Tag Archives: cuts

Women’s library occupation

8 Mar

Just a quick note before bed about the Women’s Library occupation that happened earlier on today and will be going on over the weekend and hopefully beyond.

Instead of an exhibition on women’s struggles being closed on international women’s day, the occupation has meant that the exhibition now will be extended so that more people can enjoy it. The occupation is also against the plans for this incredible space and important feminist resource being closed and its contents shifted to the London School of Economics, and against austerity and its gendered impacts.

The occupation is incredible and inspiring – it’s hard to articulate exactly what is so wonderful about it – it’s more of a feeling after spending a wonderful day there talking, organising, and hunting for food. But there is a great warmth and determination about everyone and the space. There is also a badge machine!!! I’ve been getting angrier and angrier recently, but  there was a real sense of hopefulness about it all. There are tonnes of amazing events happening in the space and so you should absolutely go down and get involved.

The Women’s Library occupation has added to the amazing action-planning-against-austerity events that are taking place all over London this weekend – with Skillshare 2013, Benefit Justice meeting, London Roots Collective drop-in, CAAT…it’s all really exciting!

Housing for all protest at City Hall & ACAB

22 Feb

The Counihan family and their supporters held a lively protest outside Boris’ building this afternoon demanding ‘housing for all’ and standing against the massive housing benefit cuts that will come through in April.

In freezing temperates, we chanted and sang non-stop for almost two hours, attracting curious glances and support from passing tourists. The family had made up a particularly brilliant song about their housing situation – which I’m sad to say I cannot find a youtube video of to link – which saw away the bitter cold as we bopped about.

The Couihan’s were denied housing benefits and made homeless last April by Brent council for declaring £18 a week income from land they had inherited from Ireland. Brent Housing have told them to go and live in an empty field in Ireland and their local MP Glenda Jackson told them to move to Wales as it would be cheaper. They have been living in sub-standard temporary accommodation since April where there is damp in every room.

Whilst fighting for their own housing rights, they have taken on campaigning against the housing crisis that we are all affected by.

The protest culminated in the Cunihan’s handing in a letter for Boris to City hall followed by supporters. Boris has ignored their many emails about taking action on housing in London so they didn’t hold much faith.

What had been a fun and good natured protest was suddenly marred by aggressive security in the lobby. One security guard pushed a young girl in the back, when she complained of this to those around her, the guard was heard saying that she was lying. The young girl was visibly distressed by the push and the false accusation made against her. About 10 police then arrived in the lobby and ordered protestors out with the threat of arrest. A mass arrest of children under 16 would have been interesting.

When the young girl made a complaint to a police man about the assault the scum of a policeman refused to do his job and investigate and take action. Instead he made up a load of lies saying that as we were trespassing the security guard was allowed to use force. We pointed out that he had pushed her in the back before we had been told we were trespassing. The policeman then offered her the options of either taking down everyone’s details (we protested that this had nothing to do with anything) or leaving it be. Most horrific of all, he said to the young girl in an accusatory and almost threatening tone ‘now to make it clear, you haven’t said anything about this being sexual’ as if he were implying that she might later claim it was sexual. We shouted back at him outraged that he was making such assumptions that she would do this, when she’d made it quite clear what her complaint was. He was putting words in her mouth that she had not uttered. This policeman was making the assumption that this young girl might later fabricate assault of a sexual nature. This is what women do, was the clear assumption. God knows how he treats women who are reporting sexual assaults.

So, after we were all threatened with arrest for being inside City Hall, the police overlooked a real crime and used sexist victim blaming instead. Rather aptly we’d been chanting earlier on: ‘This is what democracy looks like’.

Check out this report and photos from People’s Republic of Southwark.

Like the Counihan’s facebook page here.

I’ve got some photos that I’ll upload soon.

The ‘Co-operative council’ – a ‘radical’ experiment with local governance?

27 Nov

As Lambeth council leader Steve Reed seeks election as MP in the Croydon North by-election it seems like a good time to take a look at his flagship project on which he has launched his rise to national politics. Lambeth council declared itself a “Co-operative Council” back in 2010 claiming to revolutionise the way in which public services are delivered. This new model of governance would, they claimed, empower communities by allowing them to make decisions about the way in which their services are run.

