In the whirlwind of the housing, development and gentrification crisis currently gripping London, it’s always worth reminding ourselves that this is a long process, with much fierce clearance and much resistance, that has been going on since the 1970s…
To day we remember one episode in this war:
In 1972 Westminster City Council gave money to Paddington Churches Housing Association (PCHA) to buy the buildings at 153-171 Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, to prevent them being demolished by property speculators. PCHA then decided to cut the flats down from 62 to 29 and build office and car parking space instead, after moving out the tenants. Which was not exactly what the money had been for, but…
In September 1975, up to 140 squatters moved in to the empty buildings here. Homeless students from St Martins College of Art kicked the process off, soon joined by others: ‘Students, Bengali families, workers, old & young…” The squatters transformed the blocks, polling skills to repair plumbing, electrics, and making the buildings livable again.
Flat 3 at no 161 was set up as a cafe and community space.
An article by Don Collis, from the Tower, a Fitzrovia community paper of the time, recounts how this situation arose:
“What would you do if you’d just bought 3 tenement blocks in Cleveland Street for £301,000? £10,000 a flat seems a lot, but it was the heyday of the property boom and in the balmy days of ’72 no-one thought it would ever end. And suppose you were a registered charity whose aim was to help the poor and needy find somewhere to live and you had connections with Shelter and the Church of England. And suppose that all the flats were occupied by just the sort of people you were set up to help? What would you do: Would you buy up the two properties next door in order to make a bigger site? Would you start making plans to pull it all down and put up offices and to winkle out the tenants and disperse them to the four winds?
No of course not. That wouldn’t be right, would it? Especially when the properties are soundly built and don’t need much doing to them.
But if you have a finely chiseled middle class nose and the stench of poverty offends you and you have a sincere urge to do good for these poor benighted folk who don’t seem to mind not having a bathroom or a view of Hampstead Heath as long as they can stay near their work and pay £300 a year rent then it is not too difficult to find ways and means.
First you send your surveyor round. Surveyors are trained nit-pickers. Any building that has weathered seven decades has its quiet secrets, the broken drain, the rotted window frame. Lump them together and you can justify the tearing down of almost any building…
The next step, having decided on demolition, is to do a feasibility study which simply means: will all the flats earn their keep? No? Then inject into the plans a commercial element. The conventional wisdom of the time of the time applauded it. The rents from the offices will subsidise the flats. Ah, but won’t that reduce the number of flats? Well, you can’t make an omelette etc. But the site is zoned as residential. Never mind, everyone loves Housing Associations. The Town Planning wallahs too. Permission granted for 10,000 square feet of offices.
Now for the tenants. Cussed little blighters don’t want to move. Never mind, there are ways and means. The Council loves you. Takes 20 off your hands, puts them in council flats. Good, all but 12 persuaded to move. But time passes. 4 years. Interest charges. Management charges. Property boom collapses. Inflation boosts up building costs.
Oh dear, some dreadful people who say they are homeless have move into the empty flats. Aren’t they the people we are supposed to be helping? Grrr! What a cheek! Soon settle their hash. Sell Buckingham House and no 159 quick to a developer. Only lost £20,000 on that deal. Good.
Now evict the homeless. Court orders, no trouble. Full majesty of the law. Oops, but the offices were going to subsidise the flats. Damn. Never mind, press on regardless. Get Council to cough up half a million to build 29 flats, and car park. But carparks against GLC traffic policy. Who cares?
Get money. Evict rest of people in Howard House. But some of original tenants still there. Made wild promises in ’72 not to evict. Aha. The hoof of a horse, the horn of a bull, and the word of a property developer. Right? Right!
Now what to do with the 29 flats? Nobody can afford the true rent except property tycoons. Can’t flog them off. Not worth £26,000 each, only one bedroom. Got it. How to pay debts without money. Give them to the Council. Let the public purse bear the loss. And then heigh-ho for pastures new. Today Cleveland Street, tomorrow the world.” (The Tower, no 39, June/July 1976)
The squatters negotiated with Westminster Council in a attempt to save the blocks; for a while, there seemed a possibility of the Council blocking the development plans. The squatters involved the Architects Revolutionary Council (of whom we would like to know more! –ed) at 10 Percy Street, to work on a rehabilitation scheme for the street. The squatters campaign also made much of the fact that Paddington Churches HA had am “appalling’ housing record, so bad that Westminster had blocked any financing of them in 1975 while an inquiry about their affairs was held. At this time PCHA owned some 2000 properties in and around London, but most of the cost of buying these flats and houses and converting them had been borne by either local or central government. Nice scam if you can get it. And at the time they were evicting the Cleveland Street squatters, a third of their property lay empty, and half in bad repair.
Plans and negotiations came to nought, and PCHA took some of the squatters to court on 16th July 1976; however, the squatters temporarily won or got an adjournment, arguing that they had a licence to remain there which had not been properly ended.
Suddenly cops and hooligans start having a go at people on the streets and St Martins started hassling activists who were living there.
Buckingham House was barricaded, but evicted on 2nd December 1976, and 30 people kicked out: in response squatters occupied the PCHA head office.
The Greater London Council has apparently planned to intervene, but had been prevented from doing so by the Minister for Housing, who rubber-stamped PCHA’s plan to build an office block on the site.
Most of the squatters ended up being evicted through December 1976; many moved on to the recently squatted former police flats at Huntley Street… To take part in a much more famous squatting story…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online