Wembley's tent city

How a battle to save a football ground and stop an academy school prompted teachers and other citize

What happens when an “International Children’s Charity” funded by multi-billion pound hedge fund speculators, wants to a build new academy school in some of London’s poorest boroughs?

Well maybe you get a situation like that in London's North Brent, where teachers, parents, trade unionists and local residents have come together to occupy the Wembley Park Sports Ground – the proposed site of the contentious Wembley Academy.

In March 2007, the anti-academy protestors moved onto the Sports Ground and pitched their tents just before Easter Break, in a secret “midnight swoop” that followed months of quiet preparation.

Their occupation opposes the construction of the privately-run Academy on the neighbourhood’s football pitch – also the site of a community hall, several local businesses and a children’s nursery.

Over the years the sports ground has hosted everything from secondary school football tournaments through weddings and funeral receptions, to celebrations of Malawi’s Independence Day.

Local kids from the estates are frequent visitors to the pitch, taking advantage of its low-cost fees – £1 a session. “It’s affordable football in the shadow of Wembley Stadium,” explains Mark Brown, a local resident who went to school in Brent.

The Wembley occupation represents one of the longest and most bitter protests against the accelerating privatization of the UK education system. Between eight and twelve people live on the site full-time, with dozens of supporters and part-time residents. Thousands of people have passed through. At its best, the “Tent City” has had thirty tents, three tree-houses and a garden.

The Tent City protestors object to the construction of a private academy on several levels. Academies are publicly-funded private schools – the vast majority of the funding comes from local taxpayers, while the corporate sponsor has full control over the school’s management and “vision”. And they’re very expensive – their construction costs around £10 million more than that of state schools.

Residents fear that local state schools will suffer in the shadow of the expensive new academy. Two local schools – Wembley Primary and Preston Park Primary have already received unusually low enrolments for September 2008. Because schools are given funding based on their numbers of students, these low enrolments could spell financial crisis for the area’s state schools as the council heavily promotes the new private academy.

The story of the Wembley Academy began when Lord Levy approached the then Labour controlled Brent Council and persuaded them to accept an academy in the borough. But when the sports ground was selected as the site – a spill-over from the growing “Wembley regeneration” – local residents responded with immediate opposition.

As a result, in the last election, the Lib Dems and the Tories signed an agreement not to allow an academy to be built on the sports ground. When the Lib Dems went back on their election promises, dedication to local grassroots opposition began to replace faith in the council. After months of attending community forums, circulating petitions, writing letters and calling local councillors, it became clear to Wembley teachers and parents that their concerns were being ignored.

Tent City, UK

The occupation began as an expression of frustration. “We had no other tactics left,” explains Hank Roberts, a full-time representative for the National Union of Teachers, “we’d gone to every forum, and we couldn’t get them to take a vote on the Academy. For us, direct action was a tactic borne of the failure of democratic process.”

Roberts was a teacher and the head of Geography at Wembley’s Copland Community School for 20 years. He has been at the Tent City since day one.

“It’s a unique situation where the teachers themselves have taken direct action,” explains Brown “It hasn’t been the typical Rent-a-Mob activist crew. It’s completely grassroots.”

Within a week of the Sports Ground’s occupation by local Wembley teachers and residents, the Academy’s initial sponsor – Andrew Rosenfeld – backed out. Soon after, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recommended the ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) children’s charity as the new sponsor, calling them “an ideal partner for the council.” ARK is currently the sponsor of five other academies under development in London – in the boroughs of Southwark, Westminster, Lambeth, and Hammersmith and Fulham.

The protestors took down their tents in September 2007, after it appeared that Brent Council had granted its current tenants a year’s extension on their lease – hence postponing the Academy’s construction. The Tent City returned the last week of June 2008, when the council notified local businesses that they must shut down operations and vacate the area by the 31st of July. “We decided to move back on so they can’t start work,” said Jean Roberts, a part-time teacher from Hammersmith who has been living at the site.

After the protestors moved back on site, the sports ground was visited by surveyors and workers instructed to build an entrance gate. Using what they call “non-violent physical resistance,” the protestors pushed them off the land.

“Non-violent direct action is what’s appropriate here,” says Hank Roberts. “But if we had a 10,000-strong mob of people here, saying that they would defend the land by any means necessary, that’d be a different story.”

The Wembley Park Action Group formed in June 2007, as an umbrella group to coordinate the protests. They have over a thousand names on their petition against the Academy. Support has flooded in from community groups, sports ground users, trade unions, and hundreds of individual parents and local residents. A neighbourhood Wembley football club has renamed itself the “Tent City FC”. And when Wembley Primary was approached by ARK with requests to use the school’s classrooms, the teachers refused and threatened to ballot for strike action.

Meanwhile, as the anti-privatisation movement in Wembley is gaining in strength, the Council has proceeded to criminalise the protest. On June 15, 2008 the Borough of Brent won a Possession Order against the Tent City. The Willesden County Court also ordered an injunction against Hank Roberts on the grounds of trespass, requiring him to ask the Council for permission to visit the Sports Ground in the future. Bailiffs arrived at the Tent City last night at 6:00pm, to be confronted by over one-hundred protestors who refused to vacate the site. Teachers scaled the community hall and pitched a tent on its roof. Unable to evict the demonstrators, the bailiffs left.

“It was a great victory. So far, so good,” says Roberts. “And I have no intention of complying with the injunction. If I wind up in prison, it will be good publicity for the anti-privatisation movement.”

The militancy and determination of the Wembley protestors mirrors a maturing frustration with local politics, and growing discontent with the creeping privatisation of Britain’s public services.

And in Brent, at least, the battle continues.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times