Housing in York


Saturday 26th May
sees an event being held by York Welfare Campaign entitled entitled Here to Live, Here to Stay. Timed as part of UK Uncut’s Great British Street Party, the event is both a celebration of the city and a demand that everyone is entitled to affordable and appropriate housing. People will be meeting in St Helen’s Square from 11am to 3pm, with a mixture of food, music, political stalls, kids games, talks and more. The event forms part of York Welfare Campaign’s wider series of actions around housing, which has included a recent public meeting, campaigns around housing benefit, services for homeless people and other issues.

The situation in York

While one of the most affluent cities in the north of England, and often seen as entirely “middle class”, York has its housing problems like anywhere else – however, they are by and large kept comfortably outside of the city centre, so as to not spoil things for the tourist trade. Which may help to explain why some people’s preferred approach to people begging is to have them “cleared out”, so as not to cause “a blight on our beautiful city”.

Some might say a better approach to the problem would involve giving people support and/or homes – the White Swan Hotel has been empty for the past three decades, for one thing – rather than opting for a sort of medieval banishing of the poor. But that’s just hippie talk.

In late 2011, housing charity Shelter published two reports on housing in England and Wales. One of them, available here, concluded that York is “the few exceptions…where average rents are on a par with those seen in the South East and East of England.” Similarly, it was revealed earlier this year that York is “one of the least affordable cities in the country to buy a home”.

However, when assessing applicants for housing benefit, rates for York are calculated to include surrounding areas with lower rents, artificially lowering the amount of benefit available to the point that it is inadequate for many people to help pay the bills, forcing some to leave the city. Which may also go some way towards explaining why homelessness in the city rose by 40% in the period 2010/2011.

Also in 2011, another report by Shelter revealed that 450 properties in York had been reposssessed that year alone.

All of this takes place in an environment in which benefits and services are being cut seemingly on a weekly basis. The cuts have brought to light just how divided York is as a city, and how its surface image as simply a well-off tourist trap masks a great deal. The York Press, reporting in April, noted:

The Press reported yesterday how just over 6,000 existing benefit recipients across the city will be out of pocket following a raft of cuts aimed at reducing the nation’s benefits bill by more than £2 billion, with more than 500 residents set to lose in excess of £1,000 a year.

Now a geographical analysis has shown that the ward with the most people losing out is Westfield, where 982 people, or 16.2 per cent of the total number of claimants losing benefits in York, are affected.

Another 627 will be out of pocket in Clifton, 507 in Holgate and 643 people in Heworth.

In contrast, neighbouring Heworth Without has only 33 people affected, and only 21 people will lose out in Heslington and 39 in Fulford.

Meanwhile, local homeless shelter Arclight saw its funding cut by £28,000, while other cuts – to jobs, benefits, services and the like – are all likely to have an affect of their own.

York is also home to a traveller community, with sites in Clifton, Osbaldwick and James Street. While there has been a traveller community in York going back some time, they remain marginalised and often invisible. As described by York Travellers Trust:

The location and extremely poor conditions of the three York sites are proving problematic for residents. Families have to live in an environment that is constantly infested with vermin because all of the sites have been built on industrial estates.

Overcrowding on all three sites is also a major issue due to the lack of other provision and official reluctance to build another site. The lack of adequate facilities on each site creates poor living conditions and is detrimental to the health and well-being of Gypsies and Travellers.

The situation nationally

The situation in York is only one example of the housing problems rising across the UK:

  • Figures for Autumn 2010-Autumn 2011 showed a rise in rough sleeping across the England of 23%.
  • Research carried out by Shelter in March 2012 showed one in every 111 houses at risk of eviction.
  • This year the government, as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, made it a criminal offence to squat in a residential building, punishable with a fine and/or a prison sentence. The same act, as noted by Inside Housing:…makes squatting in a residential building a criminal offence, meaning squatters could face a year in jail or a £5,000 fine. It also restricts access to legal aid to instances where households could be, or have been, made homeless.
  • In London, cuts to housing benefit – coupled with the potential for huge profits to be made during the Olympics – have seen borough councils attempting to quite literally get rid of those on housing benefit, proposing to relocate them hundreds of miles away in what has been described as “social cleansing”.

