Rebecca Omonira
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Why Hackney’s new mayor must resist new Tory legislation that will further divide the borough

The Housing and Planning Act, regressive legislation that would hit London's poorest hardest, should be opposed in the area where inequality is at its starkest.

This summer, East End Sisters Uncut secured a series of vital concessions from Hackney Council after reclaiming an empty council flat on Marian Court estate in East London. We took the flat and transformed it into a community centre to raise awareness of the housing problems faced by domestic violence survivors, especially in Hackney, where 60 per cent of women are turned away from refuges.

Housing is a basic necessity for survivors of domestic violence. Across the borough, survivors are too often placed in unsafe hostels with men, risking further abuse, or housed in temporary accommodation where they have little security.

When we took over the flat in July, we made four demands of Hackney Council: fill all empty council flats with people who need them, stop using hostels for survivors of domestic violence, don’t lose any more council homes through estate regeneration, and refuse to implement the Housing and Planning Act (no rent rises, keep lifetime tenancies, no evictions).

In response to several weeks of direct action and after two rounds of negotiations, Hackney Council has made a number of important concessions.

The new mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, who attended the negotiations, promised to stop using private hostels and B&Bs to house survivors of domestic violence, and to consider using women-only hostels.

Glanville – who has represented Hoxton Ward as a Labour councillor for ten years – also plans to increase specialist domestic violence training for staff in council-run hostels and for all council staff, do up all empty units on the Marian Court estate and fill them with people by Christmas, and fill all empty units in Hackney within 12 months.

Local children created a petition to support one extra demand: redo the estate’s playground and open it up for use. As a result, the council said it would open the playground within the next few weeks.

A radical history of resistance

While we’re pleased with the progress made, there is still work to be done – particularly around our fourth demand: refuse to implement the Housing and Planning Act. Glanville says he is against the Act and indeed campaigned against it in the run-up to the Bill passing, so why not commit to our fourth demand?

After all, Labour councils have a history of saying no to Tory policy.

In 1972, Clay Cross Council refused to implement an Act that would increase council rents by 25 per cent. The council imposed a rent strike and refused to cooperate. No money was collected on increased rent, and Labour repealed the act in 1974.

There’s also the rate-capping rebellion of 1985, when Lambeth and Liverpool’s councils refused to set the rate when Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to limit the spending of local councils. Eventually, the government paid both councils extra funds to set their own budgets.

In 1921, Labour-run Poplar council refused to implement a London-wide rent increase. The council argued that, as Poplar’s residents were much poorer than residents in other boroughs, they should pay less.

As a result, Poplar councillors were imprisoned in Brixton and Holloway but were released six weeks later when a court bowed to public pressure. The government passed the Local Authorities Act of 1921, rushing it through Parliament, which largely equalised tax burdens between wealthier and poorer boroughs.

What is the Housing and Planning Act?

The Housing and Planning Act came into force on 12 May. The Act was proposed by the Tory government to kick-start a “national crusade to get one million homes built by 2020” and transform “generation rent into generation buy”.

It is our belief that this legislation will hit the poorest hardest and further facilitate the social cleansing of London boroughs. This is because the Act forces councils to focus their attention on providing new starter homes for first-time buyers, instead of building council flats to rent, hastening the decline of social housing.

Under the Act, councils will also be forced to sell off “higher value” council homes as soon as they become vacant, further reducing the stock of social housing. What “higher value” actually means remains unclear, and is a grey area that leaves the door open for interpretation, and means decisions can be made subject to the agenda of the individual councils implementing the legislation.

The Act also makes the previously optional Pay to Stay law compulsory, meaning that market-value rents will be introduced for council households earning above £40,000 in London and £31,000 outside of the capital. This was previously optional legislation, and only allowed to be implemented on households with an income of £60,000 or more.

The London Government Association has predicted that councils will have to spend millions on staff and new IT systems in order to implement this Pay to Stay policy, and the administrative complexities involved will make it impossible to put into action on time.

The LGA’s senior vice chair has said that in many areas, the costs involved with implementing the policy will outweigh the additional rent collected, leaving the councils out of pocket and little – if any – extra income for the Treasury.

This will result in reduced regulation of social housing, and no more “lifetime tenancies” – meaning even less protection from eviction for social and private tenants, and an end to any sense of security for new tenants.

The government says that for every council property sold, at least one new “affordable” dwelling will be built. But as the London Government Association’s recent research has shown, of the 12,246 council homes sold between 2015 and 2016, only 2,055 were replaced by councils. That’s a 27 per cent drop on the previous year.

This is an attack on council houses and on the communities that live in them. It is also an attack on safe housing for women fleeing violence at home.

What about Hackney?

In Hackney, the predicted repercussions are severe. The council estimates that 700 council homes will have to be sold off in the next five years – properties that are currently used as temporary accommodation or to house people on lower incomes.

Households with a collective income of more than £40,000 will suffer rent increases of around 25 per cent, and fewer homes that are actually affordable will be built because of the pressure to build starter homes valued at £450,000, which will be “unaffordable to most borough residents”.

Glanville criticised the Act before and after it was passed. He has argued that it will damage the “social fabric of London’s inner boroughs”. Now that it has passed, he has promised to “push” the government to ensure that the “finer details of the Act’s policies are worked out in ways which address the needs of Hackney”.

Sisters Uncut demand that Hackney Council does more. Raising concerns with the government is not enough. Glanville must honour Labour councils’ radical history. Like Poplar, Liverpool and Lambeth councils past, Hackney must resist and refuse to implement this dangerous piece of legislation.

Vicky Baker is a Hackney resident and East End Sisters Uncut member.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”