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Fighting the right in Lambeth

IN THE LAST YEAR LAMBETH has seen major struggles around libraries and housing. We have had several well supported strikes by librarians, a ten day library occupation, mass lobbies and disruption of council meetings, a 2,000 strong local housing march and over 2,000 marching to greet the end of the library occupation.

Yet these struggles haven’t been against a Tory or Lib Dem council - they have been against a Labour one. Lambeth Labour, dominated by the Progress group, prides itself as being a cutting edge, modern neo-liberal council. In housing it has been a pioneer of policies now being introduced in the Tory Housing Act.

Five council estates have been targeted for ‘regeneration’, and two, Cressingham and Central Hill, for total demolition. The tenants will be dispersed for an unknown number of years and leaseholders compulsory purchased. A ‘special purpose vehicle’, Homes for Lambeth, will take over these new estates, which will become denser developments of mixed housing. Many will be sold to the private rental sector, others will be shared ownership homes, some will available to rent at an ‘affordable’ rent (80% of the private sector) while a few will be ‘social rents’, what we used to know as council housing, but with new and less secure tenancies.

Not surprisingly these plans have caused uproar among council tenants, and leaseholders - who in all likelihood will not be able to afford to buy on the new estates. A plan ironically titled ‘Culture 2020’ proposed closing several libraries and turning others into gyms with unstaffed bookshelves attached. The gyms, run by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), were to provide an income stream for the council and perhaps develop people’s muscles instead of their brains!

The bonus for the council was to make a third of the professional librarians redundant. This is all part of a plan to reduce the council workforce to a thousand by 2018 – the council had 4,000 workers in 2010.

Again these proposals were met by a wave of opposition from the community, Friends of Libraries and the unions. The occupation of Carnegie library, a fine Grade 2 listed building with an art nouveau interior, set alight a huge protest movement and received national and international media coverage. Yet the council remained largely unmoved on its plans. After the occupation it decided to put the gym in a newly dug out basement, at a cost of anything up to £2 million.

Nothing it appears is too good for Greenwich Leisure Limited, which will be given the building on a long lease and at a peppercorn rent.

The Progress group’s decision to throw millions at GLL is only one example of its close business links. While for public services and council jobs in Lambeth it’s ‘tough choices’, for private sector partners it appears money is no object. To help it set up Homes for Lambeth it has employed Savilles, the estate agent to the wealthy. Savilles recently advised the government on how to socially cleanse London council estates and turn them into bijou property developments. Now it is to be paid millions by Lambeth to do the same via Homes for Lambeth.

This is all of a piece with our Progress council’s enthusiasm for the private ‘Garden Bridge’ development, a bridge being built not for the public but for corporate events, with a £60 million subsidy from public funds and land provided at peppercorn rent by Lambeth.

The large-scale protests and the influx of new Corbyn supporters organised by Momentum in Lambeth has put this cosy relationship with big business under threat. The protests around the Carnegie occupation led to the first split in the council. Councillor Rachel Heywood issued an open letter in which she said, ‘I was proud to be among those library marchers, and passing through the Loughborough and Angell Town estates of my ward – both a stone’s throw from the now closed Minet and Carnegie libraries – provided a hugely powerful reminder of why taking this action was the right thing to do for every single one of us on that journey. Our communities are in crisis and the gap between wealth and poverty is growing.’ Over a hundred people joined the lobby of the disciplinary hearing that followed in May in support of the councillor.

The struggle to oust the Progress right in Lambeth is not going to be easy. They are well entrenched and using every bureaucratic trick in the book to prevent the new members and a reinvigorated left from taking control of the Party. Watch this space!

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