Fighting back

Across the UK – and across the world – austerity measures are cutting in harder and harder, and with them, struggles over housing become ever more a priority. There are many approaches to this, from letter-writing and public awareness campaigns to legal challenges, protest marches, direct action and more. We believe we are at our strongest when we work together, and that by taking direct action we can win the things we deserve.

Solidarity networks

A solidarity network is, as described in an interview with the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol), “a small workers’ and tenants’ mutual aid group that focuses on winning small fights against bosses and landlords, over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits, through the use of collective action in the form of pickets and demonstrations.” Similar groups in the UK include the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, the London Coalition Against Poverty, and the Glasgow Solidarity Network, among others. Solidarity networks have taken action on issues including access to benefits, problems with employment agencies, precarious work, abusive landlords and more, often working in tandem with campaign groups and unions such as the IWW.

Typically campaigns launched by solidarity networks will begin with a letter informing the target – the landlord, letting agency, employer, job agency, benefits office or whatever – of the problem being faced and what the group intends to do about it (indeed, sometimes this in itself can get results). This then leads to an escalation of tactics, including pickets, publicity stunts, occupations, networking with other affected people; from the same interview:

Every fight starts with a ‘demand delivery’ like the one linked here. We turn up as a large group at the boss or landlord’s office or business. The person with the issue hands a demand letter stating what needs to be done to the boss by a certain deadline of one or two weeks. This is basically a show of strength – the worker or tenant is supported by a large group of people – and a warning. The boss or landlord can give in now, or there will be trouble later.
If we’re lucky, the boss or landlord will give in before the deadline. If not, we start an escalating campaign. We start fairly small, then increase the pressure by adding more types of actions, more often, of increasing size. Our mainstay is a picket of a dozen or so people outside the enemy’s place of business. If it’s a restaurant or shop, this often proves economically devastating, reducing sales by half or more during the times we are there. Other techniques we use are poster campaigns to turn away prospective tenants, public embarrassment by leafleting the boss’s church or neighbourhood, interfering with suppliers or business partners, phone and internet actions, and anything else we can think of. We try to be pretty imaginative.

Resisting eviction

As austerity continues to bite with little sign of letting up, even those who would otherwise be comfortable find themselves at risk of losing their homes, in the UK and internationally. As the evictions continue, however, groups have organised to stop them, whether through legal challenges, public pressure – or by taking direct action to literally stop them in their tracks.

In the US, the Occupy protest movement has itself spawned Occupy Our Homes, which aims to challenge the increasing number of homes being foreclosed on in the US – often successfully:

After a 7 month campaign led by Occupy Homes MN, Monique White has been offered a new loan by US Bank. In October of 2011 Monique was perhaps the first homeowner in the nation to approach the Occupy movement and ask for help in defending her home from an unlawful foreclosure . The 6 month campaign to save her home set an historic precedent in the Bank and foreclosure reform movement. The new loan was offered some 15 months after the end of the Redemption period and with a payment in keeping with the homes current value.

Supporters have camped out in and around her home, led over a dozen marches on US Bank, collected over 6,500 petition signatures, packed the courtroom, shut down Bank branches, and even marched to the homeof US Bank CEO Richard Davis. Occupy Homes MN has worked with White and her family since October 2011, making national and international news in the process.

“I’m so thankful for all of the support during this process.” Said White, “Through it all I kept my faith in God and fought for what’s right. Right now I’m just thankful that my family and I will get to keep my home.”

Similar developments have taken place as part of Spain’s indignados movement and as part of occupy movements elsewhere.

Squatting

“At the end of the Second World War this kind of squatting started with what was known as the `Vigilante campaign’ which spread from Brighton to other seaside towns like Hastings and Southend. Committees of, largely, ex-servicemen, under cover of night, installed homeless families and their furniture in unoccupied houses – usually successfully, since no action could be taken to evict them once they were in, until the usually absentee property-owners could initiate legal proceedings against them.

