Estates Plus secret Agenda?

(Hackney Gazette 19th June 2008)

I’m confused.

Hackney Council spent an enormous amount of money on consultation fees and publicity to convince residents that the only way we were going to get “Decent Homes” was by agreeing to transfer to a housing association, or by way of a Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO). They got the second of their preferred options, the ALMO now called Hackney Homes, and now appear to have a secret agenda to obstruct Hackney Homes from obtaining the required two stars that will release funds from central government to complete the Decent Homes programme in the forthcoming audit by the Audit Commission.

Despite enormous opposition from residents the council, not Hackney Homes, persists in going ahead with its Estates Plus programme.

This programme calls for “under-used land on estates to be sold off to housing associations for development.

What is “under-used land”? It is our green spaces and play areas.

Excuse me councillors, our green spaces and play areas are not under-used. They are an essential part of our estates and environment.

Furthermore it is not your land to dispose of. It belongs to all the residents of Hackney, be they Hackney Homes residents, or not. It is held in trust for future generations. We the current residents of the estates are just the guardians of the land.

Question three on the ballot paper on Decent Homes posed: Were residents in favour of land on estates being used to build on. The answer to this question? Twenty-nine per cent in favour, 66 per cent opposed.

I venture to suggest that were the same question asked today the result would be an even more resounding “no”. Are you really encouraging mass protest by residents just before the audit?

If Hackney Homes fails yet again to obtain two stars following the audit, are you planning to hold a further ballot that will disenfranchise a large proportion of residents by limiting it to one vote per household? (By itself a total abuse of all democratic procedures and principals).

I ask again councillors: Do you have a secret agenda? Is this a ploy to so frustrate residents that they will vote for a transfer to a housing association in order to get Decent Homes and thus allow the council to avoid any responsibility for the 20-odd years of total neglect of our homes?

It certainly appears so.

Finally. No, I am not being a NIMBY. Aspland and Marcon estates are not part of the Estates Plus programme.

Tony Osborne, Secretary,

Aspland & Marcon Court

Estates Tenants’ & Residents’ Association.

An exchange of letters about the BNP in Hackney Gazette

Published in Hackney Gazette 15 May 2008

Like the vast majority of Londoners, I was shocked and disgusted by the news that the Nazi BNP had secured a seat on the London Assembly in the May 1 elections. Unlike your correspondent Dave Young (Matters of Opinion, May 8), I don’t think the blame for the advance of the BNP lies with political campaigners of legitimate parties who contested the elections.

The BNP themselves were careful to hide their Nazi beliefs behind a mask of moderation. A lazy media let them get away with it.

A few times in the London Assembly campaign that mask slipped and the true nature of the BNP peeped out. In April, for example, the views of Nick Eriksen – second on the list of the BNP’s candidates for the London Assembly – revealed his views on women and rape when he argued that: “Rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal. To suggest that rape, when conducted without violence, is a serious crime is like suggesting that force feeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence. A woman would be more inconvenienced by having her handbag snatched.”

But outrageous comments like these were largely ignored by the media. Indeed the political advance of the BNP has been prepared for by forces outside of their ranks.

The media – in particular the national tabloids – bear a heavy responsibility for the BNP’s success. For well over a decade the British national press, and the tabloids in particular, have run front page after front page attacking refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. This coverage has been overwhelmingly negative and its cumulative effect has been to create a corrosive “commonsense” in people that immigration is a “bad” thing. It has de-humanised immigrants and has made them scapegoats for the government’s inadequate social policies. It has prepared a racist climate in which the BNP have thrived.

In addition, media Islamophobia – the press’s own contribution to the “war on terror” – has fuelled suspicion of all Muslims which has given the Nazis confidence to organise.

But while the BNP might have fooled some people into voting for them, London is not a racist city. The vast majority of voters did not vote BNP. The white working class has a proud record of unity with black and brown workers.

We live alongside each other, we marry and live with each other, we have children together and our shared history, from the Chartists to the Anti-Nazi League, is one of unity against racism and the racists.

The key to stopping the BNP is activity. It’s no good sitting back and waiting for others to campaign and mobilise against them.

Time to stand up and be counted.

Sasha Simic, West Bank,

Stamford Hill.

Published in Hackney Gazette 22 May 2008

Sacha Simic, the Hackney spokesperson for the Socialist Workers Party, makes two claims in the gazette ( 15/05/08), both of which fly in the face of both progressive thinking and, in fact, reality.

He quite rightly identifies the BNP as a party that poses a threat to decent people. In my mind they are a danger to the working classes of this country because they seek to divide us all in terms of race. But he then ridiculously suggests their rise is down to the media and that, incredibly, the established parties are NOT to blame!

He says, “I don’t think the blame for the rise of the BNP lies with political campaigners of legitimate parties who contested the elections”

This is clearly nonsense. Of course, the media are usually lame at identifying the hard-core views of the BNP (although we should applaud the stand taken by the Gazette in resisting BNP advertising), but to lay it all at their door is risible.

The rise of the BNP, as groups like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Barking Labour MP John Cruddas have shown, is almost entirely down to the abandonment of the interests of ordinary people by the establishment parties.

To oppose the BNP we need a political opposition that actually engages with people’s real and immediate interests. The Left for which Sacha speaks, in the fight against the BNP, is as much to blame for having abandoned the working class as much as New Labour. When will the Left that he represents begin to engage directly with issues like crime, anti-social behaviour, lack of affordable housing and, dare I say it, the social impact of immigration. These are issues that affect people – irrespective of race – and on which they cast their votes.