This rhetoric of shifting power to the people has proven popular amongst local councillors, with over 20 Labour councils piloting approaches in co-operative public services through the “Co-operative Councils Network” founded by Steve Reed. Other fans include the Guardian’s Zoe Williams who has written about the “constructive changes” by Lambeth and other councils as “heartening”. Steve Reed has even declared in a New Statesman article that his project “offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.”

But before the “co-operative council” attempts to go national, it is important to look at what it has actually done here in Lambeth – behind all the rhetoric, what do residents make of the “co-operative council”?

One o’clock clubs were declared by Lambeth council to be an “early adopter” of the “co-operative model” in 2011. The councils’ plan was for the one o’clock clubs to be run by “new co-operative entities” by April 2012. However, there were not adequate external bids for all the one o’clock clubs and so they remain council run for the time being. This process of transferring the management of one o’clock clubs has come under significant criticism from users of the service who highlight the undemocratic nature of the process and their concerns for the future of the service under this new model.

Fenton Forsyth brought his children to the one o’clock clubs 25 years ago and now his youngest son, who is three years old, attends their local one o’clock club. He has seen the service over the last 25 years. It is precisely this wealth of understanding and experience that Lambeth council claim that the “co-operative council” will draw from, yet Forsyth described how he has been left “disillusioned” by the whole process. “There’s a feeling of helplessness amongst people that it’s not done properly, they don’t have their say, people are anxious about what’s been done and how it’s done.” Forsyth describes how at a meeting arranged by the council the decision that the one o’clock clubs would be outsourced had already been made, “it wasn’t about the council there justifying why they’re getting rid of the service, it was more about who was going to win the bid. I missed it when Lambeth said, “look we’re sorry”, people didn’t have a chance to ask questions – so there was no accountability.”

After hearing bids from organisations looking to run the service, the attendees were given one vote. When Forsyth asked if he could have a ballot paper for his wife who was at work, he was told that only the people at the meeting could vote. He explained to me that this was “snap shot democracy” where only people at that specific moment could have a say, when it should involve the whole community. “When I started protesting at the level of democracy, they just didn’t have an answer.” Forsyth added that only 30% of votes went to the users, with the rest going to the council, so that whatever they voted for, it could be overridden by the council.

In the end Effra Nursery School won the bid for his local one o’clock club. Their plans include getting rid of a soft padded play area for children with special needs and bringing in a cafe. Forsyth expressed his worries at this shift from a universal service to a service that is actually more like a business which may exclude certain groups, “it’s more of a middle class, it will be a trendy coffee shop and that’s going to obviously stop a lot of people from coming in, the people that come there can’t afford to buy them, so you’ll have a group of people coming there, it won’t be just people with children and you can chill out, it’s a business.”

I visited my local one o’clock club and spoke with a group of women there about the service. They spoke with great passion about the importance of the one o’clock clubs in their lives. They described how the one o’clocks clubs were vital to creating a community; that through them they had made lifelong friends and had got to know their neighbours. They are “a way that you do actually, cohesively, join your community. Promoting community, strengthening communities is what one o’clock clubs is about,” one of the women explained. They also spoke of the well being that these places brought to them and their children. One woman cited a recent report which showed an increase in domestic violence because of the wet summer meaning people were couped up indoors to illustrate the important role of one o’clocks clubs.

Yet despite all their knowledge and commitment to the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council, even in its co-operative phase, has not taken on board what they have to say. Speaking of the recent meetings where users could hear about the bids being made for the one o’clock clubs, one woman said, “we just listened to them tell us what they would do. We don’t feel that they do listen to us, because we live near Ruskin park, but they just shut it down, they didn’t listen to us at all, we weren’t given any notice, we were just told it’s going to shut in one week. It’s because they can’t quantify the value and the impact it’s having on the children, if they were to come and see the children interacting with each other, playing, exploring, discovering, and the opportunities that they have that they don’t get in your home – it’s because they don’t value that…” Instead, the women told me, the one o’clock club is now being rented out as offices.

The women’s sense of ownership, community, and empowerment that they feel for their one o’clock clubs shows up the “co-operative council” as being utterly redundant. The council are enforcing their “co-operative” model onto a community that already exemplifies many of the characteristics that the “co-operative council” claim to promote. And it is their model that is threatening the community of the one o’clock clubs as they are closed down or become like a business, as Forsyth described.

