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Laurie Penny: it was no cup of tea inside the Whitehall police kettle

Police violence against children.

It's the coldest day of the year, and I've just spent seven hours being kettled in Westminster. That sounds jolly, doesn't it? It sounds a bit like I went and had a lovely cup of tea with the Queen, rather than being trapped into a freezing pen of frightened teenagers and watching baton-wielding police kidney-punching children, six months into a government that ran an election campaign on a platform of fairness. So before we go any further, let's remind ourselves precisely what kettling is, and what it's for.

Take a protest, one whose premise is uncomfortable for the administration -- say, yesterday's protest, with thousands of teenagers from all over London walking out of lessons and marching spontaneously on Westminster to voice their anger at government cuts to education funding that will prevent thousands from attending college and university. Toss in hundreds of police officers with riot shields, batons, dogs, armoured horses and meat wagons, then block the protesters into an area of open space with no toilets, food or shelter, for hours. If anyone tries to leave, shout at them and hit them with sticks. It doesn't sound like much, but it's effective.

I didn't understand quite how bad things had become in this country until I saw armoured cops being deployed against schoolchildren in the middle of Whitehall. These young people joined the protest to defend their right to learn, but in the kettle they are quickly coming to realise that their civil liberties are of less consequence to this government than they had ever imagined The term "kettle" is rather apt, given that penning already-outraged people into a small space tends to make tempers boil and give the police an excuse to turn up the heat, and it doesn't take long for that to happen. When they understand that are being prevented from marching to parliament by three lines of cops and a wall of riot vans, the kids at the front of the protest begin to moan. "It's ridiculous that they won't let us march," says Melissa, 15, who has never been in trouble before. "We can't even vote yet, we should be allowed to have our say."

The chant goes up: "What do we want? The right to protest!" At first, the cops give curt answers to the kids demanding to know why they can't get through. Then they all seem to get some sort of signal, because suddenly the polite copper in front of me is screaming in my face, shoving me hard in the back of the head, raising his baton, and the protesters around me are yelling and running back. Some of them have started to shake down a set of iron railings to get out, and the cops storm forward, pushing us right through those railings, leaving twenty of us sprawling in the rubble of road works with cracked knees. When they realised that they are trapped, the young protesters panic. The crush of bodies is suddenly painful -- my scarf is ripped away from me and I can hear my friend Clare calling for her son -- and as I watch the second line of police advance, with horses following behind them, as a surge of teenagers carry a rack of iron railings towards the riot guard and howl to be released, I realise they're not going to stop and the monkey instinct kicks in. I scramble up a set of traffic lights, just in time to see a member of the Metropolitan police grab a young protester by the neck and hurl him back into the crowd.

Behind me, some kids have started to smash up a conveniently empty old police van that's been abandoned in the middle of the road. "Let us out!" they chant. "Let us out!" A 13-year old girl starts to hyperventilate, tears squeezing in raw trails over her frightened face, unable to tear her face away from the fight -- I put a hand on her back and hurry her away from the police line. Her name is Alice and she is from a private school. "Just because I won't be affected by the EMA cuts doesn't mean I don't care about the government lying," she says, "but I want to go home now. I have to find my friend."

As darkness falls and we realise we're not going anywhere, the protesters start to light fires to keep warm. First, they burn their placards, the words "Rich parents for all!" going up in flames, with a speed and efficiency gleaned from recent CV-boosting outdoor camping activities. Then, as the temperature drops below freezing, they start looking for anything else to burn, notebooks and snack wrappers -- although one young man in an anarchist scarf steps in to stop me tossing an awful historical novel onto the pyre. "You can't burn books," he says, "we're not Nazis."

As I look around at this burned-out children's crusade, I start to wonder where the hell the student activists are. Whatever the news says, this is emphatically not a rabble led by a gang of determined troublemakers out to smash things for fun. In fact, we could do with a few more seasoned radicals here, because they tend to know what to do at demonstrations when things get out of hand. I find myself disappointed in the principled anarchists and student activists I know, who aren't here because they've decided that the best way to make their presence felt is by occupying their own lecture halls. I realise that these school pupils are the only ones who really understand what's going on: even people my age, the students and graduates who got in just before the fee hike, are still clinging to the last scraps of that dream of a better future, still a little bit afraid to make a fuss. These teenagers, on the other hand, know that it's all nonsense. They sat their school exams during the worst recession in living memory, and they aren't taken by the promise of jobs, of education, of full lives and safe places to live. They understand that those things are now reserved for the rich, and the white heat of their rage is a comfort even behind the police lines in this sub-zero chill.