If the Left wants to challenge the BNP it needs to find a way of addressing these issues; instead of which they reveal their impotence by dodging such ‘politically incorrect’ subjects and simply blaming the media. The fault lies exactly with the “legitimate parties who contested the elections”.

Carl Taylor – Hackney Independent
(from the Hackney Gazette 5 June 2008)

Carl Taylor (Gazette, May 22) puts forward a very fashionable arguement in his analysis of the advance of the Nazi BNP. It is the arguement that the Nazis are growing because the left have “abandoned the working-class” and will not engage with “people’s real and immediate interests”.

Mr Taylor then lists these issuesm naming “crime, anti-social behaviour, lack of affordable housing” and, to his shame, “the social impact of immigration”.

He’s wrong. Genuine Socialists are not responsible in any way for the rise of the Nazi BNP.

For decades now, the political establishment, and their mouthpieces in the media, have glorified the free market and watched as the rich have grown richer and the poor poorer. They have spent the last 30 years – Tory and New Labour alike – attacking the welfare state and have then used immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees as scapegoats for the social chaos which has followed.

This has opened up the space for racist organisations like the BNP. Things have got to such a state that a recent report by the Independent Asylum Commission argued that the word “asylum” should be phased out when used in relation to foreigners seeking shelter in Britain.

After decades of attacks in the gutter press, and by New Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem politicians, only 28 per cent of people polled viewed the term “asylum” as positive. The commission recommended that the term “sanctuary” should replace it.

A “commonsense” has been built that immigration and immigrants are a “bad” thing. From the tone of his letter, it’s a commonsense Mr Taylor seems to share. It’s this myth that has allowed the Nazi BNP to flourish.

Socialists will not give an inch to this argument. Immigrants are not responsible for the lack of social housing. lmmigrants are not to blame for crime or for the privatisation of the NHS or for the lack of facilities for working-class youth.

Working-class people are faced with a choice. Encouraged by the neo-liberals, we can turn on each other in our fight for a decent life.

Last week’s news highlighted the horrific consequences of this path. In South Africa, the desperate poor have turned on equally destitute refugees fleeing from Zimbabwe. Poor South Africans have attacked immigrants for taking “their” jobs and using “their” services. In the last two weeks, anti-immigrant violence has killed more than 50 people.

Meanwhile, the neo-fascist Northern League, who now control 120 councils in Italy, are leading viscous and bloody attacks on immigrants and Roma people. It’s a terrible warning of what could happen here if we don’t stop the Nazi BNP.

The other choice the working-class have, one which Socialist work for, is that we unite as a class to fight for the things we all need for a decent life.

If the money’s there for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the money’s there for council houses.

If the money’s there for Trident nuclear weapons, the money’s there for decent pensions. If the money’s there to bail out Northern Rock, the money’s there for youth clubs for our kids.

Far from having “abandoned the working-class”, Socialist argue for the unity of the class against our common enemy.

Last year the fat cats in the City paid themselves a total of £7.4 billion in bonuses with 4,000 of them getting at least a cool million on top of their salaries.

In April, Shell announced quarterly profits of £3.9 billion and BP declared profits of £3.31 billion. This is where the resources lie to answer “people’s real and immediate interests”.

The BNP can be fought and thrown back into the gutter they came from, but to do so the working-class will need to be united. Sectarian sneering by the likes of Mr Taylor does nothing but help the Nazis.

Sasha Simic,

Hackney Socialist Workers’ Party,

(from Hackney Gazette 5 June 2008)

YOU have published letters about the election of a BNP member of the London Assembly from two far-left groups which totally misrepresent what actually happened generally but particularly in Hackney.

I was the Hackney co-ordinator of the national anti-BNP campaign, Hope Not Hate, which was a joint effort between Searchlight, the Daily Mirror and trades unions. The tactic in London was to get the vote up to dilute the BNP vote by distributing anti-BNP literature at targeted areas and groups.

Twenty-five-thousand copies of a 650,000-run, eight-page tabloid newspaper were distributed by Hackney Labour Party and trades unions. I delivered 5,000 to Cllr Patrick Vernon alone. I came home one night to find that my local councillor, Dan Kemp, had, in covering his entire ward, put one through my door when I had thousands in the garage.

On April 29, the same activists distributed a special leaflet at all of the railway stations in Hackney reaching thousands more voters. While all this was going on, there was no sign of Sasha Simic, of the SWP/UAF/Respect, or Carl Taylor, of Hackney Independent, formerly The Independent Working Class Association, which is a split from the SWP.

It is easy to sit in a pub scoring points off the opposition and passing motions and I have written here before that that is all the Che Guevaras of E8 seem to do, but it doesn’t get people out to vote.

Thanks to all those who turned out in some terrible weather to hold back the most successful party of the far right that we have seen in several generations and to the Gazette for not printing the paid-for BNP advert

Terry Fitzpatrick,

(from Hackney Gazette 12 June 2008)

I would like to respond to the criticisms of Hackney Independent’s position with regard to the electoral success of the BNP made by Terry Fitzpatrick (Hope Not Hate) and Sasha Simic (Socialist Workers’ Party) in last week’s Gazette (June 5).

Terry made the allegation that Hackney Independent were “E8 Che-Guevaras” and a split from the Socialist Workers’ Party. If he genuinely believes that, then I can understand where he is coming from, but he is wrong on both counts.