“In the following years the campaign grew because of the anomaly of the emptying-out of hundreds of army and air-force camps during the worst housing shortage the country had known. Spontaneous individual actions began in Scunthorpe, spread quickly to two other camps in Lincolnshire, and were followed by the occupation of several camps around Sheffield, where settlers formed a Squatters’ Protection Society and linked up with the pioneer squatters at Scunthorpe. These events were rapidly followed by the seizure of hundreds of camps everywhere in Britain.”

(Colin Ward, The Hidden History of Housing)

Squatting – the occupation of empty buildings for housing or other purposes – has a long and eventful history in the UK, much of it tied in with the radical politics of the time. After the end of the Second World War, returning soldiers and their families found themselves with homes either destroyed or left to delapidation. Whole groups of families went out and squatted abandoned buildings, barracks and POW camps around the UK. The squatters movement would continue through the decades, from the communes of the 60s to the fight against the Criminal Justice Act – that attempted to clamp down on squatters, raves, travellers and activists – in the 90s.

The 2000s saw the growth of the occupied social centres movement in the UK, with buildings up and down the country being squatted by activist groups both for housing and political use. The social centres serve a range of functions, including providing offices for campaign groups, spaces for meetings, musical, artistic and political events, and as a hub for community groups and activities.

In York, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw the White Swan Hotel on Piccadilly squatted by a group of anti-war activists. Empty since the early 1980s, the building was opened up and used as a space for anti-war material as well as art work, music and fundraising events. Ongoing social centres – some squatted, some not – include the Black Rose social centre in Sheffield and the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford; a more comprehensive list can be found via the UK Social Centres Network.

Further reading

Posted in anti-cuts movement, community struggles, housing, protests, solidarity, squats | Leave a comment

Changes to this site

Over the last week or so a few small changes have been made to this site. In no particular order they include:

  • Newsfeed. This pulls in news from other websites, including local campaign groups, anarchist bloggers and news sites, union news and more. The latest five entries are displayed at the right hand side of the page.
  • Map. The activist map of York includes information relevant to local activists, including the location of sites for protests, meeting places, union and political party offices, etc.
  • Calendar. This aims to provide listings not only for events in which York Anarchists are directly involved, but also more general information which may be of interest.
  • Photos. Images from demonstrations in and around York.
  • Reading list. Suggested reading on anarchism, the law, news and more.
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Bonding Warehouse to be developed (finally)

The York Press this week reported that the Bonding Warehouse, a building by the side of the river near Clifford’s Tower, has been bought by local developers:

YORK’S historic Bonding Warehouse has been bought by a developer and looks set to be transformed into a digital media and cultural centre with a public exhibition space.

The landmark riverside building near Skeldergate Bridge, which has lain empty and boarded up since being severely flooded in November 2000, has been bought by York developers Grantside for an undisclosed sum.

The Bonding Warehouse, a reliable source of the sort of endless moaning that only a local paper can provide, dates to the late nineteenth century and spent much of its existence as a pub. In 2000 it was closed down after heavy flooding, and has been officially empty ever since, with a series of potential offers coming up and then being rejected.

Unofficially, however, the building has seen a fair bit of activity over its decade-plus of being empty. In 2004, squatters occupied the building as part of a series of squats aimed at drawing attention to the waste of buildings in the city. The squat was run by the York Peace Collective, who first made their name squatting the (still) abandoned White Swan Hotel as part of York’s anti-war movement.

A few years later, in winter 2006, the Bonding Warehouse was again squatted, this time by a mix of residents and students including the University of York’s anarchist society at the time, FreeSoc (not to be confused with the current right-wing “libertarian” Freedom Society). The squatters opened up the building as a social centre, putting on musical performances, workshops, political debates, art displays and more. An archive of the York Indymedia gives a flavour of what it was like.

While it’s true that we’ve heard it all before, with one offer after another coming along and falling through, it is at least reasonably likely that this one will work out. How it will all turn out is anyone’s guess. But it is reassuring to know that, even briefly, the abandoned space was put to a use other than yet another business hub or bland cafe.

Were you involved in either of the squats? Did you visit them? Comment here!

