News on Hackney from Corporate Watch website

A summary of what’s been happening in Hackney recently from the Corporate Watch organisation.

Community activists in Hackney are fighting vested interests and a deafening press silence in an attempt to stop the debt-ridden and notoriously corrupt council from destroying the fabric of the borough.

The council is selling off hundreds of properties in response to government demands to sort out its finances. They range from houses and flats to community centres, playgrounds and green spaces, nurseries and shops. A school was also originally included on the list but was withdrawn after the council discovered they weren’t allowed to sell it. It currently stands empty. The properties for sale are expected to be snapped up by developers keen to cash in on Hackney’s ongoing gentrification while services for the local community suffer.

Cuts are also being made in other areas ­ attacks on council workers’ pay and conditions have been intense, with pay cuts of up to £1500/year and cuts in overtime, shift allowances and flexibility.

In the midst of all this, the council is reported to be pushing plans to pave over the Town Hall Square, at a cost of £1m, £600,000 of which is taken from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund ­ cut straight from the budget of services such as playgrounds, law centres, youth projects, arts and ethnic minority support groups which are of vital benefit to the people of Hackney. The square currently contains trees and flowerbeds and, while in need of some renovation, is hardly the most pressing priority for a council in Hackney’s dire straits.

The campaign against the cuts and sell-offs is gathering pace. Activists began by squatting an empty shop and setting up a spoof estate agent with information on the properties being sold off. This was followed, on 12th October, by an occupation of the offices of Nelson Bakewell, the real estate agent dealing with the sales, calling for them to withdraw all Hackney Council properties from the auction on the 15th. The auction went ahead, but with paranoid-level security and a lively demo outside leafletting passers-by and potential bidders. Inside, the auction was disrupted by local residents complaining at the selling off of services. The disruption focussed on the sale of Atherden Road Nursery, which was closed earlier this year, then occupied and re-opened by protesting parents (Hackney is currently short of around 1,000 nursery places). To end the occupation, the council lied to the parents and said they would keep the nursery open. The next month the council closed it. It was then occupied by people who reopened it as a much needed community centre. They were evicted after 3 months. The council lied in court and said that it would not be sold. When the bidding finally started, the price was pushed up wildly by two campaigners bidding against each other, who were eventually removed when the auctioneers twigged. However, instead of re-starting the bidding, the auctioneers simply accepted the highest genuine bid (considerably higher than the site had been expected to fetch). [not sure if this is true – thre are reports of lower bid being accepted – anyone know for sure?]

Meanwhile, council gardeners and estate cleaners objected to the cuts in wages and jobs by staging a one-day wildcat strike on October 12th, coinciding with the occupation of Nelson Bakewell estate agents. One worker said, ‘People don’t know how much they’re earning or how long they’re going to have a job,’ ­ hardly surprising that morale’s down the tube, then. The same worker said there was a feeling that Hackney council want to run an experiment in having a council with no in-house services. Earlier attempts to split services up into ‘trading units’ running an ‘internal market’ led to the collapse of several departments and many job losses as a result of fragmentation, increased bureaucracy and loss of econommies of scale ­ since those units that were successful got no encouragement it was suspected then that the ‘internal market’ was merely an excuse to increase contracting-out.

The council’s attitude to transparency is shown by the events around the council meeting on 25th September. A special meeting was called to debate cuts to funding for voluntary community groups, after the Regeneration Committee had been unable to debate the cuts because all of its members declared a conflict of interest [at least they declared it. Ed]. The published agenda for the meeting said it would concern rescinding of standing order 40 ­ no mention of cuts and you’d have to be fairly well up on jargon or in the original failed meeting to know what it meant. The meeting was scheduled for 10pm, but was moved to 8.30. After a number of councillors had withdrawn, declaring interests, the council moved directly to a vote with no debate. The entire Labour contingent voted in favour of the motion (i.e. in favour of the cuts which could force some voluntary organisations to close. Other councillors challenged the proceedings, particularly the absnce of a debate, but got nowhere.

Meanwhile, good news that Hackney’s schools are to be handed over to a non-profit making trust when the current PFI contract with Nord Anglia expires next July. Although the new body will include a school governor and two headteachers, there have been complaints that it will contain no classroom teachers.

Contact: Hackney not for Sale! 07950 539 254