Hackney Independent grew out of the long struggles against the BNP in the 1990s. Our older members have been involved in anti-fascist activism for two decades or more. When the BNP stopped marching and turned to “respectable” electoral politics, we realised that it was necessary to attempt to provide an alternative to the BNP and to the policies of the mainstream political parties in working-class areas. Hackney Independent has never had any connection with the Socialist Workers’ Party. Indeed the SWP, I’m sure, would wish to distance themselves from us.

Instead of mobilising in a panic every four years to combat the BNP with a few newsletters and music festivals, and sitting comfortably in our armchairs in between times, we have worked consistently for 10 years trying to build a pro-working-class form of community politics in Hackne, and have worked with others to encourage the establishment of similar groups in other parts of the country.

We think it is legitimate, therefore, for us to argue that both the fire-fighting tactics of Hope Not Hate and the out-of-touch antics of the SWP and the rest of the Socialist Left is a pointless way of addressing the very real threat posed by the BNP.

Terry can call that armchair sectarianism if he likes, but I would call it trying to persuade other anti-fascist activists that we think they have got it wrong.

And this is where I think Mr Simic and his Socialist friends continue to blindly argue that 2+2=5.

It is incontestable that large numbers of the people who voted BNP in the recent London elections, and who have elected BNP councillors in Barking & Dagenham, for example, were once Labour voters. They are not all hard-core Nazi converts. They have turned against Labour, and against the “Socialist alternative’ because, as he rightly points out, Labour have failed to address the issues that matter to working-class people.

And so we come to immigration. Mr Simic couldn’t resist trotting out (if you’ll forgive the pun) the idea that even to acknowledge that immigration is having a social impact is somehow giving ground to the BNP. I would argue that to leave the field open to the BNP and the right-wing media when it comes to addressing the question of immigration is what really gives ground to the BNP.

Why can’t the Left acknowledge the fact that in many areas the social infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the large amounts of immigration that it has been asked to support? Why do they say that it is somehow racist to point this out? What is wrong in saying, as Hackney Independent and others have, that immigrant labour should be organised and unionised, both to protect exploited workers and to integrate them into the labour movement, and to protect the job prospects and wages of workers here? What is wrong in demanding that the government provide additional resources to areas where immigration is putting pressure on welfare, health and education services?

If “Socialists” were to take seriously the concerns of working people, instead of spouting dogma or burying their heads in the sand whenever anything slightly reactionary threatens, then perhaps they could begin to contribute something.

It is possible that communities can be united around campaigns to improve their own lives and the lives of immigrants instead of voting New Labour, Tory or for the BNP, all of whose policies are detrimental to our interests. I am sure that that is what both Mr Fitzpatrick and Mr Simic would like to see.

Unfortunately, neither of the strategies they are currently pursuing is going to make any progress towards this. They have been tried before and have failed. Our’s may fail as well at the end of the day, but it won’t be for want of listening to what people have to say and trying to do something practical about it.

Carl Taylor,

Hackney Independent

(Hackney Gazette, 19 June 2008)

Over the last few issues there have been a number of letters printed from myself and others concerning the strategy and tactics best used against the British National Party.

I had thought I had made my final comment on the subject, but as Sasha Simic, of Hackney SWP, and Carl Taylor, of Hackney Independent have chosen to attack me by name in your last edition (June 12) I feel I must respond, for the last time.

Your readers could be forgiven for thinking that there are three rival countrywide anti-fascist organisations competing in strategy and tactics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr Taylor has delusions of grandeur. He must know that his handful of people resemble the Judean Popular Front, or was it the Popular Front of Judea, in Life of Brian? John Cleese#s Brother Reg could have been modelled on him.

Sasha Simic represents a bigger group, or rather collection of front organisations. He is being economical with the truth when he claims that the SWP front, Unite Against Fascism, has done anything whatsoever except talk a good fight against the BNP.

Hope Not Hate is a mass nationwide alliance of community organisations, trades unions, religious groups and thousands of individuals. The strategy has been multi-faceted as the BNP use different strategies in different parts of the country. What they are doing in Stoke is different to the tactics in Dagenham. What is common is getting out into communities where the BNP are active, exposing their lies, pointing out the uselessness of their councillors and offering alternatives.

This is unglamourous, hard work and, in some areas, dangerous. There are dozens of recorded assaults on anti-fascists taking the fight to the BNP on to estates where they are strong.

I have told UAF/SWP activists to their faces that they are too cowardly to do this kind of work and lack the community connections that make it possible in the first place.

UAF/SWP have actually denounced us as “pandering” to the BNP by knocking on doors in places like Barking and Dagenham and talking to people who have voted for the facists.

It is total hypocrisy for either Mr Simic or Mr Taylor to claim that they have done anything whatsoever, except talk, to hold back the BNP.

An example of the grandstanding tactics of Mr Simic and Co is the ridiculous march against racism to be held on Saturday.

Having done nothing whatsoever to stop Richard Barnbrook being elected to the London Assembly, they are now having a musical procession through the West End to demand that he be ejected from City Hall, something which is legally impossible.

I have no doubt that the tourists and shoppers watching along the route will be entertained, but think they would be far more effective if they had had their march around the two wards in Barking and Dagenham where the BNP are standing in by-elections on July 3.

Hope Not Hate leafleted the area on Sunday and there will be two more days of action this coming Saturday and Sunday.

