Huge crowd protests against development of Walthamstow Town Square

It was a bright, freezing cold Saturday lunchtime. Any doubts that the winds blowing in from Siberia would effect the turn-out of the protest against the proposed development of Walthamstow Town Square were dispelled as soon as I stepped onto the patch of grass that the Council want to bury beneath four mega blocks. A huge crowd were mustered in the square listening to speakers put forward the case against the development. There were even a couple of people swanning around dressed as cardboard tower blocks.

Walthamstow Town Square protest

Waltham Forest Council have got it into their heads that they need to compete with Westfield Stratford just down the road, by giving planning permission to property behemoths Capital and Regional to build a new mall and four monster tower blocks of ‘luxury’ apartments, one the size of Centrepoint. They claim there’s no viable alternative.

Walthamstow Town Square protest

The hundreds of local people in the Town Square heartily disagree. They want to see genuinely affordable homes and social housing. Just 20% of the homes in the new scheme will be classed ‘affordable’  – priced at up to 80% of market rates, in a new luxury development will mean they will be far from ‘affordable’ for the majority of local people in housing need.

The genuine question is, who benefits from this scheme? And why have Waltham Forest’s Labour Councillors enthusiastically endorsed such a plan when both Walthamstow and Leyton & Wanstead Labour Parties have passed motions calling for the plans to be reviewed and alternatives explored?

Walthamstow Town Square protest

The Mall development shouldn’t become Waltham Forest’s HDV, but the dogmatic intransigence of a minority within the Council could see this campaign snowball into something much bigger if the strength of feeling on display Saturday is anything to judge by.

Find out more about the campaign to save Walthamstow Town Square here

And there’s some good background in the Waltham Forest Echo

If you live in Waltham Forest and oppose the scheme please write to your local councillors – they’ll also be knocking on your door in the coming weeks canvassing for the local elections so ask if and why they support the Mall development.

Stop HDV protest – Haringey Council’s £2billion public sell-off

Last Saturday I attended a protest to Stop the Haringey Development (HDV) – a joint venture between Haringey Council in North London and enormous multi-national property developer Lend Lease.

The scheme will see £2billion of public assets placed into the joint venture that will campaigners say will result in the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses.

Stop HDV protest

The strength of feeling against the scheme was immediately apparent as I wandered among the crowds gathered on Tottenham Green, and then as we walked along West Green Road and down Green Lanes to Finsbury Park. Cars tooted their horns, people came out of shops to cheer the protestors along. Representatives from other housing campaigns from across London were there in support.

The Stop HDV campaign have successfully raised the funds to launch and legal challenge and force a judicial review over the legality of the scheme.

The World Transformed at Labour Party Conference, Brighton

The last time I attended Labour Party Conference was also at Brighton but in 2000. I wrote and performed an ensemble political cabaret show at The Greys pub to an audience of party delegates and apparatchiks escaping the conference proper. Among the cast of 4 of The Soapbox Cabaret that night was a young up-and-coming comedian, Russell Brand.

So it was fitting that on my return to Conference that Russell should be there – but this time not performing The Song of the Spin Doctor dressed half in drag, but speaking soberly at a morning meeting about Addiction alongside Labour’s Shadow Health Spokesperson John Ashworth. The most notable thing that has changed in those 17 years though, wasn’t me or Russell, but the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Admittedly I avoided the actual Conference and stuck to Momentum’s brilliant fringe event, The World Transformed. Even the most tedious sounding events had queues stretching around the block like a gig by the hot new band or the release of a Triple A console game – except it was a bunch of people you’d barely heard of debating how to build stronger links with the Trade Unions. Chunky Mark, The Artist Taxi Driver, said “it’s a Conference but it’s like a f*cking festival mate”, when I interviewed him in the street outside a massively oversubscribed event where scores of people were turned away.

At an evening event, Governing from the Radical Left, John McDonnell was greeted onstage with a standing ovation. Paul Mason prowled the space like a glowering rock star. McDonnell summed it up best when he said the Party felt optimistic once more (when was the last time?).

Brighton pier sunset

When I’d decided to max out my credit card all those years ago to take a comedy show to the Labour Party Conference (I ran the show for a week in Bournemouth the previous year, 1999, also starring Russell) it came out of the frustration of my first Conference in 1997 as an international delegate. The first Conference after the landslide General Election victory that had returned Labour to power after 18 dismal, divisive, bitter years. It should have been a massive party, a celebration – there should have been a sense of optimism. But there was none – just a dampening of expectations. On Monday it felt like the carnival had finally arrived in Brighton, 20 years late, not to celebrate a victory, but to prepare for one.

#TWT2017

Grenfell Tower fire protest and march

Two men stood with their backs to the police cordon across Lancaster Road, the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower behind them. They both held large laminated photos – one with three small girls, the other their parents and grandmother. “I am the Uncle to these three girls”, he told me, Mierna Choukair, Fatima Choukair, Zainab Choukair, “here’s my sister Nadia, that’s her husband Bassem, and at the end is my Mum”. He had received no information from the authorities about them, he still doesn’t know if they survived the horrific fire that as of 4pm on Saturday 17th June the police are saying has claimed 58 lives. The crowd that had gathered earlier on Friday evening at Kensinton and Chelsea Town Hall put the death toll much higher. The BBC’s legendary reporter John Sweeney told me that 100 people had died, when I approached him with my camera on the march between the Town Hall and Grenfell Tower, described by some local residents as “the scene of the crime”.

