local report from hackney, london – crisis in the city’s ripped back-yard

Written for debate at The Commune’s assembly on September 11th 2010 in London.

1) Intro 2) Class/Capital Structure in Hackney 3) General Re-Structuring in the Working-class Terrain 4) Overview of the Cuts 5) Recent Strikes / Resistance 6) Initiatives of the Left 7) Open Questions for Communist Strategy 8) Questionaire for Local reports 9) Footnotes

1) Intro

The following text is a work in progress in two regards, firstly in its attempt to capture some of the concrete impacts of the crisis on a local level, secondly to provide more general analysis of the class structure in Hackney for the debate of future local political activities. Therefore the summarising question would be: How do the cuts actually change working class conditions, what is the current internal constitution of the local working class and how could a political collective relate to it strategically and in a practical manner? The main problem for us in answering these questions is that up till now we have seen the cuts primarily ‘on the monetary announcement’-level, but we have little insight into how these cuts trickle down into neighbourhoods, benefit offices, work-places, what kind of material changes they cause on the way and what kind of conflicts they engender. Without this kind of insight  protest will remain on a superficial level of public moaning about the government’s policies.

2) Class/Capital Structure in Hackney

Hackney in North-East London borders the City and financial districts in the south, a middle-class dominated area in the west and mainly working-class areas in north and east. Around 220,000 people live in Hackney, the area is densely populated, with a large share of estate-type houses. The borough is dominated by the migrant working class  andunemployment is above average at around 11 per cent. The public sector is the biggest single employer in Hackney: around 23,000 people work in the sector. Large workers’ concentrations are Homerton Hospital, Hackney College, Hackney Waste Depot, various medium-sized call centres and supermarkets. There is a significant commuting community of workers better paid council workers tend to live outside of Hackney and commute to work, while many workers living in Hackney work in the centre of London.

Hackney is the most deprived borough in London (1) and is second only to Liverpool as the most deprived in the country. Inner London remains the most unequal part of the country with a fifth of its residents amongst the richest tenth of households in the country (2). Given the proximity to the City gentrification is rampant. The internal class divisions between ‘lumpen-ised’ unemployed and low paid service workers on one side, and middle-waged semi-executive office workers on the other, is blatant. With the crisis this personal dimension of class hierarchies is increasing. A large share of the local work-force caters for others, e.g. as restaurant workers, private care takers, cleaners. The wider reproduction is organised by mainly public sector workers with a permanent status, who form the middle-income-strata of working class together with and a large amount of workers in small-scale industries like print-shops, food-processing, courier-services, design or architect offices etc.. This ‘productive’ archipelago has still to be examined.

The differences to not only express themselves in wage differences – and the ability to command other people’s labour, but also in terms of housing and property owner-ship. Housing is one of the major issues in Hackney. The rate of house owner-ship is one of the lowest in the UK, only about 30 per cent of people own their houses, while the share of people who claim housing benefit is extremely high, around 40 per cent of all households. Nearly 25 per cent of these claiming households live in privately rented houses – another expression of the internal class division in Hackney. Hackney has the highest level of empty houses in London; 2,566 homes empty for more than six months. At the same time the borough has a high level of overcrowded flats; 10 per cent of houses are overcrowded compared to 2.5 nationally. Around 15,500 people are on the council housing list and 2,000 people are officially homeless. The policy of the local state is to neglect social housing maintenance in order to soften people up for private re-development.

The poverty-management is obvious, with a lot of social control schemes, neighbourhood-police, community-pay back gangs of young convicts sweeping streets. Reports of gang-crime, stabbings and shootings are proliferated together with the introduction of new policing measures. But the combination of ‘cuts in reproduction costs’ and ‘social control’ is not enough. Obviously a major task for the state is to combine low-cost poverty and workfare-management with an upgrading of living areas attractive for real estate investment. These are the two poles to mobilise and synchronise a combined local work-force: management and administrative workers and a bottom segment of low-waged reproductive workers. The grease for this re-structuring is from down the road, from the City.

The geographical proximity between one of the world’s most important financial districts and one of Western Europe’s poorest neighbourhoods has its consequences. Boom money from the Global South is presented as ‘benefits’ to the metropolitan urban poor. These ‘poles of tension’ between both ends of Kingsland Road do not only require the mediation via budget and taxation policies, but through an army of ‘social work’, partly community based, partly outside the official government sector. Parts of the ‘use-value side’ of the large public sector employment have to be seen in these political terms.