Volunteers are needed and the meeting place is Chadwell Heath station at 11am on each day. The days of waving lollipops and chanting “Nazi scum off our streets” are long gone as is thinking that by referring to the Battle of Cable Street something is being done to challenge the most successful party of the far right in a generation.

There are three articles by the editor of Searchlight, Nick Lowles, spelling out the threat we all face which can be read in the current edition of the magazine on line at For continual updates of the movement, visit

That really is my final word, unless, of course, Bruver Reg/Rick in The Young Ones/Citizen Smith/Dave Spart, also known as Messrs Simic and Taylor, want to carry on making fools of themselves!

Terry Fitzpatrick,



(Hackney Gazette 26 June 2008)

Dear Editor, I hope you will allow a final response to Terry Fitzpatrick’s letter (Gazette, 19 June 2008) in this ongoing debate about strategies to challenge the British National Party (BNP).

It’s a shame that Terry has chosen to caricature Hackney Independent’s contribution to the debate about anti-BNP strategy in Monty-Python ‘Life of Brian’ terms; and incidentally not even address any of the arguments we put forward.

Hackney Independent shares his concerns about the lollypop-waving antics of the Socialist Workers Party’s various front groups.  It is unfair of him to lump us together and pretend that what we have to say isn’t worth listening to.  In doing so he ignores the fact that what we are suggesting is not only very different, but also not a million miles away from what his own organisation is beginning to discuss.

We would not deny that Hope Not Hate have put an enormous amount of effort into combating the BNP, making alliances with trade unions and local groups, etc, in the areas in which the BNP have contested elections.  Where we have a problem with the Hope Not Hate strategy is that it concentrates its response to the BNP during election campaigns, for example its “2008 Anti-Fascist Fortnight” campaign. 

We believe that building consistent, long-term, community campaigns that address people’s genuine concerns about local problems could more effectively undermine the BNP.  To focus on a fortnight of activity to “fire-fight” the BNP where they have already established themselves is crisis management and, moreover, non-sustainable.

In fact Nick Lowles, the Editor of Searchlight, which organises Hope Not Hate, has recently acknowledged that the kind of strategy that Hackney Independent has argued for is partly the way forward. 
In a recent article in Searchlight magazine (“Where Now?” June 2008) Nick Lowles says, “unless we do something radically different the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better… It is also clear that a simple Hope Not Hate message is insufficient… We need to replace empty slogans with substance, and that means involving ourselves in the community as never before… A good functioning local group … needs to be community-orientated, broad-based and non-dogmatic. It needs to be able to address local issues and concerns while having roots within the community.”

(You can read the full article on Searchlight’s website.)

I don’t pretend to agree with everything that Nick Lowles has to say in his article, and Terry Fitzpatrick may not agree with him either; but it clearly demonstrates that even Terry’s own organisation is taking seriously the most important aspects of the argument that Hackney Independent has been making. Perhaps anti-fascists could begin to make progress if we concentrated on the substance of important debates like this one without evasion and name-calling.

Carl Taylor, Hackney Independent

An exchange of letters about Nandos in the Hackney Gazette

published in Hackney Gazette 1 May 2008

Dear Editor

After reading your coverage of the campaign by a group of middle-class nimbys to protest the opening of a Nandos in Stoke Newington Church Street, (a devastating proposition that certainly overshadows the need to protest the closure of Stoke Newington Road Post Office) I checked out their website to discover where you could sign their petition.

 “…you can sign the pledge at four shops on Church Street, at The Tea Rooms, Olive Loves Alfie, Casino and the Camia Deli.”

Where, I wonder can we sign a pledge against these exclusive, overpriced and useless shops?

Carl Taylor
Hackney Independent

published in the Hackney Gazette, 15 May 2008

Having read the letter, “Not in my exclusive backyard”, from Carl Taylor, in the Gazette on May 1, I would like to exercise a right of reply on behalf of the campaign he mentions in his letter.

The streets of our towns and cities have suffered grievously at the hands of the so-called “planners” and “developers” in the past 20 years. They have been made so bland, homogenised and completely identikit, that stepping on to one you would be hard-pushed to know whether you were in Scotland, Cornwall or any point in between, so utterly have they been eviscerated of character and individuality.

This is, very fortunately, still not quite true of Stoke Newington, and is it this that forms the basis of the campaign. The campaign is about making sure that small, independent retailers keep their fingertips clinging to the rock face of survival, not having them stamped all over by the large chains.

As for the way Mr Taylor tries to smugly and patronisingly use the term “middle-class nimbys” as some sort of put-down, there are two main rebuttals.

Firstly, the close-on 1,500 signatories to the campaign’s petition, from residents and businesses alike, cover the complete spectrum of our community in terms of age, race, class and sex. Had Mr Taylor bothered to look into the facts of the matter, rather than just react with a blind prejudice that says much more about him than about our campaign, he would have discovered this.

Secondly, his rather crass comments fall into the trap of the ad hominem argument, attacking the people making the argument instead of the argument itself. The campaign is asking those who live in the area to use their collective power to stop one of the best-loved streets in London from being denuded of all that makes it so special and turned into another clone of every main street from Paisley to Penzance.

Mr Taylor clearly seems concerned about the closure of “Stoke Newington Road post office”, too. However, with pointless and witless sarcasm, he seems to suggest that our campaign is somehow invalid because it does not address this point. It is not because it is not intended to. If Mr Taylor feels that strongly about the issue, may I suggest that he starts a campaign of his own. He will certainly receive our support, something he seems singularly unable to demonstrate himself.

