Book Review: Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s

Radical London in the 1950s by David Mathieson.

David Mathieson. Radical London in the 1950s. The Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I have been studying the history of protest in London for more than five years now, so it’s relatively unusual for me to come across a book on this subject that I haven’t seen before. So when I found Radical London in the 1950s, I was pretty excited. The book tells the story of a decade of radicalism in St. Pancras and Holborn, now within the London borough of Camden.

The subject of Radical London in the 1950s is a little more specific than the title lets on. It actually deals with a decade of radicalism in Holborn and St. Pancras to the north-west of central London that culminated with the St. Pancras rent strikes and riots in 1960. In 1956 the St. Pancras Council swung dramatically to the left when John Lawrence, socialist and former member of the Communist Party, was elected as council leader. He ushered in an era of radicalism which saw the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in February 1958, the red flag flying over St. Pancras Town Hall to celebrate May Day in 1958, and civil defence and social housing policies that defied the Conservative national government.

The key issue addressed in the book is housing. After World War Two, there was a desperate shortage of affordable, decent housing in London. For a time, the post-war Labour government invested heavily in building affordable homes. However, in 1951 the Conservatives took power and house-building was left to the market. As the value of land in London rose, many developers chose to build office blocks rather than the homes Londoners so desperately needed. Rents for those who had homes also increased. St. Pancras council resisted these trends for several years, attempting both to build affordable housing and keep the rents of council tenants low. This was an unsustainable position without the support of national government, however, and the council was eventually forced to back down. This led to a rent strike that lasted almost a year, and two days of rioting when two striking tenants were evicted from their council homes in September 1960.

The most striking thing about Radical London in the 1950s is the obvious similarities that can be drawn with modern London, and the current state of the Labour Party. The housing crisis that is ongoing across the UK is felt most acutely in London, where rents are astronomical, and luxury housing is being as an investment rather than to provide much-needed homes. The other issue which Mathieson discusses that feels remarkably familiar is divisions and conflicts within the Labour Party. The St. Pancras Labour council was rebellious, and often diverged from the policies of the main party. There were also divisions within the local Labour Party, leading to further conflict. It is hard not to be reminded of the current divisions between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions. In both cases, significant energy has been wasted fighting each other, when it would have been better spent fighting the opposition. I find it incredibly frustrating that obvious lessons from this episode were not learnt, or were quickly forgotten.

Radical London in the 1950s is easy to read, and well-paced. It includes a timeline of key events, and a list of the key individuals with brief biographies, which is very helpful. It also sheds light on the interaction between local and national government, which is an interesting topic that I haven’t read much about before. I do have some criticisms however, although they are quite minor. I would have appreciated a map of the area in question. St. Pancras and Holborn are now within the modern-day London Borough of Camden, so I would have appreciated some help identifying the precise area that the book relates too. Also, there are multiple typos, much more than you would normally expect to find in a published book. If David Mathieson were a student, I would advise him to proofread his work out loud, as this is a helpful way of identifying typos that have previously been overlooked.

I always welcome a book about protest history in London that I haven’t read before, and Radical London in the 1950s is an interesting read. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London, politics, or housing.

 

Fairbnb? Ethical Conference Accommodation

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‘Shotgun’ houses in New Orlean’s French District, which I visited for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. International conferences can be an opportunity to visit some wonderful places, but do we need to be more critical of our contribution to problems with tourism in those places? (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In April I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in New Orleans. In July I will be going to the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw. I am lucky that my career gives me so many opportunities to travel, but it does come with downsides. As an early career researcher, I have to fund many of the conferences I attend myself (whether I should or not is perhaps a conversation for another day). As such, I need affordable accommodation, which can be very difficult to find. Increasingly, people are turning to Airbnb and other short stay accommodation platforms in order to help manage the costs of conference attendance. However, opposition to websites such as Airbnb is growing, supported by arguments that it drives gentrification and negatively affects local communities. Geographers have frequent discussions about the environmental implications of flying to international conferences. Perhaps we should also be discussing the ethical implications of what we do once our flights land?

I have always wanted to visit New Orleans, and I loved getting the chance to explore the city whilst I was there. However, a huge number of tourists visit the city every year, and there were several occasions where I felt uncomfortable about the impact of this vast influx that I was part of. In 2016, the number of tourists visiting New Orleans reached 10.45 million, the highest they had been since before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 (FQBA, 2017). This is compared to a permanent population of about 400,000 (Nola.com, 2018). Whilst this undoubtedly has benefits, not least the $7.41 billion spent by tourists in the city in 2016, it also brings challenges.

