Friday, 20 November 2009

Living Hell - Cashing in

Living Hell - Cashing in: Part 2 

No council officer had reported the possibility of such serious risks to children. No council officer had reported the extreme conditions under which sixteen Vietnamese refugee families were forced to live in the top floors of Princes Lodge; no doubt these were ‘problem families’. A case worker for the British Refugee Council, Romily Gregory, described the conditions to me as ‘unbelievable…In the common toilets you were up to your ankles in urine and water. The people tried so hard to make civilized order out of this, but it was impossible. In one room there are badly disabled old people, two of them paralysed. They couldn’t go anywhere. Tears streamed down their cheeks when I was there…I’ve not seen such desperation.’

On the contrary, a council environmental health officer had reported that ‘the premises, whilst far from five star hotel standards, are in reasonably clean condition, bearing in mind some of the individuals and problem families who stay there’. The implication was clear: the people, not Princes lodge, were the ‘problem. This was reminiscent of Poor Law attitudes which were not difficult to promote in devastated communities encouraged to seek scapegoats rather than political action.

Princes Lodge, which has hundreds of counterparts all over Britain, existed as a landmark a few miles from the City of London. Neither Paul Cowie nor Paul Beasley would discuss it with me. Beasley, having relinquished his leadership of the Labour group in 1984, became a busy man as ‘special projects adviser’ to a Turkish multi-millionaire financier, Asil Nadir, who has interests in Tower Hamlets.

Paul Cowie carried a plastic shopping bag containing a monkey mask which he would put on and run whenever he arrived at and left Princess Lodge. So anxious had he been to conceal his features from the Press that he would open the door of his flat in Victoria wearing the mask. The day after I published Jim and McKirdy’s complaints, Cowie’s bouncers evicted them and their children and two-other families who had complained.

It was March 13, Budget Day. While the Chancellor, was intoning his portfolio of tax favors in the Commons, fourteen people, including nine children aged from three years, attempted to assemble their belongings on a traffic island in front of Princes Lodge. An icy wind sluiced Commercial Road. It was rush hour and employed people on their way home stopped to watch. They seemed bemused and entertained as if what they were witnessing was the filming of a street scene in a movie. The bouncers brought out the families’ personal things in black plastic bags, several of which split. There was a birdcage, an ironing board, a television, Jason McKirdy, aged four, asked his mother where they would sleep that night. Key replied, ‘Oh, we’ll know soon.’ They were thrown out at dusk, just as the Council’s homeless persons unit was about to close. When I got to the Council Offices, I received a dissertation from an official on weather or not the Council had ‘statutory obligations’ to the families. I finally left with the addresses of two hotels whose gain of three families was Cowie’s financial loss; the system was simply recycling them. All three families were eventually rehoused by the Greater London Council.

Princes Lodge was important because it represented much of what had happened to working people since the days of hope in the 1960s. What its conditions vividly expressed was the failure of the ‘old guard’ of the Labour Party in local government, in Parliament, in the institutions, to protect the very people for whom the Party was meant to exist; and by not protecting them, and by consorting with their enemies, and playing tactical political games rather than opposing and fighting back with ideas and commitment, they have betrayed and effectively disenfranchised up to a third of the population. It is they who are a major source of bitterness in Britain.

Tower Hamlets is traditional, old guard Labour ground. My experience of the ruling Labour group was best summed up by the former mayor, Councillor John O’Nell, whose health and consumer services committee had resisted to the end all attempts to serve Namecourt Ltd with a control order under the Housing Act. O’Nell said to me, ‘’it’s all right you writing these melodramatic reports. Cowies’s got rights, too.’

The end came on May 3, 1984 when Tower hamlets Council was forced by pressure to serve the first statutory control order in the borough’s history, this was the direct result of a campaign led by a coalition of unemployed people, including former residents of Princes Lodge, Tower Hamlets Law Center, the Campaign for Single Homeless (CHAR) and the Houses in Multiple Occupation Campaign, together with teachers, priests, vicars, bishops, doctors, nurses, trade unionists, the Greater London Council (which has since rehoused most of the residents of Princes Lodge) and myself.

This remarkable campaign, for which I can recall no precedent, raised sprits and dispersed apathy at meetings and rallies in the East End of London. Outside Princes Lodge itself, a great ‘Living Hell’ banner was raised. On one memorable night hundreds of us crowded into or stood in the rain outside the Old Poplar Town Hall where, in the 1920s, the radical politician George Landsbury had made his impassioned speeches against the levying of punitive rates on the stricken borough, and went to gaol for his pains.

Sixty years later the coming together of so many from across the divides of class, race and creed was an echo of that struggle. And, of course, there was more to it than the closure of one slum. It was a revivalist meeting whose energy derived from a wider frustration and a deeper anger.

Indeed, the Princes Lodge campaign was part of a resistance: and resistance is the appropriate word at a time when many in the governing authorities regard large sections of the population as the ‘enemies within’. Those who resist believe, with evident justification, that democracy is no longer open to them.

By John Pilger from his book Heroes 1986

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