Does anyone still really want to listen to Osborne’s dogmatic theory of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’? This abstract idea claims that if only the private sector employers were freed from the shackles of basic employment rights and there were deep enough government cuts to stop the public ‘crowding out’ private investment; we would all reach the nirvana of growth and prosperity. However, the majority of people fortunately reject austerity; with a recent poll showing the British people would prefer an economic strategy closer to President Hollande than Osborne. For Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts the next step is resistance. The conference last Saturday brought together local people, knowledgeable about the impact cuts will play on their community, to debate alternatives.
This was a conference, however modest, that brought together experts from Defend Council Housing, Keep Our NHS Public and Coalition of Resistance, and was informative, accessible and certainly an experience to build further resistance on. Warm welcomes and teas aside, we were all invited to listen to these inspiring and insightful accounts of how this deprived borough of London will fall further victim to austerity imposed by our millionaire cabinet. But crucially, initiatives, and practical examples of how best to approach these challenges, were the goal. We broke into different workshops that throughout the day discussed jobs, benefits, pensions, NHS, council housing, and the fight against fascism. All action points and feedback were reported back at the end.
The Defend Council Housing workshop was very informative. With over 5 million on the housing waiting list, it is clear that there is a real crisis in housing. We heard from local residents who could talk on behalf of neighbors with either severe housing needs, overcrowding, or who were being forced to pay extortionate rent in the private sector. There is no doubt that housing demands urgent attention. The meeting addressed government attacks on tenancy agreements and initiatives to ensure local people are aware of their rights as legal aid budgets diminish and Citizen Advice Bureaus start to buckle under the pressure of funding cuts.
The workshop gave an accessible breakdown of the housing jargon, combined with opportunity to share stories of the impact of the government’s attacks. It made it painstakingly clear that what the government defines as ‘affordable rents’ bare little reality to those in living in Barking. Stories were exchanged, including one woman describing neighbors who were thrown out, along with all of their belongings, as rents were not met and private landlords took matters into their own hands. A teacher highlighted the feelings of insecurity of many living on 6 month fixed contracts; unsure of the future. We heard further stories about the many families in Barking and Dagenham currently living in one room, and the impact this is having on the children growing up in the household.
The belief that councils should provide affordable, adequate council housing was unanimous. Government imposed rent controls and sufficient regulation to ensure basic standards of provision (i.e. heating, gas, water, free of damp, replace broken windows/furniture etc.) for private sector housing were among the articulated demands to meet local needs.
The workshop also covered the evolution of council housing, spanning from Thatcher’s Right to Buy (1980), to the abolition of rent controls. For Barking and Dagenham at least, these changes paved the way for New Labour to use private finance initiative (PFI) to build hospitals and homes, whilst draining the council of money. These contracts ensured further housing would be open to private landlords rather than desperately needed council housing, resulting in a national increase of evictions by private landlords, which are up by 17per cent since the 2007 crash – Barking far exceeds that with an increase of 30 per cent in the last year.
The conference focused on outreach, and organising local tenancy and housing associations to meet the shortfall in advice with leaflets and meetings, and working together to resist further evictions.
The workshop on jobs, pensions and workfare was a useful session that clearly linked all three areas, and attendees shared experiences on how to resist the changes that are taking place. One man from Remploy, a leading provider of employment services that support disabled jobseekers, expressed concerns about his ability to pay rent if the local factory closes. There are plans to resist the closure, and save the factory that provides jobs to over 500 employees locally on 4 July, but with ‘no jobs out there’, the man felt himself and fellow employees were being ‘put on the scrapheap’. Plans to demand union support for the protest are underway. In addition, workers from Remploy, will be protesting outside the house of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Ian Duncan Smith.
There were two additional workshops that covered multiculturalism and resisting fascism, and the NHS privatisation. Both are historically crucial topics for Barking and Dagenham, with the BNP having previously been the second-largest party, and one of the local hospitals being in dire financial straits.
However, it is clear that with modest but ambitious collectives like Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts emerging, resistance to such pressures is not going to be muted. It was apparent from the start that sense of community, knowledge of local services and understanding of the impacts of the cuts, is what unites this group and gives them the tools to stand up to the politicians in Whitehall implementing and supporting these damaging initiatives.
For more information on Barking and Dagenham’s fight against the cuts, you can visit the group’s website: www.bdagainstthecuts.wordpress.com