Lambeth libraries were another service that the council decided to restructure along their “co-operative” principles. A libraries consultation was set up earlier in the year encouraging residents to “have your say”. Councillor Florence Nosegbe described the model that is now being put in place: “every individual library has been allocated a budget and how that budget will be spent will be decided by local residents, friends of libraries groups and the ward councillors. It’s about being quite bold to say that if you value that library and if you think these are the things that should be in that library we’re going to give you that flexibility to go ahead and spend that. So we’re in the stage where we’re co-designing and co-agreeing the budget with the libraries at the moment.” But as with the one o’clock clubs, users felt frustrated and ignored by Lambeth council’s process and the outcome.

Lisa Sheldon is a student who grew up using Lambeth libraries. “We didn’t have much money and so the library was a really important resource. I did the summer reading trails as a child and used the computers and books for my homework.” She took part in the consultation process but said she has little faith that Lambeth took her views into account. “The documents we were supposed to fill out were huge. It took me 2 hours to plough through it and even then, it was clear from the wording of the questions that the council had already made up their mind as to what would happen with our libraries.” She explains that when the results of the consultation were announced they revealed that the majority of people did not want or were undecided about the “co-operative library” proposals, but the council ignored this and went ahead anyway. “When Lambeth talk about shifting power to local people, it is obviously disingenuous – handing people reduced library budgets and making them decide between books and staff is not empowering. The area has high levels of impoverishment – to tell people to enforce their own cuts on their library service is unforgivable. The council have been failing to invest in libraries and other services for years and now austerity and the co-op council are just yet more excuses to run our services down.”

As with the one o’clock clubs, Lambeth council’s imposition of “co-operation” fails to see the co-operation and community that is already there. As Sheldon explains, “the consultation spoke of creating ‘community hubs’ in libraries, but as anyone who has visited a Lambeth library knows, these places already serve the function of a community hub where all members of the community visit to access the great range of services provided. The staff play a particularly important role in this community, helping library users with their queries and comments despite often being very understaffed. I don’t understand how they can become much more co-operative than they already are, unless the council are proposing getting rid of mangers and creating a fairer pay system, which I somehow doubt.” As she points out to me, Lambeth council are completely re-defining the concept of co-operatives, for their plans are so far away from the true meaning and practice of the word – “they are bringing the term into disrepute!” she exclaims.

Lambeth council’s recent policies on “short-life” housing in the borough also shows its failure to understand co-operative values. Last July, the Cabinet made the decision to sell off “short life” properties, which had been people’s homes in some cases for up to 40 years. Many of these properties are run in housing co-operatives so the “co-operative council” is currently selling off housing co-operatives and breaking up long established communities. This will have the effect of of exacerbating the London housing crisis as yet more public housing is lost to the private sector and the occupants need to be rehoused. Private Eye has also shown that Lambeth council has spent at least £175,000 on bills for legal firm Devonshire.

Julian Hall, who has lived in his house for ten years, and has elderly neighbours who have lived there for 40 years, describes how the reality of Lambeth’s “co-operative council” has “fallen way short…These housing co-operatives have been here for 40 years now and that’s as old, well almost as old, as some of the councillors who are making these decisions that don’t really have a good grasp of the issue really historically.” He explains how Lambeth council have failed to engage with the residents despite their “co-operative” claims, “it’s frustrating, I find the situation we’re in a little bit surreal because on a personal level the attachment I’ve made to my house and my community, I find it hard to get my head around it, but I have been campaigning since February, linking up with other co-ops. I just find it frustrating that it’s taken so long and been so hard to get people around the table to engage in a co-operative solution given the rhetoric, it’s dismay I suppose.”

The housing co-operatives have grouped together into a “Super Co-op” in order to oppose the council’s sell-off of public housing and to propose a truly co-operative solution under the name of Lambeth United Housing Co-op. They have gained the support of Lambeth MP Kate Hoey and even some of Lambeth Council’s own “Co-operative council commissioners”, one of whom has stated, “I think it is important that they understand how to deal with legitimate challenges such as the ones you have raised. If they do not understand how to do this, there will be no hope for the development of a Cooperative Council.” Another commissioner said, “Next time I see Steve, I am going to encourage him to get a grip on matters before the project loses its credibility.”