Smaller children and a pregnant woman huddle closer to the fires. Everyone is stiff and hungry, and our phones are beginning to lose signal: the scene is Dante-esque, billows of smoke and firelight making it unclear where the noises of crying and chanting and the whine of helicopters are coming from.

This is the most important part of a kettle, when it's gone on for too long and you're cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it's done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It's unspeakably cruel when it's done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don't even have a jumper on.

Some of them have fainted and need medical attention, some need the loo. They won't let us out. That's the point of a kettle. They want to make you uncomfortable and then desperate, putting your route back to warmth and safety in the gift of the agents of the state. They decide when you can get back to civilisation. They decide when the old people can get warm, when the diabetics can get their insulin, when the kid having a panic attack can go home to her mum. It's a way of making you feel small and scared and helpless, a way for the state's agents to make you feel that you are nothing without them, making you forget that a state is supposed to survive by mandate of the people, and not the other way around.

Strangers draw together around the makeshift campfires in this strange new warzone right at the heart of London. A schoolgirl tosses her homework diary to feed the dying flames. "I don't even know you, but I love you," says another girl, and they hug each other for warmth. "Hands up who's getting a bollocking from their parents right now?" says a kid in a hoodie, and we all giggle.

He's got a point. This morning, the parents and teachers of Britain woke up angry, in the sure and certain knowledge that the administration they barely elected is quite prepared to hurt their children if they don't do as they are told.

It's not looking good for this government. This spontaneous, leaderless demonstration, this children's crusade, was only the second riot in two weeks, and now that the mums and dads of Britain are involved, the coalition may quickly begin to lose the argument on why slashing the state down to its most profitable parts and abandoning children, young people, the disabled and the unemployed to the cruel wheel of the market is absolutely necessary.

Let the government worry about the mums and dads, though -- I'm worried about the kids.

I'm worried about the young people I saw yesterday, sticking it out in the cold, looking after one another, brave and resolute. I'm worried about those school pupils who threw themselves in front of the police van to protect it from damage, the children who tried to stop other children from turning a peaceful protest into an angry mob -- and succeeded. I'm worried that today, those children feel like they've done something wrong, when they are, in fact, the only people in the country so far who've had the guts to stand up for what's right.

The point of a police kettle is to make you feel small and scared, to strike at the childish part of every person that's frightened of getting in trouble. You and I know, however, that we're already in trouble. All we get to decide is what kind of trouble we want to be in. Yesterday, the children of Britain made their decision, and we should be bloody proud of them today.

Read Laurie Penny's account of the original student protests, where dozens of students attacked the Conservative party's HQ here. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: PA
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How the fire at Grenfell Tower exposed the ugly side of the housing boom

Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society, but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

It’s impressive, in a way, how quickly we slot horrific new events into the beliefs we already hold. In the Grenfell Tower fire – a tragedy that, at the time of writing, is presumed to have cost 79 people their lives – some on the right saw a story about poorly built high-rise ­social housing. The left, however, saw it as fresh evidence of the damage that seven years of austerity had done to local councils.

The fire does feel symbolic: of the inequality at the heart of one of the richest cities in the world; of a government unable to look after its people. But reality rarely slots neatly into our prefabricated narratives and, although the details are still emerging, it already seems as if many of those assumptions were flawed. Experts’ theories about why the fire spread so fast have focused not on the poor quality of the building’s original 1967 design but on problems with the external cladding installed in a £10m refurbishment last year.

What’s more, while most councils have struggled with years of centrally imposed cuts, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) isn’t one of them: it is sitting on reserves worth £274m and, in 2014, found enough money to give council-tax payers a rebate of £100 per head. And yet, it seemed, it could not find the cash to pay for sprinklers or the £5,000 extra it would have cost to use a fire-resistant form of cladding. There was austerity in Kensington, but it was the product of conscious choice, not financial pressure.

