Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is grappling with major socioeconomic shifts by getting organized at an unprecedented scale.
Unaffordable, unequal, unsustainable—the problems that London’s economic success has brought in its wake have been receiving ample international coverage recently. Behind the headlines, however, there’s another story that’s been getting far less attention. London has also been swept over the past year by a wave of grassroots activism, the intensity of which is unprecedented. A sort of mosaic version of the Occupy movement, this activist wave has left few areas of the city untouched. Comprising building occupations, demonstrations, petitions and intensive lobbying, it has touched on anything from huge housing projects to historic structures and local pubs. And it shows no sign of cresting yet.
Among the many issues the movement touches on, the most hotly contested is displacement. At time of writing, a local council in South London is effectively besieging protestors occupying the threatened Aylesbury Estate housing project. In the city’s far north, low-income public housing residents at the Sweets Way project—forced from their homes to make space for luxury housing—are occupying the now vacated site in a protest they’re calling a sleepover. Meanwhile, there are the passionate, locally led ongoing campaigns to stop displacement of public housing tenants at the Cressingham Gardens and West Hendon Estate housing projects, following on the heels of campaigns at East London’s Carpenters and New Era Estates.
You’ll notice that public housing projects are focal points. This is because they are currently the biggest victims of London’s affordable housing crisis, with many at threat of being torn down for redevelopment. The rationale for this sounds reasonable from a distance: to house its growing population, London needs to densify. By replacing dilapidated projects with a higher, tighter mix of private and “affordable” housing, the city can boost residents per square foot and dilute social division.
That’s the theory. The reality is glaringly different. The housing projects threatened with demolition are typically more densely populated than the city’s average, while the poor conditions claimed for them sometimes exist, but often don’t. There are more sparsely populated parts of the city and many brownfield sites that make more sense to build on. These estates are being targeted because their land is valuable, lying either in gentrifying areas (such as next to the Olympic Park) or as anomalies surrounded by wealthier streets. The revenue from selling off this type of land to developers helps to plugs gaps in borough finances in the short-term, while in the long-term, displacing poorer residents in favor of wealthier ones increases tax revenue.
Protestors against low-income housing demolition are not just fighting for their homes, but often for their ability to stay in London at all. The small amount of “affordable” housing being discussed as a replacement is really a figleaf. Legally required to be sold at no less than 80 percent of market rate, it’s availability is means tested and typically offered to people with an annual income between $55,000 and $65,000, comfortably above London’s median.
These grassroots fights aren’t limited to housing, either. London also has a new, overlapping wave of activists trying to preserve neighborhood character and more broadly fight social segregation. The Save Soho Campaign aims to stop a historic, formerly bohemian central neighborhood from being “cleaned up” beyond recognition, losing its independent businesses along the way. Campaigners are also fighting to prevent London’s financial district from steamrolling over the historic Norton Folgate area that sits on its eastern edge.
Elsewhere in central London, a band of anarchists have set up a squatted temporary social center in the former headquarters of Britain’s CEO cadre, the Institute of Directors. Even places to have a drink have found their defenders. This January, squatters took over the nearby 12 Bar Club in attempt to stop it being closed prior to the area’s redevelopment as something going by the dystopian sounding name The Outernet. And in a city where gay venues seem to be dropping like flies, a campaign to save East London late-night drinking venue the Joiners Arms from being converted into luxury housing has been gathering steam and gaining celebrity endorsement.
It’s hard to know how to feel about these campaigns’ efficacy. They demonstrate the strength of citizen resistance, but also the sheer volume of things there are to resist. Given the huge interests they are up against, campaigners can seem like tiny flies trying to ward off a bull, the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them. Can they really hope to have an effect?
So far, it seems they actually can. This December, resident protestors in East London’s New Era Estate managed to overturn an attempt by U.S. owners Westbrook Partners to double their rent, which would have forced many evictions. Last year, the Focus E15 occupation forced the local borough to admit that supposedly derelict housing was in fact ready for tenants. Off camera, there have also been quiet successes for many local groups trying to fight unjust evictions case by case. And just yesterday, East London’s Joiners Arms pub had its Asset of Community Value status confirmed, which makes its conversion to housing impossible.
More generally, activists have managed to redirect London’s (and Britain’s) conversation about cities and inequality, filling local media thanks partly to celebrity endorsement from actor/comedian Russell Brand, among others. On a personal note, it’s also inspired me. After going along to report on the Focus E15 occupation, I started attending some demonstrations and events myself. I’ve been impressed by the extent to which this is a genuine grassroots movement sweeping up a whole range of people, many of whom haven’t previously been involved in activism. While any part I’ve played has been cursory, it’s still been an eye opener—I’ve been (perhaps naively) shocked by the unapologetic mixture of callousness and indifference with which London’s various authorities can treat people they feel are too disempowered to fight back.
It’s likely that London’s activists will lose many of the battles they’ve taken on, not least because genuine support from Britain’s two major political parties is so far lacking. There’s still a feeling in the air, a sense that public attitudes as to what is and isn’t possible are shifting. If anyone expected the discontents of London’s transformation to disperse quietly, they’re already being proved wrong.