Seize, occupy, requisition
Eddie Ford welcomes Jeremy Corbyn’s militant approach to the housing crisis
So far the death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire remains at 79, but the true figure is expected to be higher. Indeed, some believe that the real number of people killed is for the moment being covered up by the authorities. David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, told the BBC’s Newsnight that people are saying to him that there could have been “civil unrest” if the true figures had been released immediately.1
Not exactly exuding faith in the powers that be, Lammy also urged the prime minister to immediately obtain all pertinent documents (emails, minutes of meetings, correspondence with contractors, safety assessments, specifications and reports, etc) before they get destroyed or ‘lost’. For Lammy, it is imperative that “everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law” - as “we may find that there is blood on the hands of a number of organisations”.
Meanwhile, frustrated by the slow progress being made by the various bodies investigating the fire - or maybe suspicious of their motives - a new residents’ group of 86 families, called Grenfell United, has been formed on WhatsApp to begin a parallel or alternative investigation by compiling a list of the victims and survivors of the fire. The founder of the group, Sajad Jamalvatan, who lived on the third floor of the block, said he was trying to organise a meeting between the council and all the survivors in one place, but that it was proving difficult to arrange: “They don’t want to face 400 people in a room. They prefer to deal with us individually”. And another grassroots survivors’ group has been setup, Justice 4 Grenfell, which is also attempting to establish an accurate list of those who died.
Whatever the truth of allegations made by Lammy et al, the Grenfell fire - started by a faulty fridge-freezer - has exposed the appalling living conditions that millions of people have to endure in today’s Britain. Ignored, neglected and abused, their lives are at risk every day, whilst a pampered minority enjoy an opulent lifestyle almost worthy of a Roman emperor - delivered to them by the very British cult of ‘home ownership’. At one stage, TV was dominated by near endless programmes about how to buy or sell your property - at insufferable dinner parties you heard about hardly anything else. Your house was just another financial asset.
Telling us all we need to know, at the time of writing safety checks on 120 blocks in 37 areas in England have had a 100% failure rate - a sort of grisly consistency. All the tests conducted so far, it seems, have been on local authority-owned blocks rather than private buildings - though samples of cladding are now being sought from schools and hospitals as well. The NHS has identified as many as 30 hospital trusts in England that have cladding made of material similar to that used at Grenfell or about which there are other unresolved fire safety concerns - nine hospitals deemed to be at “greatest risk” are now receiving support from the regulator, NHS Improvement.
Scarily, at the weekend hundreds of residents were evacuated from five high-rise blocks in Camden - with residents on the Chalcots estate in Swiss Cottage woken during the middle of the night and told to leave immediately, after the council said it could not guarantee their safety - cladding similar to that on Grenfell Tower had been found.2 The confused residents were asked to find alternative accommodation or report to a local leisure centre, where hundreds of mattresses had been laid out - others were offered hotel rooms for the night. Less than reassuringly, a government spokesman said there was a “particular set of circumstances” in Camden, as inspections had also found that hundreds of fire doors were “missing” - despite that, some residents refused to leave.
Theresa May has ordered a “major” national inquiry into the disaster, on top of the previously announced public inquiry. Grenfell residents have written to the prime minister demanding the investigation leaves “no stone unturned” - it “must identify each and every individual and organisation who must bear responsibility and accountability for this tragedy and the mishandling of the aftermath”. There must be “swift recommendations”, it continues, to “ensure there can be no chance of a repeat of this disaster elsewhere”. As far as we can tell at the moment, the central cause of the fire was the gap between the cladding and the insulation acting like a chimney to spread the fire.3
The police are now considering manslaughter charges in relation to the inferno, stating that documents and materials had been seized from a number of organisations. But no-one has been questioned yet, as it was “too early” in the investigation. Using far stronger language, John McDonnell, speaking at Glastonbury - now seemingly the natural venue for senior Labour politicians - said the Grenfell victims had been “murdered by political decisions”. This was a natural consequence of what happens when you “view housing as only for financial speculation rather than for meeting a basic human need”. With monstrous hypocrisy, MPs and the rightwing press have accused McDonnell of “politicising” the disaster!
Responding to the crisis, Jeremy Corbyn said the government should seize or requisition empty homes to house residents of Grenfell Tower. According to the department for communities and local government, the latest figures for Kensington and Chelsea, the borough in which Grenfell is situated, reveal there are 1,399 vacant dwellings as of April 2017 - and the number has not dropped below a thousand for over a decade (in fact, obscenely, some homes have lain empty for up to 15 years).4 Given that 600 people ‘officially’ lived in Grenfell Tower, though the actual number could be higher, there are more than enough empty homes in the borough to house them all.
Interestingly, though hardly surprisingly, we also discover from Kensington’s housing and property scrutiny committee that the area is plagued by offshore owners with names like ‘Property International Holdings Ltd’ - based in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda or Jersey - and that a huge swathe of this area, spanning most of the properties between Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, has been in the possession of the Earl Cadogan family for over 300 years.5
Anyhow, the Labour leader said that he was “very angry” that so many people had lost their lives in the blaze. After listening to flannel from various government ministers about Grenfell being a “national tragedy”, etc, Corbyn demanded urgent action. “Kensington is a tale of two cities,” he said, with the southern area the wealthiest part of the whole country - whilst the north, where Grenfell Tower is situated, is the poorest ward in the whole country. “It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future, while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live.” Corbyn then made the call to “requisition” nearby expensive properties to ensure Grenfell residents were housed locally. He noted that if emergency accommodation could be found for stranded airline passengers, then the victims of Grenfell Tower should get similar support: “Somehow or other, it seems to be beyond the wit of the public services to deal with the crisis facing a relatively small number of people in a country of 65 million,” he said.
