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Citizens UK’s Housing Initiative – the story so far

Author: Peter Brierley, Citizens UK

At London Citizens, together with our 250 member organisations, we want to tackle the capital’s housing crises head-on.

With Trust for London’s support, we are focusing our efforts on four campaigns which we hope will make a huge difference to the future of how Londoners are housed – in affordable, decent homes – whilst ensuring that the capital remains a place for people from all backgrounds.

The four-year initiative which begun in 2017 sought to follow up on pledges made by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, in front of 5,000 Londoners gathered in the Olympic Park’s Copper Box arena during the 2016 Mayoral election campaign.

An extraordinary range of commitments and accountability on housing issues are emerging, and we are pleased to be able to reflect on some great successes and some important learning.

At the same time, we’re always looking forward, bringing members into contact with parliamentary candidates around the country for the General Election, and preparing our asks for the next London Mayoral election in 2020, including another large-scale assembly with the candidates in April. We remain whole-heartedly committed to building citizens into leaders, as well as holding decision-makers to account throughout all our work, including this initiative.

Following the 2012 Olympics, we wanted to secure a genuinely affordable housing legacy for the people of East London. We want to increase the percentage of affordable housing on each site to at least 50%. Under the previous Mayor, sites were being signed off at just 20% and even 18%.

Within this campaign, we were always hoping to get around the table with decision makers. Perhaps the biggest win in this campaign so far was sparked at a November 2018 assembly with more than 400 people at Southwark Cathedral, alongside the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and then-Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development, James Murray.

This led to meetings at City Hall, as well as a commitment from Sadiq Khan and James Murray to stick to 50% affordable housing on all Olympic developments.

We have also developed a relationship with Lyn Garner, the new CEO of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) as the organisation responsible for the planning and development of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

We have run training for community leaders, including role-playing negotiations and actions to present to the LLDC and Mayor of London, and a tour of the Olympic Park which 55 people attended, to build relationships and keep members involved and excited about the campaign. As community leaders meet and build relationships with decision makers, they feel more able to act.

Building on this, East London Citizens has been seeking to influence local authorities who want more genuinely affordable housing. Newham, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets all ran local authority assemblies with a combined 1,100 people involved.

When leaders presented their objections to the LLDC Planning Committee, we learned that a little bit of organising goes a long way. With a small amount of organising, we were able to move the room to a vote which we narrowly lost. Had we lobbied just one more committee member and ensured they were in the room, we would have been able to force another vote. We will take this on board and use it to be bolder in the future.

Our second campaign aims to develop a resident-led strategy for regenerating the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham. The key to this has been fighting for residents to be involved in all the issues affecting them, empowering them and developing relationships with decision makers.

150 people participated in a Haringey Citizens assembly, which Councillor Joseph Ejiofor attended and has since been supportive of our work. 40 people have been involved via house meetings.

Members said that it was the first time they have felt listened to and like they could actually do something to improve their situation, noting that they feel more powerful as a group.

Meetings with key decision makers at Homes for Haringey, the council and relevant politicians, resulted in Citizens being approached to help them develop their plans. Supported with training, residents worked together to consider ideas for what new buildings will look like, as well as putting together a list of improvements to the existing flats. Some residents sought immediate changes to their situation, which Homes for Haringey agreed to after they were confronted at a Citizens meeting. As a result of this action, some residents have had their priority reviewed, or moved to alternative accommodation.

We have been door-knocking and hosted roundtables at the local primary school, but feel we need to take more creative action. Residents say they feel more engaged with decision makers overall and we continue to push forward, with the community at the heart of it all.

This campaign looks at building a powerful tenants-led movement that will tackle bad and criminal landlords in the private rented sector across the capital.

It has been quite a feat to cover every borough but we have managed to hold assemblies in eight different boroughs with a total of 1,600 people attending, as well as an accountability assembly with the leaders of South London councils with 500 people there. We have also run housing learning days, local workshops and utilised house meetings and 1:1s to train people to understand their rights better.

Hundreds of people have also been involved in local action with many successes. For example, one family in Southwark had been moved to Croydon, miles away from their primary school with neither borough taking responsibility for the family. Through London Citizens, the family were able to contact housing cabinet members in both boroughs to resolve the issue.

What has been astonishing as part of this campaign has been the amount of local authority decision-makers making commitments on landlord licensing. Schemes are now beginning to be set up and we are encouraging councils to commit to timelines.

We won’t know for some time exactly what impact these schemes have had, but they have the potential to help hundreds, even thousands, of families.

Our final campaign looks to ensure that London’s biggest development this decade, at Old Oak and Park Royal, delivers homes that Londoners on low incomes can afford.

The development is still at an early stage. However, this hasn’t stopped us and thus far, we have held an assembly in Brent with 150 people attending, including the CEO of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) and the leader of Brent council. They provided a clear commitment to push for 50% affordable housing in all new developments, which is encouraging and establishes a relationship early on.

Brent Citizens held a listening assembly where local leaders from six institutions prioritised housing as one of the borough’s most important issues. Leaders embarked on a tour of the development site together with members of the London Citizens housing advisory group, where they were able to question decisions on upcoming developments.

Training has taken place to familiarise leaders with community organising and the cycle of action so that, when the time comes, they can influence the right people with the relationships that they have built.

As this is very much a long-term project, you have to learn ways to creatively keep leaders engaged given there isn't yet a specific development to campaign on. Starting a listening campaign has been a way to ensure that leaders are engaged and excited with what ideal housing in Brent could look like. We will continue to encourage leaders and build towards action where civil society outlines what they want future development to look like.

Lots of the issues we are addressing through our four campaigns face national barriers, rather than just remaining specific to London. Therefore we are seeking to use the general election to push housing priorities, including an increase in grants for affordable housing. Arguing for the Mayor of London to have more power could be incredibly beneficial.

It has also been challenging running multiple campaigns concurrently. Whilst learnings and successes can be adapted from one campaign to benefit another, London Citizens can feel quite thinly spread, especially at a strategic level. However, I am incredibly proud of the work we have done so far.

There’s still a mountain to climb, and heaven knows the environment is not becoming any more certain, but I remain convinced that London Citizens has the method and the people that are most likely to make progress, with the community always driving us on.

London Citizens is an alliance of four chapters of community organisations in London and is part of Citizens UK, a community organising group which empowers people to push for change on the issues which matter to them. This Initiative began in June 2017 and will run until 2021.