A group of domestic violence activists has occupied a flat in Hackney to protest the demise of council housing

Image: Oonagh Cousins, courtesy of Sisters Uncut.

We know – we were practically born knowing  that there isn’t enough housing in London. The Independent found in 2015 that tens of thousands of families seeking council accommodation have been moved out of London entirely, because there simply isn’t enough space.

And yet, in one single borough, over 1,000 council flats are currently standing empty. In Hackney, 18 estates are up for “regeneration” (which usually means demolition), and as they wait to be regenerated, the council is emptying them out. So Sisters Uncut, a group which campaigns against domestic violence cuts, have decided to put just one of them to good use. On Saturday 9 July they marched from Hackney Town hall and occupied a flat on the ground floor of the Marion Court estate in Hackney.

The flat is nice. Really nice. The walls are fully plastered, and the group have replaced the missing carpets and installed curtains adorned with the green and purple Sisters Uncut logo.The campaigners tell me that their next door neighbour’s flat is in worse condition; and yet, feet away, this flat was standing completely empty. I wondered if they had to break in to start the occupation, but no – the door was simply unlocked. 

“All we did was clean, put some carpets down, and bring in furniture which was donated or we found on Freecycle,” one of the Sisters (the activists generally prefer to remain anonymous) tells me.

A list of requested donations in the occupied flat. Image: author's own.

The flat’s good condition is part of the key message of the occupation: there is unused, good-quality, well-sized housing scattered all over London. “Someone now living on this estate was moved out to Basildon while she was doing her GCSEs, and eventually moved back here,” one Sister tells me. “This is a beautiful, three bedroom flat lying empty. To say there are no properties for her to live in while she does her studies is an outrageous lie.”

Sisters Uncut are here for two reasons. First, they want to use the otherwise wasted space as a community centre for the local area, which they’ll keep open “as long as possible”. People can drop by whenever they like for a chat, to donate food or other supplies, or come for the children’s breakfast club between 7 and 9 every morning. “We’re also holding housing workshops this week where people can learn their housing rights,” one sister tells me.  


But they’re also here to make a statement. The group have four key demands for Hackney council, which are inspired by their work for victims of domestic violence, but also gesture at the housing crisis as a whole: no more council flats to be lost as part of regeneration projects; women fleeing domestic violence to be housed in refuges or self-contained properties, not B&Bs; fill the borough’s 1047 empty council properties immediately; and refuse to implement the Housing Act (which would allow for rent rises and further evictions). Philip Glanville, Hackney’s deputy mayor, has agreed to speak to the group about their demands, though hasn’t confirmed yet when.

In the 1970s, over 40 per cent of Brits live in council housing; now that proportion is just 8 per cent. Put simply, Sisters Uncut want protection for council homes, not least because a better system could save the lives and livelihoods of those trying to flee abusive relationsips. It may sound old fashioned," one tells me, "but we just want proper council housing. That's what works." 

While the problems around maintaining council housing in an increasingly expensive city may seem intractable, the Sisters argue that they are not – and practical solutions are available. Empty properties should be used, and one Sister suggests that the council should have tried building more expensive “penthouse” apartments on top of existing council blocks, or built more housing on the gaps between blocks, to make money. “At the moment, we’re seeing zero creative solutions”, she says.

These problems are endemic across a city which has a questionable definition of “affordable housing” (80 per cent of market rates), and which often allows developers to dodge even measly affordable housing minumums by paying off councils. So why did the group choose Hackney?

“There are lots of empty homes here,” one Sister says. But another adds: “Hackney was home to the riots. Since then, the council just hasn’t been listening to the local people. We have an Olympic legacy of nothing.

The only legacy is seeing our communities socially cleansed out.”

Follow Sisters Uncut for more information on the occupation here.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.