David Solomons,

Jenner Road, Stoke Newington,

On behalf of the Boycott Nandos Campaign.

Say Goodbye to Football on the Marshes

Published in Hackney Gazette, March 15, 2007

Didn’t you just know that relocation of the travellers to a site on Hackney Marshes was a done deal from the very first time the subject was raised?

Once again this pathetic bunch of councillors, who are supposed to represent us, have proved that democracy is non-existent, not only nationwide, but in this case, on our very own doorstep.

Who do they think they are kidding when they state that Hackney’s planners had carried out excessive consultation?

I protested against the plan on behalf of more than 1,500 footballers, who, whenever they learn of the council and the London Development Agency’s misguided input, are astute enough to conclude that much of what is going on is just a matter of hiding their land-grab intentions under the banner of the Olympic ideal.

We have learned the hard way that we can’t believe a word uttered by the LDA. We feel desperately let down and see no real future for grass-roots football in the long term.

If they can ride roughshod over our feelings by acting without taking our football community’s objections seriously, then what hope is there for the future of Hackney Marshes?

It isn’t the fact that the travellers have been given approval to move permanently to a site on the Marshes. That is not the point. It is the very principle that matters.

We are apalled that approval in any shape or form has been given to anyone to take up residence on the Marshes. It is the thin end of the wedge and just goes to prove that this undemocratic body can abuse its powers on a scale beyond belief, where, when and wherever they want.

What is happening to this once great country? We used to be listened to, now it seems we are in the hands of a bunch of chancers who are in the process of getting their grubby little hands on the people’s land in the name of the Olympics.

In the football community’s eyes, they have tarnished its name forever.

We are sick of the very mention of the word Olympics. All it does is conjure up visions of smug politicians giving themselves a mutual pat on the back for all the so-called wonderful things they suppose they are doing for the “plebs”.

Then there is the matter of the escalating costs. It is all very well for these politicians to tell us that in the end it will all be worth the mounting expense. It isn’t their money! They just go on glibly on their merry ways with no seeming accountability.

Users of the Marshes – incidentally, we pay to play football on the Marshes – are even more fearful now than we ever were.

The LDA will rat on their promise to restore the East Marsh to its former splendour of grass pitches after the Games.

With costs spiralling out of control, some aims will have to be nipped in the bud and we are betting that restoring the East Marsh to its former glory will be one of them.

We can envisage them looking at the nice plot of concreted land and thinking this could be an excellent opportunity to claw back a large wad of cash.

Do you think it won’t cross their scheming little minds? We in the football community are prepared for the worst.

I did not go to the meeting regarding the travellers at the town hall. Experience has taught me that they may go through with the formality of stating that they will listen, but they will completely ignore our wishes or our objections.

I feel extremely sorry for Anne Woollett and the Hackney Marshes’ user group. Did they genuinely feel that they had a hope in hell?

I know of the hard work this group carries out in order to preserve the Marshes and, if it was not for their input, “our” Marshes would have appeared before us as a gigantic tarmac terrain long ago, instead of the wonderful green space we have at present, and if a community-serving group like the MHUG can’t prevent the desecration of the Marshes, what hope is there for us all?

Finally, my criticism of this spineless council excuses Cllr Simon Tesler. It would appear that there is a molecule of good sense and decency within politics somewhere.

While I think about it, say goodbye from all footballers to the Arena Fields, soon to be lost forever, leaving fond memories of happier days, but sadly to be replaced by an unsightly multi-story car park and media centre. Someone, somewhere is a good little earner!

Johnnie Walker
Chairman, Hackney and Leyton Sunday Football League

Put any of our 'spare' space to good use

from the Hackney Gazette, 1 February 2007

Commenting on the disquiet that has met proposals to flog off ‘spare’ space on council estates for development (“In the Dark Over Land Sell-Off Plan”, Gazette, January 11), Cllr Jamie Carswell made a number of remarks that need clarification.

He said: “We will be building much-needed housing (and) we will also be investing in facilities for the community, such as playgrounds, garages and parking spaces”.

Who is this “we” that Cllr Carswell claimed will be building new homes? Certainly not the council. Their report on the matter makes it clear that any land freed up as a result of the demolition of homes and garages will be sold to housing associations. Moreover 30 per cent of the new homes will be for private sale.

How can the council claim that “we” are set to build new homes under these circumstances? It seems that what New Labour in Hackney are really doing is continuing the flogging-off of public assets – something we were told was a thing of the past.

Where exactly will the space be found to provide “playgrounds, garages and parking spaces” when it is just these facilities which the council is proposing to knock down and sell off?

The space already exists for “investment” in these facilities. Why not just “invest” in what’s already there, if that’s what Cllr Carswell really meant?

Hackney’s council estates are already densely built and under-resourced. If there are unused spaces – and that is debateable – why can’t they be used to improve the environment for existing tenants?

Carl Taylor
Hackney Independent

Hidden cost of support for the Olympics

from Hackney Gazette letters 18JAN07

Readers of the Gazette need to be aware of another proposed hidden and so far undisclosed cost of Hackney Council’s unqualified support for the bid to win the 2012 Olympic Games for London.

Customers of Thames Water could see annual water bills rise by £40 every year if plans to build a proposed £2 billion tunnel are allowed to go ahead.

Apparently, there is a concern that if nothing is done the 2012 Games could be marred by the sight and smell of tonnes of sewage being pumped into the river next to the main stadium.