But has this project ever had any credibility? Steve Reed’s “co-operative council” has failed to live up to its rhetoric of shifting power to communities. From the council’s actions one wonders whether this was ever really their intention or whether they were simply seduced by their own rhetoric. As users of libraries and one o’clock clubs and housing co-operative members explained, their experience has seen the council reject their input and continue with a top-down power structure, closing down or selling off public resources in the name of empowerment. Cllr Nosegbe’s comment is revealing, “the key driving force behind that [the co-operative council] is to get more local people involved in the vision that we as councillors are making.” The vision is very much of the councillors’ making with local people’s participation limited to flawed consultations. As Sheldon summed it up, “The only co-operation going on here is with the national government’s cuts.”

Councillor Steve Reed and Councillor Lib Peck did not respond to my telephone calls, emails, or tweets – raising concerns about their understanding of accountability by their unwillingness to discuss their project.

‘Remploy factory workers strike to save jobs’ or ‘Brixton to Barking by bus’

19 Jul

I decided to travel from Brixton to Barking Remploy by bus in order to confirm for you that it’s probably best to take the train from Fenchurch Station in future or find a good cycle route. At times the 6 different buses I took provided me with a wonderful way of exploring a part of London I am not at all familiar with* – but the duration of 3 hours (I went in the wrong direction at one point which meant it took 6 bus journeys there rather than 5 had I not got lost) meant that by the time I arrived at Barking Remploy mid-afternoon, I’d missed the rally and the picketers were packing up and heading home.

Today’s strike and another strike next Thursday at Remploy factories across the country have been called in response to the government’s announcements that they will close down 27 Remploy factories putting more than 1,700 jobs at risk. The government claims that the factories are loss making and old fashioned. Yet, they don’t hesitate to subsidise their friends in the massively destructive banking sector to the tune of billions. In contrast, Remploy workers make things that are actually useful to society such as furniture for schools and libraries (and also Jaguar car parts and chemical warfare suits). And of course, the hypocrisy of the government cutting jobs when they have spent so much of their time bullying people for being unemployed is unbearable.

Those fighting against job losses are not doing so uncritically. Of course average salaries of £13,800 for shop floor workers do not recognise the time and effort that the workers give. Furthermore, there is the debate about workplace segregation. However, the reality for many workers if they are to lose their jobs, is much worse. As one of my friends who works at Remploy told me, ‘we’ll be put on the scrap heap’. He described his fears of ‘mainstream employment’ after his years of torment with bullying workers who in one incident set his trousers on fire and in another physically attacked him. He described his worries that he wouldn’t be able to live on benefits. And this is all too true in what has become, as Johnny Void puts it, ‘the most brutal manifestation of the Welfare State possibly ever seen in a developed economy’.

Despite arriving so late, I received a wonderful welcome from my friend who works there which made the bus journeys feel worth it. He told me excitedly how the day had been ‘out of this world…it’s been brilliant’. He told me how he had been telling the national media that ‘the government’s behaviour is disgusting and disgraceful’. He’d also done lots of shouting for the rally. Reflecting on the day and his commitment to saving their jobs, he remarked ‘I would stand outside for 24 hours if I had to’.



*Having managed to hide away from the Olympics in south London it was interesting to see their parasitical manifestation in east London – Community support police standing guard on Barking high street, Olympic staff in Olympic uniforms, a corner shop wall turned into a Coca Cola advert with the Olympic rings, bus stop signs warning of changes during the Olympics, a huge union flag on a flag pole at the entrance to a school, Anish Kapoor’s costly contorted metal protruding on east London’s horizon.

I was also interested to see the huge amount of boarded up buildings that we passed – particularly old pubs – this brought to mind Owen Hatherley’s comment from his talk on Journeys through Urban Britain (see blog post below) that the present government are embarking on a ‘project of destruction rather than construction’. There was one striking building that had once been a public baths but was now boarded up with steel – wonderfully located in east London a couple of miles away from the Olympic site revealing the government’s true attitude to sport for ordinary people.


A Simple Act…

15 Feb

Lambeth council have taken away free bus passes for the mentally ill. To them this may seem like a simple act to help make the cuts forced on them by national government. But this seemingly simple act reveals the callous and bullying approach that Lambeth council have taken in implementing these unnecessary and unjust cuts. They are choosing what they see to be an easy target to make pay for the cuts; for this isn’t the first attack on the mentally ill in Lambeth – the council have already closed down a centre providing vital services for the mentally ill.