Posted in anarchism, community struggles, history, protests, squats | 1 Comment

York activists denied entry to Palestine

This weekend saw the beginning of Welcome to Palestine, an initiative aimed at bringing solidarity activists from around the world together in Palestine for a series of conferences, social events and solidarity work such as help in building a school in Bethlehem. Three activists from York participated in the event – or at least intended to. The activists, Terry Gallogly, Mary Watson and Carol Pearman, are members of the York Palestine Solidarity Campaign and had aimed to help break the isolation faced by Palestinians as a result of the Israeli occupation and blockades.

Prior to the start of the event, activists from across Europe – including the York delegation – reported having had their tickets cancelled at the last minute on the orders of the Israeli government (letter from the Israeli government to the airlines, letter from Jet2 to customers). Activists at Manchester airport staged an impromptu protest against both their being denied travel and Jet2 refusing to refund their tickets, a decision on which the airline later backed down. In Israel, meanwhile, 40 pro-Palestine activists were arrested at Ben Gurion airport.

Updates can be found at WelcomeToPalestine.info and the #airflotilla2 blog and Twitter feed. Leehee Rothschild, an Israeli anarchist who spoke in York last September, has also been providing ongoing coverage on Twitter.

Posted in community struggles, israel/palestine, protests, solidarity | Leave a comment

Workfare protests in York


This Saturday, 31st March, saw groups across Europe take part in an international day of action against capitalism. A full list of events can be found at march31.net along with reports from the demonstrations and other actions, with further updates available through the Twitter account and #m31 hashtag.

In the UK, pickets took place in cities across the UK – mostly organised by the Solidarity Federation (SolFed) – against the workfare program. While some token reforms to the system were granted following protests earlier this year, the workfare system remains up and running, with a High Court hearing due to take place in June.

In York, a protest was called by York Welfare Campaign, visiting a series of shops in the city centre which are known to be involved with workfare on a national level, including Holland and Barrett, Greggs and Poundland. This came as a followup to the previous demonstration held on 3rd March as part of the Boycott Workfare national day of action.

Some protestors spoke on a mobile soundsystem describing the workfare system and the problems it creates, while others distributed leaflets, spoke to passersby or stood shackled with a ball and chain made specially for the occasion. Response was generally positive, with some people joining the protest once they realised what it was about.

Photos can be found on the York Anarchists Facebook, while the event was also covered by the York Press and Minster FM. Reports from elsewhere in the UK can be found here.

Posted in anarchism, anti-cuts movement, community struggles, pickets, protests, solidarity, workfare | 1 Comment

Picketing Adecco – solidarity with the CNT!

On Friday 24th February members of York Anarchists and others took part in a picket of Adecco (leaflet here) in solidarity with members of the CNT in Cordoba, Spain. This picket was part of a series of pickets held across the UK organised by the Solidarity Federation.

From SolFed:

Workers at a Asea Boveri Brown (ABB) factory in Cordoba Spain have been on indefinite strike since 28th November, camped out all day and night in front of the factory. The strike was called in protest at ABB plans to make workers employed by subcontractors EULEN at the factory redundant and replace them with EUROCEN non-union labour with no experience or qualifications. EUROCEN is the logistics division of the ADECCO Group of companies.

Their union the National Conferation of Labour (CNT) points out that the problems related to the work in ABB are also related to outsourcing in general. The workers who were employed through EULEN in fact worked for ABB and took orders from them, but they have a much lower salary and worse working conditions than regular ABB workers and ABB took no responsibility for them as an employer. There were serious breaches of health and safety and inadequate equipment provided. There is also the fact that the relevant collective agreements for the work they actually perform were not applied. Management’s refusal to address these issues also led to the strike. First management responded by hiring scab labour from ADECCO. Then they fired all the strikers. By continuing to provide strikebreakers, ADECCO is complicit in ABB’s continued union repression at the factory where there have been a number of union victories over the last 2 years.

Employment agencies like Adecco have been complicit in undermining workers, driving down wages and break strikes across the world. The very nature of temp work divides workers and weakens their resistance – by creating a division between permanent and agency staff, by ensuring a steady supply of labour to break strikes and replace redundancies, and by putting workers in an unstable, precarious position, making it increasingly difficult to organise against attacks on our pay and conditions. The fight of the CNT workers in Spain is part of a much wider, and ongoing, fight against the use of casual labour to undermine the entire working class.