A spokesman for the Consumer Council for Water probably has it right when he says that, “to consider such an expensive and long-term capital programme with a focus on 2012 does a disservice for those who will have to pay for it – the customers of Thames Water”.

Paul Hodge
Lower Clapton

"Regeneration", or social engineering?

Hackney Independent has been pleased to see some discussion of regeneration and gentrification in the Hackney Gazette recently.

The saga commenced with a letter from New Labour’s recently elected Haggerston Councillor, Barry Buitekant:

“Last week’s Gazette (June 29) said three new stations are to open on the extension of East London line at Dalston, Haggerston and Shoreditch.

I’m pleased to say that there will be a fourth new station at Hoxton. The opening of the East London line extension will strengthen the regeneration of the area already underway.”

This letter was responded to the next edition by Paul Fitzpatrick:

“In last week’s Gazette Cllr Buitekant wrote, ‘the opening of the East London line extension will strengthen the regeneration of the area already underway’.

Such a dishonest and uncritical view of “regeneration” is what we have to expect from New Labour politicians in Hackney and elsewhere.
Councillor Buitekant has been newly elected to represent the people of Haggerston, the majority of whom have failed to derive any benefit so far whatsoever from the so-called regeneration of the area.
The proliferation of luxury flats along Kingsland Road, together with trendy bars and restaurants, I am sure is very welcome to Councillor Buitekant and his New Labour friends, but hardly represents the needs of the majority of his constituents.
How about “strengthening” instead some regeneration that will benefit the area’s majority, like building truly affordable housing, reopening Haggerston Pool or investing in sustainable youth facilities?
But, of course, while this would directly benefit local working class people, it is of no interest to the kind of rich young settlers who now run Hackney Labour Party.”

The Gazette also provided the following editorial:

“The banks of the borough’s waterways, for years grimy neglected backwaters, have recently become giant construction sites.
All along Hackney’s stretch of the River Lea and Regent’s Canal disused timber wharves and warehouses have been bulldozed. Rising phoenix-like in their place are steel and glass waterside developments. While some include a percentage of “affordable” or shared-ownership homes (otherwise they would never have received planning approval), few, if any, are on the waterfront.
Those desirable prime-site properties are for the wealthy – well beyond the pocket of most folk earning an average wage.
Inevitably such regeneration changes the borough dempgraphic with the so-called yuppie professional classes moving into up-and-coming areas and pushing up property prices. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but isn’t that a form of social engineering by any other name?”

The Cleansing of Hackney

The Ecologist, March 2006
Paul Kingsnorth

‘How do I feel?’ Tony Platia shrugs his shoulders in a very Sicilian way.

‘How d’you think I feel? Look at what they done to my place. Thirty one years of my life I put into this and they left me with nothing to show for it.’ He touches my elbow and gestures at the street outside, unseen beyond the impromptu barricades that shore up what’s left of Francesca’s Café.

‘This used to be a lovely community’, he says, intensely. ‘When I come here it was old east end, real rag trade. It’s all being killed, all the ordinary people pushed out. They’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Look around you.’ He touches my elbow again, shrugs his shoulders, looks bleak.

‘Breaks my heart’, he says.

Tony Platia is a sharply-dressed, sharply-spoken Sicilian. Thirty one years ago he opened Francesca’s café in Broadway Market, Hackney. It was a traditional London Italian caff; cappuccinos, pasta and loyal customers who saw Francesca’s as one of the beams shoring up the identity of their neighbourhood. But that identity is changing, and today, Francesca’s café has become an unwilling and unexpected frontline in a new war: that of ordinary folk versus developers; community versus corporation.

It’s just gone seven a.m on a freezing, dark January morning. But Francesca’s no longer serves breakfasts or early morning coffee. Targeted by developers, it is under threat of eviction, to be replaced by luxury flats and a new theatre. Unfortunately for the developers, the local community would prefer to keep Tony and his café. This morning, with rumours flying of bailiffs on their way to evict Tony, Francesca’s is boarded up, shuttered and occupied by local people, making an unexpected last stand for their community.

Inside, the café is a dark swirl of conversation, rumour, anger and cigarette smoke. In the centre of it all sits Tony Platia. Occasionally he looks around him as if wondering where he is, and how it all came to this.

Three decades ago, much of Hackney was run-down, shabby, boarded-up, and often dangerous. Today the artists, media types and city workers who have been flooding into nearby Hoxton and Shoreditch have discovered Broadway Market. The streets are now increasingly lined with expensive baby buggies, silver BMWs and Italian scooters. Every Saturday, Broadway Market is home to upmarket stalls, where you can buy loaves of artisanal bread for £2.75, or stock up on porcini mushrooms and alpaca scarves. Hackney is officially happening.

There are some who like this, and some who don’t. On one side, some who have lived in Hackney for decades are concerned on a number of levels about how the neighbourhood is changing. There might be more money around, they say, but it doesn’t go to them. Property prices are rising, and ‘ordinary folk’ can’t afford to buy new places there anymore. Gentrification, they say, is killing Hackney’s character. On the other side, there are those who point to the fact that shops which used to be boarded up are now flourishing, and that new people are coming into the neighbourhood, making it more mixed in character – and, they say, safer.

In theory, at least, they should be right. In theory, this influx of new people and new money ought to mean more trade for local businesses like Tony’s. It ought to mean ‘regeneration’. Everybody, so the theory goes, should be a winner.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, an unholy alliance of hawk-eyed property developers and a corrupt and venal local council has launched a land grab which is ripping the heart out of the neighbourhood and impoverishing its local people. And what is happening in Hackney is a foreshadowing of similar situations all over the country, as money, power and property values combine to destroy the lives of ordinary folk, and rip the heart from their communities and the character of their neighbourhoods.