3) General Re-Structuring in the Working-class Terrain

There are several large scale re-structuring projects which will impact on the local class composition, e.g. rail-connections between City and Dalston, which has made the area more attractive for middle-strata commuters. Two of the main projects are the Olympic Games Site and the re-development of the large housing estates in Woodberry Down.

The Olympic Site (7) is a counter-cyclic investment. The major construction project has changed the landscape in the east of Hackney, formerly dominated by a work-shop and ware-house economy and working-class dwellings. Currently thousands of multi-national building workers are engaged in setting up the infrastructure for an event, which will create short-term revenue for the advertisement-industry and the real estate market: since winning the Olympics bid house prices in Homerton are up by 69 per cent and up by 53 per cent in Shoreditch compared to the 36 per cent London average. We will have to analyse the impact of the Olympic Games on the local labour market. There will be a boost in service jobs like cleaning, security etc. at a time when the budget cuts will create redundancy pressure in the wider local sphere. The local job centres will become a interface between the short-term demand and increased unemployment of formerly guaranteed jobs – they will have to create a dynamic relation between the two.

Woodbery Down is one of the biggest housing estates in Hackney, around 2,500 flats. It is an example of the link between global crisis and local conditions. The estate was Europe’s biggest slum-relocation project after the Second World War. Since the 1990s it has been run down systematically. In the 2000s during the real estate boom the plan was to demolish the existing stock and build 4,800 new homes, out of which 2,125 are supposed to be affordable homes – meaning also homes with shared ownership – and 2,175 for sale. The local state argued that the homes ‘for sale’ will finance the social housing, “because the central government will not spend extra money”. In January 2005 they announced that the whole construction will be completed by January 2008. Re-housing began in 2004 – but so far no new homes have been finished. Many flats are empty – some are occupied by ‘temporary tenants’ sent from other councils. The main developer Berkley Homes has been hit severely by the current crisis, shares have been down by 50 percent after the slump of October 2008. The Dubai crisis also affected one of the main investors.

Another major shift in local employment is going to happen once Hackney Council will take back some the formerly outsourced work. This will affect workers in housing estate maintenance and the re-cycling department. Outsourcing made financial sense during the era of cheap money and ‘start-up miracles’ – we will have to see how the shift of hundreds of workers from the private to the public sector will be managed and mediated – and what kind of demands the workers might develop.

4) Overview of the Cuts

At this point of time we are only able to give a brief over-view of the current planned cuts by Hackney Council. We will have to follow up the consequent results on the work-place and neighbourhood level.

* School Support Staff: teaching assistants, learning mentors and nursery nurses are being cut back with restructures at Colvestone, Burbage, Grazebrook, Downsview and Ickburgh school.
* Six Hackney schools have indicated an interest in becoming academies. Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum, honour nationally agreed pay and conditions;
* Jobs and courses are under threat at Hackney College.
* Subsidised nursery places have been cut from 300 to 60.
* NHS redundancies as the Hackney Primary Care Trust looks to make ‘efficiency savings’ and privatisation. Cuts of up to 187 million over next three years in Hackney NHS; Homerton Hospital might shut down the Accident and Emergency, Stroke and Maternity Departments, replaced by smaller GP units, polyclinics.
* Two refuse trucks have been cut, the work-load increasing for remaining workers
* Community Safety department has had £3.8 million of grant funding cut
* £1.3 of the £3.8 million will come from the Working Neighbourhoods Fund designed to get the long term jobless back into work
* Voluntary Sector: Reduction to the grants programme from £750k to £500k in 2010
* Housing Needs services is being cut back meaning there will be less staff to assist the homeless and those in temporary accommodation.
* Bankruptcy of Hackney Credit Union in June 2010, many benefit claimants had problems withdrawing money from their accounts
* Pay freeze for 23,000 public sector workers
*Negatively affected households due to changes in benefit calculation: 40,000 on housing benefit; 57,000 children receiving child benefit; 46,000 children receiving tax credits
* The proposed revision of housing benefits will affect around 1,600 people in Hackney who would have to find an additional 35 Pounds per week in order to stay in their existing flats

We cannot assess the political impact of these cuts. While there are tendencies of fragmentation and outsourcing regarding hospitals and colleges there is the opposite trend in the estate and waste management department. The only clear thing so far is that the cuts are not a pure attack on ‘jobs and wages’, but a re-structuring of the reproductive and policing function of the local state. A lot of programs targeted by the cuts are low-level social services which ‘advise’ or ‘support’ the poor: migrant advice, teaching assistants, community schemes etc. The cuts will leave ‘social gaps’ which will have to be filled and mediated – here an uncritical philanthropist left is predestined to become better social managers. Some of the experiences of the left in Hackney confirm this premonition – see below.

