the house, sitting 
on the carpet in a chilly, second-floor bedroom, 
the protesters set out why they believe the sale was wrong.

Cathy Henderson, 38, a dance teacher and an 
adviser on housing issues explains that the 
protest is about more than simply the sale of 21 
and 22 Park Street. She says the sale of a 
council house in such a central location, so 
close to the river and the tube, "has the effect 
of changing the character of this area; it is 
social cleansing, it is saying the only people 
who deserve to live in Zone 1 are people who aren't in social housing".

"For most of us, the issue isn't really the fate 
of this house, but the promises that Southwark 
council keeps making and breaking. We're not 
against the idea that Southwark could sell 
something and do something with the money that is 
more accessible and more the sort of houses that 
are needed. The issue that we have is that we 
don't trust them to do what they say they will 
do, because they have broken promises before."

She points to the nearby Heygate estate, in 
Elephant and Castle, which is being prepared for 
demolition. Heygate used to have 1,100 homes and 
will be replaced by a development that contains 
only 79 council properties amid a total of 2,535 
homes. "It's not built to be council housing, 
it's not even built to be social housing; a lot 
of it is being built to be privately owned. A lot 
is being advertised and sold off-list before it's 
even finished, to investors, who see London as a 
really solid, stable place to invest their money. 
They could buy properties in London and keep them 
empty and still be guaranteed a profit three years later," she says.

Southwark council has mounted a staunch defence 
of its decision to sell. While it concedes there 
will be a lower than promised proportion of 
affordable housing in the redevelopment of the 
Elephant and Castle area (25% instead of 35%), it 
says that overall there will be "at least 1,650 
affordable – including social rent and shared 
ownership – significantly more than were lost on 
the Heygate". Officials say 20 new homes are 
already being built in the same part of Southwark as Park Street.

Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, 
study of flawed urban planning, who researched 
the Heygate development, was sceptical about the 
proportion of the new properties that would be genuinely affordable.

"The sell-off of an eye-catching £3m property is 
all of a piece with what they are doing across 
the borough: divesting themselves of social 
housing and replacing it with so-called 
affordable housing that isn't even affordable for 
people on average incomes, let alone people in social housing," she said.

Most of the protesters are in their 20s, and are 
not themselves council tenants; several are 
graduates, working, but struggling to afford to 
live in London. Ellie (who asked for her real 
name not to be printed), 25, who grew up in 
Brixton, is training to be an English for 
Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, and 
is about to move back home to live with her 
mother because she cannot afford London rents. A 
volunteer with Housing Action Southwark and 
Lambeth, supporting local residents in their 
dealings with Southwark housing department, she 
has joined the protest because she sees the sale 
as emblematic of the speed with which central London is being transformed.

"It is about the rights of people on low incomes 
to live in this area. Council housing is a public 
good that everyone can benefit from. I don't want 
this house to be lost at a time when there is a 
massive need," she says. She is unconvinced by 
"Southwark's distant promises of building future 
council housing". "This building is here, right 
now, with maybe a lick of paint and some work to 
deal with cracks and the stairs, it could be 
livable in. We need council housing right now," she says.

She was the person who stood up in the Marriott 
to announce the occupation, and was surprised 
that there were murmurings of support in a hall 
filled with investors and developers.

"I thought it would be a sea of hate, but someone 
next to me said, 'You're absolutely right.' I 
wasn't booed and heckled. I was marched out. 
People either said nothing or were supportive. We were so surprised," she says.

"Council housing represented truly affordable, 
quality housing, and most people in London are 
struggling with high rents. There's a massive 
homelessness crisis. These things really resonate."

The issue of the unaffordability of central 
London is not new, but a combination of rising 
house prices and rents, tight new 
benefitcaps that do not increase in line with the 
rising rents, and benefit reform, has made 
central London increasingly inaccessible to 
people on low incomes in the past three years.

Research published last month by the Trust for 
London showed that even much of outer London is 
moving out of reach, with 13 of London's 19 outer 
boroughs now unaffordable for families who 
receive housing benefit. Councils are seeing a 
ripple effect as families affected by the housing 
benefit cap move further out. 
to house all homeless families in their own 
borough, several councils have begun to send 
tenants to live in cities hundreds of miles away. 
A broader housing crisis has seen homelessness 
rise in London by 62% since 2010-11 . London has 
the highest number of families living in B&Bs for 
nearly 10 years: 2,090, despite regulations designed to prevent this.

Some London councils have begun to suggest that 
if tenants couldn't afford market rents in the 
centre, they shouldn't expect to live there. 
Westminster council states: "To live in 
Westminster is a privilege, not a right, because 
so many people want to live here." However, 
Westminster's Conservative cabinet member for 
Glanz, was forced to resign after suggesting last 
month that council house tenants in the borough 
were living "Made in Chelsea" lifestyles, in 
houses usually only available to people with trust funds.

Although the building has been sold, Southwark 
remains responsible for the evictions at 21 and 
22 Park Street, because it sold the houses as 
vacant. Officials say "police have been notified 
and we will deal with the issue through the usual 
legal process". Labour councillor Fiona Colley, 
Southwark council's cabinet member for 
regeneration and corporate strategy, said in an 
emailed statement that there was no doubt the correct decision had been made.

"Occasionally, it makes sense to sell in pockets 
where land prices are very high. Councils are 
struggling with huge financial pressures, and 
Southwark is building more council houses than 
anyone else, but to fund those we have to think 
carefully about our priorities. With Park Street, 
we could have kept homes for two families, or 
used the proceeds to build 20 new homes for those 
on our waiting list of 20,000," she said.

But neighbours on Park Street are broadly 
supportive of the protest. Several of the houses 
opposite, which date from a similar era, are 
still owned by the council, and Maureen Lynch, a 
retired former youth worker, is "terrified" that 
the £3m price tag may make council staff consider 
selling the house where she has lived for the 
past 30 years, and brought up her two children.

"I do understand what they mean about social 
cleansing. They are selling off the family 
silver," she said. The pace of development in the 
area is intense. "Everywhere you go you have 
cranes, you have ditches, you have dust."

Her son has moved to Stafford because he couldn't 
afford to live in London. "They couldn't have 
bought a garage here. The community is being 
eroded. It has become an area of haves and 
have-yachts. The only people who can buy here are 
the loaded gentry or people from other countries 
who are hoovering up bits of London," she says.
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