Justice for Grenfell Tower protest
The man’s brother holding the photos of Nadia, Bassem, and Sirria read out the text messages Bassem had sent from his flat while the fire consumed Grenfell Tower. “At 1.15am Bassem sent a message to his workplace saying ‘Morning guys there is a fire in my building on the 4th Floor and I’m living on the 22nd Floor we are not able to leave the building and don’t know what is going to happen. Sorry guys for letting you down.”
“At 2.41 my sister sent a message to me, a voice message saying ‘Hello Nabil there is a fire in our building we are sitting in our flat, ok bye’, and that was it”. He hasn’t heard from them since and the authorities and hospitals aren’t telling them anything.
Grenfell Tower missing persons
The sense among the crowd that had gathered at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall was one being abandoned, not just in the face of this horrific tragedy, but over years. Of being ignored and maligned. But although there was a sense of anguished grief and anger there was an overwhelming message of unity and togetherness. We stand together in our call for answers and justice, was the popular refrain.

Making our way along Kensington Church Street, Holland Park Ave and Ladbroke Grove, cars and buses trapped in traffic brought to a standstill beeped their horns in support, bus drivers reached out to shake the hands of passing protestors calmly walking up the street. One person directed my camera towards the stalled 328 bus bound for ‘Chelsea World’s End’.

Flowers and candles at Notting Hill Church

As the crowds gathered at the end of Lancaster Road with Grenfell Tower looming behind a lady handed me a bottle of water. She returned a couple of minutes later with a Tuna and Cucumber sandwich. A teenage boy worked through the throng handing out cartons of Capri Sun. Looking at the photocopied pictures of the missing persons taped to the walls and doors of Notting Hill Methodist Church I had to choke back the tears. What has happened here is too terrible to comprehend.

 

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On Monday 19th June I joined people gathered for a vigil in Parliament Square, Westminster  to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.

A People’s Manifesto for the Arts

Last Saturday out on the South Bank with artist Bob and Roberta Smith to create ‘A People’s Manifesto for the Arts’ with passing members of the public. Bob had already written his own manifesto that he intended to harangue politicians with but he wanted to gauge what interest there was amongst the public to advocate for the arts during the election campaign.

Bob passionately defends the Arts and Education – seeing Art as central to free expression and a core component of democracy.

“Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in.”Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

I’ve heard him point out that tyrannical regimes always target Artists and Writers – and this Tory government has aggressively attacked the arts by withdrawing funding and eroding the place of creative subjects in the school curriculum. If your intention is to create a servile nation of worker drones the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think for themselves. Art and Culture requires you to see the world through your own eyes and encourages you to express your own feelings about the world aroud you.

In the 2015 General Election Bob ran for Parliament against Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove in the ultra safe seat of Surrey Heath. He ran a spirited campaign which provided a great platform to advocate for the Arts and highlight how Gove’s policies had damaged the teaching of Creative subjects in schools.

“Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

In a post-Brexit Britain the situation for Art, Culture, and Science looks uncertain so Bob’s campaigning is ever more vital.

You can find out more about Vote Art here

Remembering Occupy London on the 5th Anniversary

A small group of people gathered together on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral merging in with the crowds of tourists and sightseers. As I spoke to them on camera a bride passed by shadowed by her bridesmaids, the smartly dressed wedding crowd soon filled one half of the step behind. From a distance you would not have distinguished them from the general Saturday throng. They looked in many ways unremarkable, a reunion of sorts, of mostly middle-aged gentle-looking folk. But for them this wasn’t any Saturday – they were here to remember the day 5 years ago when they were part of the 3000 strong meeting of activists that started Occupy London (Occupy LSX). Some of them turned up that Saturday 15 October 2011 and didn’t leave until the camp was evicted in February 2012.

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Listening to their testimony it really hits home what a momentous day it was in the social history of London. A mass challenge to the power of the City of London by the citizenry who occupied one of it most important and symbolic sites. I attended on the second day and shot a short video – I had never seen anything like it, here was politics being done in a whole new way. There were no established groups, no leaders, listening to the discussions there was seemingly no ideology simply, as Tina puts, it that people had reached the point of ‘Enough’.

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As Jamie says in the interview above, many of the people who came to Occupy had never been involved in politics or activism before, many have been involved ever since. Tina now dedicates herself to activism full-time. Jamie is a regular fixture at actions around London.

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After the camp was broken up the London Stock Exchange itself admitted that the Occupiers had been right – the City and the banks had become too powerful and needed proper regulation. The rhetoric thrashed out at those first General Assemblies on October 2011 have become part of everyday vocabulary

“The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.”

“We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.”

“We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.”

These are sentiments that could come from the mouths of almost any politician today (even if they didn’t believe it they understand this is what people want to hear).

The Occupiers who’d come together on Saturday were enjoying sharing their memories of the camp – the didgeridoo at 4am, the kindness of strangers who brought food and money, the homeless City workers who joined the camp then went to work in the very banks being discussed, sleeping on that cold pavement through snow and rain, Christmas and New Year. Something powerful happened on October 15th 2011 that I think will take some time yet to fully understand, but I think, I hope a corner was turned in the quest for a better, more just world.