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An anti-AirBnB sign outside a house in the Treme district of New Orleans, a historically black neighbourhood made popular by an HBO television series. 6% of the houses in Treme have a short-term rental licence (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One of the most hotly debated issues of tourism recently has been the rise of short stay accommodation websites such as AirBnB. They have been blamed for rapid increases in rents and house prices in popular tourist destinations; a recent article for the Independent blamed AirBnB for 23% rent increases over three years in some parts of Barcelona, a city which has seen an increasing backlash against mass tourism in recent years (Bryant, 2018). Short stay accommodations have also been criticised for damaging local communities, in a number of ways: it is difficult to get to know your neighbours if they are changing once a week; businesses cater to the needs of tourists rather than residents (souvenir shops replace supermarkets); and tourists on their holidays tend to be louder and more raucous than locals that have to get up for work the next day. AirBnB argue that short term rentals have a negligible effect on the housing market and provide a valuable opportunity for people to make money from their spare rooms. The fact remains, however, that many short term rentals are for the whole property, and some ‘hosts’ own and rent out multiple properties.

This new kind of Airbnb-powered gentrification comes with all the downsides of traditional gentrification — home prices and rents are going up, lower-income residents and people of color are moving out — but with fewer upsides. Tourism and gentrification typically bring cleaner streets and less crime, but tourists don’t stick around to clean up the neighborhood, vote in local elections or lobby for better schools.

The Lens, 2017

There have been various attempts to fight back against the damaging impact of short term rentals around the world. Some resistance is legislative. For example, in October 2016 it was made illegal in New York City to rent out flats for less than 30 days (Ashley Carmen, 2017). AirBnB often opposes such measures, however; they attempted to sue New York City for passing the law, eventually backing down on the condition that only hosts would be held liable, not AirBnB itself (Benner, 2016). Different cities have different levels of restrictions on short stay accommodation, and enforcement also varies, so it is not necessarily an effective response.

AirBnB New Orleans

The Inside Airbnb map for New Orleans. Red dots represent entire properties, green ones represent single rooms (Source: Inside Airbnb).

Inside Airbnb is a not-for-profit organisation that provides tools and data for analysing the impact of Airbnb on housing markets. The data is publicly available from Airbnb, and you can either use the tools provided by the website or download the data and analyse it yourself. Data isn’t available for every city in the world, but quite a few are covered, particularly in Europe and North America. Inside Airbnb is a kind of ‘knowledge is power’ form of resistance to short stay accommodation; such data can make arguments about the negative impacts of Airbnb and other similar platforms more persuasive.

Others are taking an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. Fairbnb is a group attempting to build an ethical short stay accommodation platform based on four main principles: collective ownership, democratic governance, social sustainability, and transparency and accountability (Fairbnb, n.d.). Part of the profits will be reinvested into local projects that counter the negative impacts of tourism and gentrification. There is no launch date for the platform at the moment however, so it might be a while before it gets off the ground, if it ever does.

So where do we as academics fit into all this? Geographers in particular are supposed to have an awareness of our own impact on the world around us, and take ethical considerations into account as a result. Some universities (including Royal Holloway, where I did my PhD) do not allow staff and students travelling on university business to use Airbnb. This is not out of a sense of social responsibility, but because Airbnb do not enforce sufficient health and safety requirements (Royal Holloway, 2017). For those of us who are self-funded, or who’s funding allows the use of Airbnb, it can be an enticingly cheap option. Perhaps we should think twice about this in future.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Benner, Katie. “Airbnb Ends Fight with New York City Over Fines.” The New York Times. Last modified 3rd December 2016, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/technology/airbnb-ends-fight-with-new-york-city-over-fines.html 

Bryant, Jackie. “What Not to do in Barcelona as a Tourist.” Independent. Last modified 30th April 2018, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/barcelona-travel-what-not-to-do-rules-laws-tourists-protests-overtourism-visitors-a8329086.html

Carmen, Ashley. “New York City Issues First Illegal Airbnb Fines.” The Verge. Last modified 7th February 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at  https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/7/14532388/nyc-airbnb-first-illegal-renting-fines-issued

The Lens. “How AirBnB is Pushing Locals Out of New Orleans’ Coolest Neighbourhoods.” Huffington Post. Last modified 30th October 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/airbnb-new-orleans-housing_us_59f33054e4b03cd20b811699

van der Zee, Renate. “The ‘Airbnb Effect’: Is it Real, and What is it Doing to a City Like Amsterdam?” The Guardian. Last modified 6th October 2016, accessed 16 May 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/06/the-airbnb-effect-amsterdam-fairbnb-property-prices-communities

London’s Protest Stickers: Housing

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15.

