When Jeremy Corbyn visited the community around Grenfell Tower and comforted survivors of what his fellow Labour MP David Lammy has called “corporate manslaughter”, he said, “Kensington is a tale of two cities – it is among the wealthiest parts of this country but the ward where this took place is one of the poorest… residents must be rehoused, using requisition of empty properties if necessary in the community they love.”
There is a history of demands to requisition empty properties in this locality and use them to address housing injustice and housing needs that goes back to 1946.
At the end of July that year, a squatting campaign by homeless and inadequately housed people began in several locations. At first they took over disused army camps but soon empty flats and houses were entered.
In London, hundreds of homeless people, organised through the Communist Party (CP), temporarily took occupation of empty residential flats owned by the wealthy, and this took place particularly in Kensington and Marylebone in estates such as that owned by the Duchess of Bedford.
A year after the war ended, 3.5 million soldiers had been demobbed and absorbed into industry but wages were declining, there were 300,000 unemployed, and a housing crisis. in 1946, the number of families needing homes exceeded the number of suitable dwellings by 9 per cent nationally. In London, a city that had endured the Blitz, that figure was up to 21 per cent.
The Labour government set about a crash programme of temporary housing such as prefabs. They concentrated new-build in local authority hands by increasing subsidies for local authority housing. They also extended the powers to requisition properties for war purposes, to peacetime purposes, so there would be more properties available for those who were inadequately housed.
But some local authorities reacted slowly to this urgent need. In the Westminster district of Marylebone there were 3,360 people on the housing waiting list but they had rehoused only a handful of families. In Kensington, the local council returned properties requisitioned in wartime to their wealthy private owners, who would attempt to re-let them at steep rents.
The Communist Party in London held an internal meeting on 6th September, a Friday night. The next day CP members got in touch with people they knew living in bad conditions, who were mainly non-Party members, and told them to meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon and bring whatever bedding they had with them.
On the Sunday night the CP held a meeting at the Palace Theatre, central London where their London District secretary, Ted Bramley, read out a BBC report:
“Between 2 and 3 o’clock, about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas”
Over a period of 24 hours they contacted families from several boroughs, and got around 400 families involved. Communist Party spokespersons described it as a “shock for the government, landlords, private exploiters and their profits”, and a shock too “for their dear, objective, impartial friends in press.”
It was a powerful piece of direct action, though they knew they would not be able to hold out long. Within a few days writs and possession orders were issued and police arrested the party ringleaders, such as Ted Bramley, who had organised the actions. The state disinterred the Common Law offence of Conspiracy. There was discussion within the Party and among the squatters about how to respond. Some wanted a forcible stand against ejection; many others felt that given the number of young children among the squatters that would be a very risky course of action for the families involved. They had made their point very effectively and this would affect the national debate and public policy.
In contrast to Corbyn today, Labour ministers then did not display much human sympathy for those involved, but nevertheless promised there would be no further action against squatters who left peacefully, and reassured them that none of them would lose their existing place in the housing queue.
The squatters left with their dignity intact. They marched out holding banners aloft and with bands playing music. They issued a public statement that said:
“We came in here not for ourselves alone but for the hundreds and thousands of others in a similar plight… Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless… We came in together and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. Those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed. When we march out … we expect the authorities to show us that human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We ask that a rest centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated and that we take our place with the other Londoners fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight… for all local authorities to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of decent homes for London’s people.”
Many of the squatters went to halfway houses and all were eventually rehoused. In the aftermath, there was much more movement by local authorities to house homeless families in requisitioned properties.
Those who were prosecuted for leading the action gave a very good account of themselves in court. They were convicted but merely bound over to keep the peace for two years to a sum of £5 – a token gesture. Hopefully those deemed responsible by the Public Inquiry for the appalling outcome at Grenfell Tower will have the law falling upon them much, much more heavily.