The cuts to those suffering from mental illness are sickening acts and if we do not stand up against these, I strongly fear for what sort of society we have become – that we would deny something as small as a bus pass to the most vulnerable people, for whom this provides a lifeline. Lambeth council see this as a small cut, they do not see the tremendous pain that it will cause to those who depend on it as people’s homes become their prisons.

Lambeth council attempt to justify their abhorrent actions by claiming that their provision of free bus passes will remain one of the most generous of the London boroughs – but this simply reflects the high level of people suffering from mental health issues in the borough and actually supports the argument that we need to be doing more to address mental health in the borough rather than less. Lambeth’s high rates of people suffering from mental ill health, which is 12 times the national average, will no doubt increase as the cuts plunge more people into poverty and desperation. We should be investing money into running more mental health services for the entire community to promote mental well being and to support those dealing with mental illnesses.

But instead Lambeth council have chosen what they see to be the easy route – picking on a group who may find it more difficult to organise and speak out. They don’t appear to have predicted that this small act would enrage the rest of the community who refuse to be a part of a society which targets the most vulnerable with such bullying behaviour.

For me, the withdrawal of the bus pass has brought home to me the horrific realities of these cuts – both national and local – and the sinister ways in which they are falling on the most vulnerable.  I am disgusted by those who claim to represent us and urge everyone to resist these in the myriad ways that have and are being demonstrated. Following UK Uncut and Occupy London’s tactics, a particular emphasis on civil disobedience is necessary, as it seems now that only by taking direct action will we stop the cuts and ensure the simple and dignified act of providing bus passes for those who need them.

Join Lambeth Save Our Services demonstration outside Lambeth Town Hall on February 29th and keep in contact for further actions.

Stopping the Welfare Reform Bill

28 Jan

DPAC and UK Uncut protesters block busy West End road in action against the Welfare Reform Bill

Disabled People Against Cuts with the support of UK Uncut had called for this afternoon to be one of direct action against the welfare reform bill – an incredibly punitive bill which seeks to make the poorest and most vulnerable members of society pay for a crisis which they had no role in. Whenever I think about this bill, I am always absolutely horrified by it – that a government could ever seriously think that this is an acceptable thing to do – to actively cause harm to the people in our society who deserve additional support. I am baffled sometimes why the whole of the country is not out in the streets protesting against what the government are doing. Whilst the Lords are kicking up a fuss against the bill which is warmly welcomed- it is important that the rest of us take to the streets to show our opposition. The consequences of this bill are so serious that direct action is absolutely necessary.

We were to meet at Holborn Station at 11.30am to travel to a secret location. We piled into the tube station and emerged at Oxford Circus to join a group of protesters who had chained their wheelchairs together to form a road block across the top of Regent Street. This was a truly incredible act of direct action. As DPAC and UK Uncut noted, today the invisible would become unmissable as they confronted, and befriended, thousands of west end shoppers and brought the busy traffic to a halt. Hundreds of people moved in behind the road block and took over the street for the afternoon to come together in solidarity against the government’s welfare reform bill – demanding that this bill be stopped. Seeing these people chained together in a determination to have their voices heard was inspiring – I’m a complete wimp of an activist and it was incredibly poignant to see people show such courage. But, as a woman points out in John Domokos’ wonderful video of the day (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2012/jan/28/welfare-reforms-protest-oxford-circus ), it was also sad and shameful that they had to take to the streets in the first place.

There was a brilliant atmosphere on our people-filled road – a samba band played, people danced, people chanted, people talked together. Whilst the atmosphere was upbeat and determined, the space was full of lots emotions – for some, this was their first protest and so understandably it was quite a scary experience for them. In John’s video, one woman described how she had had to prepare all week in order to come to the action. To be amongst such determined and friendly people was a wonderful experience – even the police seemed won over – we overheard them saying ‘let’s just leave them’. (Although later on they did attempt to move our group on – they spoke through a megaphone, which as one protester pointed out made them sound like a duck, furthermore, as another protester pointed out, they did not communicate the message in sign language.) A community megaphone was passed around and one man started chanting ‘we’re all together’ – it was incredibly moving because this was exactly what our action was showing. In the middle of a space dedicated to pointless consumption, we were demonstrating the other values which we hold in society – caring, friendship, and community – these are our tools that we will use to stop the cuts.

This incredible direct action is a strong message to the government that we will not accept their welfare reform bill – they cannot ignore us. And if they do, well, we’ll be out on the streets again, and with growing numbers.