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Recently, housing has become one of the most contentious issues in London. The city is growing faster than its housing stock, which is putting real pressure on Londoners. Many, particularly those with low incomes, are struggling with high prices, soaring rents and a chronic shortage of council housing. A numbers of campaign groups, such as FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, have started to combat the problem by raising awareness, protesting and intervening in evictions.The recent March for Homes is just one of the examples of the actions taking place. This focus is reflected in London’s protest stickers, and housing is one of the most common specific issues that stickers refer to. Most of the following pictures come from the area around the Aylesbury estate, an section of which was occupied after the March for Homes in protest of the estate gradually being sold off by Southwark Council for private redevelopment.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of London's poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many of London’s poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (08/03/15, Elephant and Castle).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 08/03/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments.  This sticker is calling for an end to these 'poor doors'.

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments. This sticker is calling for an end to these ‘poor doors’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 03/03/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Cable Street, 25/02/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 25/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one,  but it is slightly different. Also, 'Vote for Class War' has been changed to 'Fight for Class War' (Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one, but it is slightly different. Also, ‘Vote for Class War’ has been changed to ‘Fight for Class War’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (East Street, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, 04/06/15).

The March for Homes

The March for Homes finished with a rally at City Hall.

The March for Homes finished with a rally at City Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Today I took part in the March for Homes, a demonstration calling for more affordable housing in London. There were 2 marches, starting in Elephant and Castle and Shoreditch, that met at Tower Bridge and then proceeded to City Hall for a rally. In this post are some of the photos I took of the event, with a few of my reflections thrown in.

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The marchers starting to gather in Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I was on the march starting in Elephant and Castle, because I live in the area, and I see the effects of the housing crisis every day. There are at least 2 major developments going on there at the moment; One the Elephant, which can be seen in the above photo, and the redevelopment of the former Heygate Estate. The amount of social housing that is included in these two developments is tiny, and laughably insignificant.  The housing crisis in London is something that I feel very strongly about. I am lucky enough to have funding for my PhD and no dependents, so I can afford housing quite easily. But there are many thousands who are not so fortunate, and although I love London, I know that I won’t be living here long term, because the city is simply not affordable, even if you manage to get a decent job.

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Large groups often provide placards for demonstrations, like this made by the Socialist Workers Party (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A speaker at Elephant and Castle from the National Union of Teachers.

A speaker at Elephant and Castle from the National Union of Teachers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Speakers at Elephant and Castle included many representatives from local housing campaigns. I believe that the fundamental cause of the housing crisis is that housing in London is viewed primarily as an investment. Houses and flats are bought as a means of making money, and the owners don’t even need to bother renting them out, because prices are rising so fast that they can make plenty of money anyway, just by selling them on after a year or two. The fundamental purpose of housing is providing a space of safety and warmth, but this has been forgotten, or is ignored, by those in charge. As a result, people suffer.

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Another placard at Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The march set off towards the empty wasteland that used to be the Heygate Estate.

The march set off towards the empty wasteland that used to be the Heygate Estate (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The south route of the March for Homes went through several large areas of social housing (Source: March for Homes, 2014).

The south route of the March for Homes went through several large areas of social housing (Source: March for Homes, 2014).

We marched through several large council housing estates on the way to City Hall. These are the areas in which people are directly affected by the crisis, and I hope that some of those took heart from the sight of us  processing down the streets in the rain. Protests can be an expression of solidarity as well as a method of publicising a cause, and I hope that we did both today.

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The march went right through the middle of what used to be the Heygate Estate (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many groups were represented at the March for Homes.

Many groups were represented at the March for Homes (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some creative editing of a hoarding for a development by L&Q (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A placard in front of Tower Bridge, one of London’s most famous landmarks (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This was very much a London-focussed demonstration. The marches culminated at City Hall, the seat of power for London, rather than Parliament Square, the seat of power for the UK. Housing is a problem in many places across the country, but today was specifically about London. The protest aimed to get the attention of the government of London, not the government of the UK, and this was reflected in the routes and locations of the demonstration.

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Some placards were home made, but these are often the most creative (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Anarchist groups also took part in the demonstration (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

The rally at City Hall, although I doubt Boris Johnson was listening from his office.

The rally at City Hall- I wonder if Boris Johnson was listening from his office (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Despite the foul weather, I really enjoyed myself today. It was my first protest in a while, and I’m glad that it went off peacefully for my own sake, even if it perhaps means we won’t get any major news coverage. After I left, a breakaway group occupied some empty council houses on the Aylesbury Estate in elephant and Castle, and I will be following events there carefully. The housing crisis in London is a very real problem, and it needs to be tackled. Nothing will happen overnight, and the March for Homes is just one step in a process that will, in all likelihood, be very long. But I’m glad I was there, standing up to be counted for something I believe in.