Voting intention by housing type in the 2017 election

For a whole week, those who survived the fire faced a second indignity: the uncertainty regarding where they could now live. The day after the tragedy, the housing minister Alok Sharma offered his “guarantee that every single family from Grenfell House will be rehoused in the local area”. This was both morally and politically right – but whether he would have made this promise if he had been more than a couple of days into the job seemed an open question, because few in the housing sector believed it was one he could keep. The council already had more than 2,700 households waiting for accommodation (actually quite low for inner London). It was possible to give priority to survivors of the fire, but it would require pushing others yet further down the list.

Nor did it seem likely that the homes on offer likely to be adequate replacements for those that have been lost. “Most people made homeless in London have a very long wait in temporary accommodation,” Kate Webb, the head of policy at the housing charity Shelter, told me. “And even that is going to be outside of their area.” In the immediate future, at least, it seemed likely it would be much easier to find bed and breakfasts in Hounslow than permanent new homes in Kensington.

In the event, the naysayers, myself included, were wrong: on Wednesday afternoon, after the print copy of this article had gone to press, the Evening Standard reported that the Greenfell families would be rehoused in 68 apartments in the luxury Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. The deal, specially brokered by the Homes & Communities Agency on behalf of the government, was great news for those families. But it is striking that it took a tragedy and national scandal on the scale of Grenfell to make it happen. And those homes – which were always earmarked as social housing – are now not available to the 2,700 other families on RBKC’'s waiting list. They will not be receiving similar treatment.

It doesn’t feel like this should be difficult: Britain is rich, London richer and RBKC the richest borough of all. Yet the shortage of available homes reflects not just some kind of moral failure on the part of the council but a genuine shortage of property.

Who is building houses?

To be blunt about this: we have not been building enough for a very long time. In the decade after the 2001 census, London’s population grew from 7.3 million to 8.2 million, an increase of roughly 12 per cent. The capital’s total number of homes, however, increased by just 7 per cent. Both trends have continued since, with all sorts of entirely predictable results: higher rents, overcrowded homes, hilarious news items about renters going to see “studio flats” that turned out to be a bed in a shed with a tree growing through the wall.

London’s housing crisis is the biggest and most visible in the country yet it is far from unique. In Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol – in almost any city with a decent jobs market – housing costs have soared in recent years. In other parts of the UK, house prices are lower; but so, unfortunately, are wages. The result is a collapse in property ownership among the under-40s – and, one is tempted to suggest, flatlining national productivity and unexpected enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

We know how to fix this (in that we know how to build more homes) but we haven’t, for two main reasons. One is that we have inadvertently constructed a housing market in which nobody has both the interest and the capacity to build more. Private developers bid for land based on the price they believe they will be able to sell new homes there for. As a result, if prices fall, they stop building: look at a graph of housing supply over the past 50 years, and it is abundantly clear that the private sector will never give us the homes we need.

This would be fine if other organisations were allowed to build but they are not. Housing associations are restricted by government finance rules. Councils were explicitly banned from fully replacing homes sold under Right to Buy; today, they lack the money and, after decades of disempowerment, the expertise, too. The 2004 Barker review argued that the UK needed to be building 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand. It feels telling that the last year we managed to do this was 1979.

Total government grant to local councils

The other reason we haven’t built enough homes is that we place such tight restrictions on what we can build. Land-use restrictions such as on the green belts prevent our cities from growing outwards; rules on tall buildings prevent them from growing upwards. These are often legal, but are rigidly enforced by public demand.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of Richmond Park, residents of the west London suburbs, fought a noisy campaign to stop tall buildings from being built 14 miles away in Stratford, in the East End of London, because they would ruin their protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The buildings wouldn’t prevent west Londoners from seeing St Paul’s, you understand: the buildings could simply be seen behind it. All these restrictions, all these campaigns, are there to protect something good. Between them, they add up to a shortage of housing that is blighting lives.

It is hard not to notice the parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the broader housing crisis. RBKC bosses chose to promote electorally motivating tax cuts for the borough’s largely rich residents over fire safety in its social homes. As a nation, we have consistently chosen to protect the views and house prices of those who have housing over the needs of those who don’t. Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

The survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were left homeless by the tragedy, and it looked for several days like that they would have nowhere else to go. Both of these things may well have been avoidable. But austerity is not just a policy: it’s a state of mind. 

George Eaton: The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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