5) Recent Strikes / Resistance

Apart from general participation during national conflicts, like for example the strike at Royal Mail, there have not been many open struggles in Hackney recently.

* Strike of East London Bus Group. The dispute started in late 2009 against the management’s attempt to enforce a pay-freeze. (8)
* Strike at Hackney Community College. Since early 2010 there have been several actions of staff at the college to oppose the cuts and compulsory redundancies. In February over £1million in cuts were announced at the college, affecting 68 staff with either redundancy or a reduction in hours. After staff took 2 days of strike action, and following a lot of negotiation, there has been a reduction in the number of compulsory redundancies. (9)
* Protest of Residents against Police Camp near Olympic Site. In July 2010 several hundred residents met at a protest meeting against the setting-up of a police base in a public park near the Olympic Site. (10) There is also an attempt of the IWW to organise among the construction workers on the site itself. (11)

The other part of the left reacts ‘apolitically’ by organising around social issues, such as homelessness, migrant support, child care provision – neglecting a political perspective of the function of state services or the material base of class power and collectivity. In the current social situation of crisis these initiatives run danger to become instrumentalised by the state as ‘conflict-alarm-systems’ and in order to smooth over the blibs, which emerge due to lack of funding for the urban poor. We see the following examples as part of self-critical reflection, given our own involvement in most of them.

King’s Crescent Occupation

As mentioned earlier the housing question is one of the pressing issues in Hackney, therefore any occupation is directly at the forefront of social conflict – knowingly or not. In late 2009 a group of activists and working-class people, mainly from Eastern Europe, occupied empty flats on King’s Crescent Estate. The council did not bother to go through the legal proceedings but issued anti-social behaviour orders, and banned them from the premises. The squatters tried to pressurise the council with media activities and engagement of Green Party members. The council avoided a police eviction but send a gang of guys who smashed all water-pipes in the floor above, thereby flooding the squatters out. Some of the squatters were in desperate housing situations, among them a mother with a new-born. The council services initially postponed help, because the squat was seen as temporary accommodation. Here we can see how the direct action is squeezed between the state’s strategy and shortcoming: the state let’s estates run down to build up pressure for redevelopment, which the crisis has put into question – and squatting can fit into the picture of ‘low maintenance’-regime as long as it is not targeting the wider picture. (12)

Save Hackney Nurseries Campaign

As mentioned earlier Hackney Council has announced severe cuts in funding for nurseries. To raise the issue of child-care from a working-class perspective is on the agenda. State control over nurseries, the child-care benefits and prices for child-care is a central means of regulating female employment. Depending on state policies working-class women either have to accept low paid jobs – under the pressure of job centres and the ‘free provision’ of child-care – or to stay at home because the income will not pay for the nursery.

A campaign was set-up to defend the nurseries, by petitions, public mobilisations, meetings of affected people. While it seems easier to get the ‘professional’ representatives engaged in the campaign, e.g. voluntary sector nursery managers, journalists, community activists – so far it has been difficult to bring nursery workers and working-class nursery users together. A small group of nursery workers who had managed to resist day-to-day contracts in council nurseries in Hackney were reluctant to give an interview about their situation, being afraid that they would be seen as ‘trouble-makers’ by possible future employers in the sector. It has still to be debated whether a consequent focus on proletarian self-organisation of both proletarian users and nursery workers would actually clash with the attempts to ‘create a public campaign’. (13)

Hackney Alliance to Defend Public Services

The Hackney Alliance to Defend Public Services probably reflects the composition of similar alliances in other places of the UK. Composed mainly of Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party plus middle-rank union officials, representing a certain section of the working class, mainly teachers and administration workers. There have been three meetings so far, most of the time is spent on internal formalities and the question how the alliance presents itself to the outside.