Love, rage & solidarity,

York Anarchists

Posted in pickets, protests, solidarity, workplace resistance | 3 Comments

All’s fare in love and (class) war

This Saturday – 3th March – sees a National Day of Action against workfare. Folks in York will be meeting at the fountain on Parliament Street at 1pm and then moving on to companies involved in the workfare scheme.

What’s workfare?

Workfare refers to a series of schemes created by the government with the stated aim of getting unemployed people into work. In practice, this means having them work full-time for a set period of time, working anything from four weeks to six months for around 30 hours a week.

People put on the workfare scheme are still only eligible for their basic benefits, with Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) working out at between a little over fifty and a little under seventy seventy pounds a week depending on personal circumstances. At 30 hours a week’s work that leaves people being paid around two pounds an hour.

Claimants put on the workfare scheme face strict sanctions if they fail to participate, including having their benefits suspended or removed altogether. The justification for the whole scheme – that it is intended to help people get into work – is somewhat undermined by the fact that it does nothing of the sort, with the amount of time on JSA spent by those on workfare being largely the same as those who are not.

Who’s affected?

Workfare, in its multiple forms, is increasingly being brought out as a supposed “answer” to the UK’s rising levels of unemployment. Quite aside from its main target, the long-term unemployed, workfare has been carted out as a catch-all solution for youth unemployment, being included in the government’s Youth Contract announced last November. In this, 18 to 24 year olds who have been out of work for three months or more.

Disabled people also face being forced into the workfare scheme, a step which, when combined with the atrocious behaviour of government-funded “assessors” such as Atos and planned changes to disability benefits will leave thousands of disabled people in poverty and/or forced into work for which they are unsuitable.

The impact of workfare goes far further than those directly placed on the scheme. Access to compulsory – and effectively free – labour allows companies to undermine paid workers in order to cut costs, as happened over Christmas when a branch of Asda sent home its paid workers early, relying on “work experience” staff to pick up the slack.

Earlier this year the Communications Workers Union (CWU) came out publicly in support of the use of workfare staff by the Royal Mail. Quite aside from the disgusting spectacle of an organisation claiming to represent workers coming out in favour of compulsory labour for pitiful “wages”, their decision – and that of any union which chooses to support, or not oppose, workfare in its industry – will likely come back to haunt them. Should workers attempt to take strike action, workfare staff will be faced with the choice of crossing a picket line and undermining their coworkers in struggle, or of refusing to attend work and finding themselves with severe sanctions, without even access to the meagre benefits currently being provided.

Who profits?

In the past weeks, companies have been pulling out of workfare left right and centre, a process which has caused a quite hilarious over-reaction from the government – with Ian Duncan Smith demanding a police crackdown on protestors and George Eustice putting the opposition entirely down to a “handful of communists“. Much of the press, meanwhile, has (wrongly) put the blame on the SWP.

While many companies have already pulled out, many are still in, both the companies (list from Boycott Workfare) such as A4e, who manage the Work Programme, and retailers and charities who make use of workfare staff (list from Boycott Workfare).

Who’s opposed?

Contrary to the hysteria created by the government and its obedient media, opposition to workfare exists far beyond the confines of the British left’s alphabet soup of Trotskyist parties and their pet campaign groups. Disability campaigners, anti-cuts groups, claimants organisations, charities and more have all come out against the workfare scheme, and every indication is that the opposition will only continue.

In York, this Saturday’s protest has been called by York Welfare Campaign, a group affiliated to York Stop the Cuts campaigning on access to benefits and services, including housing, disability, unemployment and more. York Welfare Campaign meets every fortnight at 7:30 in the Corner Pin (just off Rougier Street), with the next meeting planned for Tuesday 6th of March.

York protest against workfare this Saturday 3rd March. 

Meet 1pm at the fountain. Keep updated via Facebook.

Posted in community struggles, disability, pickets, protests, solidarity, workfare | 3 Comments