Concerned eyebrows

Originally posted on August 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Housing protests burst on to the stage at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

One of the best shows I saw on the Fringe was E15, a play devised from verbatim accounts of what’s happened since 29 single mothers were told they would be evicted from the Focus E15 hostel in Newham in October 2013.

For a mainstream audience it shows the extremes of the housing crisis in a borough where severe homelessness and deprivation co-exist with the post-Olympics boom. It’s also the inspirational story of a group of people who in their own words knew nothing about politics and protesting but who refused to be marginalised.

For a housing audience it poses some challenging questions that are set to become even more relevant under a fresh round of cuts. The villain of this piece is Sir Robin Wales, the combative Labour mayor of Newham, who the E15 mums say told them ‘if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham’. But the portrayal that should really worry housing professionals is that of the senior manager from East Thames Housing Association who attempted to explain to them why they were being evicted.

As featured in the play, East Thames was forced to evict them from the mother and baby unit at the hostel because the council cut the funding. Neither that, nor East Thames’s worthy motivations in opening Focus E15, cut much ice with the mothers. They have a withering description of what they see as the ineffectual concern of the senior manager who explained the decision to them: ‘concerned eyebrows’.

Left to the tender mercies of Newham’s housing department, the mothers were told they faced rehousing out of the borough and as far away as Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings. That was the final straw for a protest march to the council and an accidental meeting with the Revolutionary Communist Group at their stall in Stratford. But that was only the beginning of demonstrations, occupations, arrests and link-ups with the wider housing protest movement across London.

Along the way they’ve won some noticeable victories: 12-month tenancies within Newham for the 29; the reopening of some of the boarded-up flats on the Carpenters Estate; and even an apology from Robin Wales for their treatment. Their ‘Social Housing Not Social Cleansing’ and ‘These Homes Need People’ banners have come to sum up the movement.

The play is by FYSA, a Sheffield-based verbatim company that combines theatre and social activism (The 56, its other show at Edinburgh, is about the Bradford Fire). The excellent young cast at times make you wonder whether you’re watching actors or the real E15 mothers. It also features a dramatic twist that I won’t ruin if you want to catch it at the Gilded Balloon Teviot until Monday.

But the play left me wondering about the future. As the E15 protestors’ 12-month tenancies begin to expire how long will it be before £1,000 a month rents start to hit the new lower benefit cap? And how long will it be before the end of the automatic right to housing benefit for under-21s hits young single parents and projects like Focus E15 even harder?

As those cuts bite even deeper, the local authorities and housing associations implementing them are likely to be the focus of even more protests. They may feel targeted by far left activists and wonder if the anger would be better directed at central government. But they need to ask themselves if ‘concerned eyebrows’ will be a good enough response.

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