Political debates erupted around the question whether we can gang up with the Labour Party against the Tories, whether we should suggest an increase in council tax to avoid public service cuts and whether decision-making power within the alliance should be linked to the ‘representative’-strength of the individual members, meaning that elected union officials should have ‘more clout’ due to their representative function. There was little debate about day-to-day experience of crisis, apart from the input from Hackney College. The only productive suggestion so far has been a Hackney bulletin against the cuts. (14)

7) Open Questions for Communist Strategy

As we said earlier, we don’t stand outside of these efforts, and we haven’t created a space for ‘communist’ local debate and practice yet. The main tasks for the formation of such as space would be:
* critical-theoretical reflection of the ‘community’-approach within  the radical left and the question of the ‘reproductive sphere’ as part  of class struggle

* a series of interviews about impact of crisis in different areas of proletarian experience, e.g. job centre, work-places, estates

* debate of the class struggle tendencies of existing left activities and how to support them practically, e.g. unemployed workers’  initiatives, squatting etc.

* strategic discussion about central points of working-class convergence  in the area, e.g. central work-places, social spaces etc.

* debate about new forms of meetings and publication corresponding to the current class composition

The challenge will be to organise practically against the crisis  attacks and to organise a debate about the ‘character of social  reproduction’ within the struggle: to find a new language to criticise  state institutions and urban alienation on the background of concrete  workers’ experiences.

8) Questionnaire for Local Reports

* Where do you live?

* How many people live there?

* Who are the main employers, or sectors people work in?

* Where have the most recent investments been?

* How significant is unemployment and its social consequences?

* How significant is the migrant population and who constitutes it?

* How significant is the university and student world?

* Who is local government, have there been changes recently?

* What kind of general impact of recession can you make out?

* Have there been public sector cuts, or have any been announced?

* Who is concretely affected by the cuts?

* How did they ‘sell’ the cuts and how did affected people react?

* Have there been job cuts or company closures? Where and how?

* Has there been an increase in social control measures, workfare  programs or other state measures to control social reproduction?

* Has there been changes in housing, gentrification recently?

* Is there a ‘socially present’ working class and/or history of  struggle?

* What have been the most important ‘social struggles’ in recent years?

* What about the structure and social presence of the unions?

* Who constitutes ‘the left’ in your town’? Has this changed over the  last two years?

* What are the main activities of the left? Are there new tendencies or initiatives in last two years?

* Are there local newspapers or open meetings of the left?

* Have there been mobilisations of the left or the unions against the  cuts or other crisis impacts? How did that go? Who came? How do these  ‘alliances against the cuts’ relate practically to the local working  class?

* Are there social-cultural activities, such as squatting, DIY concerts etc.? Have they changed during recent years?

* Where do you work or study?

* Are you active in ‘social-political sense’? (Work-place, tenants association etc.)?

* What were your own political efforts and experiences in the last two years?

* What would you focus you activities on in future?

* How could a ‘wider coordination’ or ‘publication’ be helpful?

* What do you hope to take back home from this conference?

9) Footnotes

http://www.london.gov.uk/archive/gla/publications/factsandfigures/boros2009/stat-pack-2009.pdf (p.7)




Click to access facts-and-figures.pdf


One thought on “local report from hackney, london – crisis in the city’s ripped back-yard

  1. Thanks for this. As a Hackney resident and someone involved in the nursery campaign, this is really useful in terms of outlining the terrain in Hackney. I do think we need to be careful when using ideas like ‘political’ and ‘apolitical’ though. I think that while its useful to assess to what degree different struggles (which cover both workplace struggles in the forms of industrial action and community struggles in the forms of ‘campaigns’) lend themselves to developing forms of resistance and knowledges beyond the local and specific, we need to start from a perspective from ‘below’. That is to say, if we start from the already-political – a theoretical position or political position – we run the risk of imposing what we think ‘politics’ should be on the situation, and so close ourselves of to the possibilities we should be developing as militants. All the campaigns you mention above lend themselves to greater or lesser degrees to movements beyond the specific. They are political in the sense that they are immediate struggles over resources in conflict both with the local state and the private companies that manage state resources. It’s from this specificity that an understanding of the role of the state and capital in our daily lives can come into being in such a way as to create the possibility of collective resistance. We must be careful to not suppose that politics can be ‘brought in’ from outside but only developed in proximity to the specific – its through our struggles that we develop a form of politics appropriate to our class position. Which is not to say reflection and theory have no role, just that both must be imminent to the specific, not removed from or ‘prior to’ it.



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