Then a few days later, the Labour leader struck an even more radical note: “There are a large number of deliberately kept vacant flats and properties all over London - it’s called landbanking. People with a lot of money buy a house, buy a flat, keep it empty” - what some people call the ‘buy to leave’ market. Corbyn’s response was: “Occupy it, compulsory purchase it, requisition it” - there are a “lot of things you can do”. He went on to say: “It’s all very well putting our arms round people during the crisis, but homelessness is rising, the housing crisis is getting worse.” Encouragingly, McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others in the Labour Party have backed Corbyn’s stance.
Communists welcome the Labour leader’s militant call to expropriate empty and unused properties, which stands in healthy contrast to recent accommodating noises to the right - such as the complete nonsense about keeping Trident, but without nuclear missiles. Obviously, we also welcome the fact that grassroots organisations are being set up to defend the rights and interests of Grenfell residents, and all those in a similar situation - direct action from below is only to be encouraged and supported. Obviously, Tory politicians and the rightwing press are outraged by these attacks on the sanctity of private property. One horrified government minister told The Daily Telegraph that the Labour leadership is “on the cusp of encouraging insurrection”. The same paper commented that Corbyn’s call to seize rich people’s houses for Grenfell victims “shows his true, disturbing nature” (June 16) and informs us that the Labour Party’s “disregard for property rights is extraordinarily worrying” - but is “significant for confirming what many of us long suspected”: that the Labour leader “holds the concept of private property - a necessary foundation of our prosperity and freedom - in disdain” (June 23). With absolute predictability, but no less disgustingly for that, Theresa May flatly rejected Corbyn’s demand to requisition empty houses - a spokeswoman for the prime minister saying that “we don’t support proposals to seize private property”.
A ‘just right’
Alas, I do not think the Labour leadership is about to embark on a full-scale frontal assault on private property rights - but, from our perspective, it is madness to expect that capitalism can fulfil the basic human need for shelter. However, Corbyn and Abbott were totally right to suggest - at least implicitly - that vacant properties should be squatted to provide housing for those made homeless by the fire or evacuations. Taking matters into our own hands has a long history in Britain - something that deserves to be celebrated, whether during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or the Diggers in the 17th Century. They occupied disused common land and cultivated it collectively on the basis, as Gerrard Winstanley said, that “the poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man”.6
Often, of course, squatting is a matter of sheer necessity, rather than the product of an egalitarian philosophy - such as after World War II, when so many returning ‘heroes’ found themselves homeless. The severe post-war housing crisis was even worse than that of 1918, and one of the greatest challenges faced by the new Attlee administration.7 The demands of wartime production meant that house-building almost came to a halt for the duration, while the population needing homes grew - and in World War II there was the additional factor of damage to the housing stock from air raids. The number of usable houses fell by 400,000 between 1939 and 1945.
Under the leadership of the Communist Party a huge squatting movement developed. In July and August 1946 former RAF and army camps were targeted. Families moved into Nissen huts. Occupation committees were elected to oversee repairs. The CPGB demanded that the authorities lay on gas, water and electricity. In many areas the squatters got the backing of the local Labour council and MP. In October 1946, Aneurin Bevan reported to the Commons that 1,038 camps in England and Wales were occupied by 39,535 people.
The second wave came in early September 1946. This action, termed the ‘Great Sunday Squat’, dominated the media for weeks. In London CPGB councillor and district secretary Ted Bramley led 1,500 homeless people in an invasion of vacant luxury flats in the Tory-controlled boroughs of Kensington, Pimlico and St John’s Wood. Stepney councillor Tubby Rosen took a hundred homeless families into Duchess of Bedford House in leafy Holland Park. Lord Ilchester’s mansion came next. Another CPGB councillor, Joyce Alergant, took hundreds of homeless people into a vacant block of flats formerly occupied by US soldiers.
The Labour cabinet did not approve. The squatting “has been instigated and organised by the Communist Party and must result in hindering rather than helping the arrangements made for the orderly rehousing of those in need of accommodation”. Orders were issued for eviction and the cutting off of gas, electricity and water supplies. Five CPGB councillors were charged with “conspiring to incite and direct trespass” - not wanting to turn them into martyrs, the judge bound them over for good behaviour.
There was a tactical retreat from the more high-profile occupations, Nonetheless, under mass pressure local authorities began to requisition empty properties and find accommodation for the squatters. Many thousands stayed on in the former RAF and army camps for years afterwards.
The lesson for 2017 is obvious. Tenants groups, left organisation, trade unions, local Constituency Labour Parties need to defy the law - and the sacred rights of property - and house the homeless through occupying vacant flats and houses. Follow the lead of the 1946 CPGB ... and Jeremy Corbyn.
More generally, as laid out in the CPGB’s Draft programme (section 3.8), our demands should include:
- a “massive revival of council and other social house-building programmes”;
- council and social housing “must be high-quality, energy-efficient and with spacious rooms”;
- accommodation must be “allocated on the basis of need and rents set at a token level” with “life-long tenure”;
- “communal housing schemes with shared services, gardens, swimming pools, gyms, etc should be included as part of the mix of housing options”;
- all housing estates and blocks of flats “should be democratically run by tenants in conjunction with the local authorities and relevant trade unions”;
- a “publicly-owned building corporation” must be established “to ensure that planned targets for house-building are reached and to provide permanent employment and ongoing training for building workers”.8
- using must be ripped away from the grasp of sharks and profiteers. Housing is a need just like education and health. It should be considered a “just right”.
6. From True commonwealth’s freedom c1649.
7. See H Webber, ‘A domestic rebellion: the squatters’ movement of 1946’ Ex Historia No4, pp125-46.