Just ask Tony, whose story has come to symbolise everything that is going wrong in the east end. Thirty-one years ago, Tony started up his business in Broadway Market, in a property owned by the local council, to whom Tony paid rent and rates. His café was popular, and it made him a modest living. But unknown to him, it was becoming caught up in a financial scandal that would lead to his ruin.

Years of corruption and incompetence have left Hackney council in debt – to be precise, a staggering £72 million worth of debt, as auditors discovered in 2001. Mandated by the government to sort it out, and quickly, one of the council’s solutions was to sell off its commercial properties; properties like Tony’s café and dozens of other small, local businesses in Broadway Market. When Tony heard this he prepared to make an offer for Francesca’s himself; the council, after all, had assured leaseholders that, if they could meet the guide price for the properties, they would have first refusal on them.

But Tony had competition. A Kent-based millionaire property developer named Roger Wratten, who had recently snapped up the properties on either side of Tony’s place, had his eye on Francesca’s. An unidentified ‘someone’ informed him that Tony was trying to buy it, and from that point on, all Tony’s attempts to do so were thwarted – paperwork was lost, phone calls went unreturned. For three years, Tony struggled for the simple right to buy his own business. But in February 2003, it was sold, at auction, to Roger Wratten.

Cock-up? Coincidence? Wratten and the council say so – but many locals say otherwise. They see a conspiracy of council and developers, aimed at clearing out the small, less-profitable local businesses, and replacing them with new, upmarket developments that will bring in a lot more cash. Developments like the one that Roger Wratten wants to build on the site of Francesca’s and the adjoining properties, for example – a combination of luxury flats and a new theatre, in which his theatre-director wife can stage Shakespeare plays.

There is certainly something convenient about the speed and apparent ease with which whole blocks of properties in Broadway Market and the surrounding area are being sold to wealthy developers, none of whom are from the local area – and many of whom bought the parties at knock-down prices; in many cases lower than the leaseholders were prepared to pay for them. A company registered at a PO Box in Nassau bought a whole row of shops for less than their leaseholders would have paid. Another registered in Dubai did the same. A Russian property company now owns nine properties in Broadway Market; it bought them for £250,000, though they had an estimated value of almost £5 million. Roger Wratten’s Kent-based business owns several more.

So what? What’s wrong with investors buying up properties they can regenerate if it brings in money and smartens up the neighbourhood? What’s wrong, it seems, is that the people of that neighbourhood are not being asked what they want. Neither, in many cases, are they getting anything out of it. And in some cases, like that of Tony’s, they are not only failing to benefit but they are losing their livelihoods.

Start to look at this from a distance and it looks uncomfortably like the neighbourhood is being socially engineered; cleansed of undesirables; having the awkward and sometimes spiky-edged colour, character and reality squeezed out of it. Made comfortable for people in designer shirts who don’t like getting their shoes dirty and who get suspicious if a cup of coffee costs less than three pounds. In financial terms, this certainly makes sense; property prices in east London are shooting up, as the middle classes move in. Now, too, there is the added impetus of the 2012 Olympic Games, which are to take place less than a mile from Broadway Market, and which are already putting added pressure on property values.

On one level, then, this is an ordinary tale of gentrification, squeezing out the poor to make way for the rich. And yet there are two things which make it a more complex tale. One is that, though Broadway Market is certainly a lot more gentrified than it was just five years ago, it is still a mixed neighbourhood. Small cafes, newsagents, jellied eel shops and vegetable stalls jostle side by side with Tapas bars, upmarket clothes emporiums and designer hairdressers. And as for those demonised yuppies; it seems that some of them are actually on Tony’s side. For the last few months, local people have organised a petition to save Tony’s café, and many of the hip young dudes who swan around the artisanal market on a Saturday have signed it. They, too, it seems, like the idea of a mixed neighbourhood. They, too, think that Tony’s is worth saving.

The second heartening thing about this story is just how many people feel that way. When news filtered through to the local community about Tony’s rough treatment – and that of others on the street – a few brave souls decided to do something about it. They organised a campaign and a petition to allow Tony to stay. They talked to the council and the developers, they alerted the media, and they worked hard to ensure justice for the small traders of Broadway Market.

Justice didn’t arrive, despite their best efforts. In July last year, bailiffs arrived as Tony was opening up his café, evicted him and began demolishing his life’s work before his eyes. But the developers had been slapdash, and the campaigners managed to halt the demolition halfway through on health and safety grounds. Then they moved back in, occupied the café and, against everyone’s expectations, including possibly their own, they rebuilt it, brick by brick. Today, Francesca’s still stands – battered, bruised and with an eviction order hovering over it, but still at the heart of the community.

Inside, Arthur Shuter, one of the leaders of the local campaign to save Broadway Market, sits drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, safe against the freezing chill outside.

‘I can understand the council’s position’, he says. ‘If they give in on Tony’s, they will lose millions, the developer who bought it will be furious and it will set a precedent. The council like to say things are out of their hands. The developer claims he’s putting something back into the local community. But we’ve shown him what community really is.’

Arthur is interrupted by Elijah, a great bear of a man with a voice like Frank Bruno. ‘He doesn’t care about the community!’ he says, scornfully, of the developer. ‘He’s a corporate guy. People would come to Tony with their problems, and he’d always have a solution, y know? He was like a community leader. He helped me through the hardest time of my life. This is nothing to do with community – it’s all about money. They didn’t reckon on us standing up to them, that’s all. We don’t like bullies.’

‘And they are bullies’, says Arthur. ‘Oh, most certainly. The developers think they can turf people out of their homes and their businesses. The council talks about ‘regeneration’ and ‘best value’. They use all the right words. But they’ve been caught out here, and they’re in a real fix.’ He stubs his cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray.

‘We won’t go away’, he says. ‘They don’t like that.’

At the time of writing, Francesca’s café still stands. By the time of publication, it may not. But if and when Tony and Arthur and Elijah and the rest are evicted for a final time, it will not be the end of things in Broadway Market. There are other properties to defend; other battles to fight.

Next on the list, for example, is number 71, the Nutritious Food Galley, a fantastically diverse and popular vegetable shop run by a quiet, dignified Rastafarian man called Spirit. Spirit moved into the premises when it was abandoned and spent time and money renovating it himself. When he heard the council were selling it, he went to the auctioneers and presented them with a deposit cheque for £10,000 – ten percent of the asking price. He had been told that if he did so, the property would be his.

So he was shocked when he went along to the planned property auction, just out of curiosity, and heard his own property sold off, for £85,000 – £15,000 less than he had been prepared to pay – to a property developer based in Nassau. The auctioneer and the council explained to Spirit that a ‘mistake’ had been made, but there was nothing he could do. The new owner of his shop immediately raised his rent by 1200%. Soon they plan to evict him. Spirit says he is going nowhere; apart from anything else, he has nowhere else to go. It seems certain that if the bailiffs come, they will have many, many people to deal with.

For this is an increasingly angry community. It senses that it is being ripped off. People who have lived here for decades – sometimes in the same houses in which they were born – no longer feel they belong. Their children can’t afford to live here anymore. And above all the usual tension and worry that comes with change, hangs the feeling that the Council – the people who are supposed to be on their side – are selling them off like so many pineapples or cups of cappuccino, to the highest bidder.

What is happening in Hackney is not a purely local issue. All over the country gentrification and corporatisation, sparked by inflating property prices, are bringing forth the same kind of cultural cleansing, destroying the lives of ordinary people who can’t match the new money, and see their communities and birthplaces taken from under them.

Hackney, perhaps, is a touchstone – or a touchpaper. Whatever happens to Tony, Spirit and the rest of this community, one thing does seem certain: Broadway Market will not be the last place whose people, instead of going gently, decide to stand their ground.

I don’t believe it!

On January 21 an article appeared in the Independent newspaper that would cause any sane person to choke on their breakfast.

Entitled ‘Hipper than Hoxton: why Haggerston is the place to be’, it took its lead from the new edition of the Lonely Planet guide to London. In this book Haggerston was described as one of the “chic new neighbourhoods” that makes the capital such a “dynamic and buzzing place”.

This fabulous claim was based upon a review of one restaurant, a pub and the “thriving Saturday farmers’ market”.

In the Independent article a declaration of war was read out by the owner of the Cat and Mutton ‘gastropub’,  Kevin Cooper: “Actually we are pretty much on the frontline of gentrification. The White Lightning brigade – the cider favoured by drunks and derelicts – have not entirely disappeared, but it’s now so much better than Shoreditch.”

Thanks for that contribution Kev. We would boycott the pub in protest but nobody with any taste would be seen dead in the Cat and Mutton anyway.

Still, the benefits of progress and change mean that we can now pay £3 for a cup of Caffè Latte  – even if we do have to drink it in the ruins of a community.

letters about the occupation of Broadway Market

From the Hackney Gazette

Re your front page story (1 December, 2005) about the occupation of Francesca’s Café, 34 Broadway Market, I’d like to clarify a few things for your readers. That the local people and their friends and well-wishers have occupied the café for a ‘cause’ is quite correct. They have occupied the building to prevent its demolition in the hope that the café can be returned to Tony, so he can resume his business of 31 years.

The occupation is not therefore a ‘squat’, in the usually understood sense. People (most of whom have never done anything like this before)have been forced to take direct action to attempt to right a wrong that the legal system seems incapable of doing.

But there is another main reason for the occupation: to publicly object to the continued gentrification of the area. Hackney Council is colluding with property developers to clear out the small businesses that local working-class residents rely on, and replace them with shops that cater predominantly for rich newcomers and weekend visitors from the posher parts of Islington. They have sold under-valued properties at a cost of millions of pounds to Hackney Council Tax payers.

This so-called ‘regeneration’ is not of benefit to ordinary, local people. Not only are we poorer for the loss of these publicly-owned commercial properties, but many of the new cafes and restaurants are too expensive to eat in. Tony’s was one of the very few places on the market where people could meet and eat at affordable prices.

Hackney Independent fully supports the occupation and encourages well-wishers to visit the café for a cup of tea to find out more about what is going on.

Carl Taylor
Hackney Independent

I was slightly bemused to read Cllr Crowe’s comments about the massive sell off of council properties being down to “legally binding directions from the government”. Can she clarify for us exactly which party was running the government at the time? It is either a Labour council or a Labour governmen to blame, or probably both. As a Labour party member Cllr Crowe’s attempt to pass the buck between the two doesn’t really cut much ice.

Compared to this sort of double-speak, the clear words and actions from the protestors at 34 Broadway Market came as a breath of fresh air, and I offer them my full support.

John Eden