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East London for the People

The divide between rich and poor in the London borough of Newham illustrates the grotesque inequalities of the city – but long-neglected residents are organising against corporate takeover.

The People's Empowerment Alliance for Custom House's community organising is resisting corporate takeover.

Of all of London’s great injustices, nothing can demonstrate its stark realities more than the entrance to the Docklands and Custom House DLR station, East London. Taking a right turn out of the DLR, you quickly reach the Royal Docks. Previously, this environment had once hosted a dockers’ club for working-class families to socialise, enjoy cheap drinks, and hold busy, boisterous social events.

Today, it is the ‘enterprise zone’. In this enclave of grey skyscrapers, international corporations wall themselves off to conduct their opaque operations. In this environment can be found London City Airport, a preferred transport terminal of the super-rich. The Abu Dhabi-owned Excel Centre hosts a myriad of corporate events from Tesla motor shows to DSEI arms bazaars in this district, its building surrounded by immaculate white stone pavement, plastered in huge plasma screens, and replete with spotless spaces for corporate figures to wander in and out of events.

Turning left out of the DLR, you will reach Freemasons Road. Once a bustling high street, today most of its shop units are empty or boarded up, with the only signs of life being a few takeaways, several newsagents, and a bookies. The old Post Office is now a council information point where residents can find out about plans for ‘regeneration’ — a word that has become a running joke for residents who, over the past two decades, have seen little change except the deterioration of their own living standards.

This is the real part of the Borough of Newham. In stark contrast to the Royal Docks, a corporate ghetto being branded the ‘British Silicon Valley’, people in Newham in areas like Canning Town and Custom House live with incredibly high levels of deprivation, poor health, and job insecurity. A shocking 49 percent of Newham residents live in poverty, while the borough has some of the highest homeless rates in Britain. 4,500 Newham households are in temporary accommodation, and a massive 27,635 households are on the housing waiting list.

The luxury hotels, office blocks, and high-rise apartments came with Margaret Thatcher, whose administration aided in the destruction of docklands communities and abetted the undertaking of early ‘regeneration’ schemes to flood these areas with the wealthy. But the creeping developers were also welcomed by Blairite local government. Led by Robin Wales, the local Labour council had overseen the outsourcing of council housing maintenance to Omega, Omega’s joint subsidiary Tando, and the Mears Group in 2014, a stock market-listed company that soon gained control of all old council houses built for dockers and their families after purchasing homes for £40 million.

In these areas, bins were overflowing. Communal areas where children would play were covered in rubbish and broken glass. Flats managed by Tando-Mears rapidly deteriorated and were left in a state of chronic disrepair, with muddied tap water and leaks near light fittings being common. Tenants were exposed to asbestos. Accidents in the flats that left tenants with long-term disabilities were not uncommon, and despite the rent cost being extortionate, Mears Group PLC either ignored the tenants or gave them a shoddy fix-up, the flats soon falling back into disrepair.

It is in this context that in Custom House and Canning Town, tenants came together to form a tenants’ union: the People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH-E16) in 2013. Following widespread concern over the negligent management of 250 ‘temporary homes’ and the mishandling of regeneration, residents sought to gain greater control over their future and homes. In the first of local assemblies, 150 residents from across the area agreed to take action around four areas including jobs, housing, safety, and health in Custom House. Soon after, tenants began collaborating with architects and community organisers to imagine and plan an alternative regeneration programme led by local people and sought to bring an end to housing injustice.

A first major victory came from the formation of an informal tenant organising group from within PEACH. Known as the ‘Mears Cats’, this grouping of tenants in temporary accommodation embarked on a long campaign to bring an end to these undignified conditions. The ‘Mears Cats’ compiled evidence of the situation to present to the council, making a short film to document the grim circumstances many faced. Fortnightly Zoom meetings were organised throughout the height of the pandemic, with nurses and care workers joining calls between shifts and parents making points off their phone as they waited for their kids at the school gates. Alongside formal representations and several local protests outside Newham Council, plans for collective neighbourhood action started to be raised.

Soon, the campaign won the support of Rokhsana Fiaz, before becoming Mayor of Newham and beating Wales in a Labour internal selection. In 2017, then-Councillor Fiaz proposed and passed a motion at full council to examine the contract with Mears. She told Newham Recorder: ‘It’s an absolute outrage that a Labour-led council tolerates the Tando-Mears situation. I would look at ending it.’

In 2020, the council finally brought 250 of these houses back under council control, with rent being reduced by 60 percent under new council contracts — a massive breakthrough for tenants who, in many cases, had been putting in seven-day weeks to cover their rent. On top of this, tenants no longer had to deal with Mears and could now formally raise problems with the council. Before, tenant Suhad Nasir tells Tribune, ‘We couldn’t do anything if we had a repair problem — we’d be ignored, or the services were extremely slow.’ Now, Suhad says, ‘We are working with the council to make housing services quicker, and we want high quality refurbishments for all of us.’

‘This marks a real victory for the residents who have had historical issues with the management of the property by Mears, which I have been committed to addressing from the time I was a councillor in Custom House,’ Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said.

But the legacy of negligence left by Mears could not be underestimated. Soon, righting these wrongs became the main challenge for PEACH members. There was a desperate need to upgrade substandard homes, and to rectify questions such as Mears tenants being threatened with legal action after being unable to pay sky-high levels of rent during the pandemic. The ‘Mears Cats’ launched a petition, going door-to-door in each neighbourhood to collect signatures, and went on a rent strike until debts — worth approximately £300,000 — were fully forgiven.

Building Back Community

The successes of PEACH did not end here. The organisation not only includes insecure tenants but the wider community of council tenants, most of whom are the descendants of the ‘original’ East Enders in the area. With little refurbishments done to their homes in four decades, many of these children of dockers and factory workers lived in dilapidated environments, and most were emboldened by news of what had happened with Mears tenants; as a result, many were up for a fight to replenish existing council housing stock.

After being fatigued by endless discussions over ‘regeneration’, tenants launched the Love Custom House Now campaign, which sought to upgrade existing council homes, improve council services, and beautify the area. After petitioning across six different neighbourhoods, Newham Council awarded refurbishments to homes across the area potentially covered by regeneration. This meant that for the first time in years, tenants regularly began seeing cleaning staff, caretakers, and maintenance workers looking after where they live. 500 people on the estates won new kitchens, bathrooms, windows, and doors. New adjustments addressed damp and insulation problems, and refurbishments to improve insect infestations and waste management have started.

On top of this, the council agreed to establish a ‘repairs escalation service’, where tenants could meet with senior council officers and contractors once a fortnight to fast-track desperately needed repairs and evaluate the quality of services. Now, tenants can not only raise their grievances but collaborate with the council and its employees in the planning, design, and delivery of public services.

But one of the biggest victories cited by locals is the rebuilding of a collective feeling in the area. Many tenants felt the blows of Thatcherism harshly as thousands of people left the traditional docks areas in search of new opportunities. With the decline in pubs, social institutions, and tenants’ associations that once characterised every estate and neighbourhood, the opportunities for tenants to socialise and know their neighbours became rarer, and many tenants would testify that alongside economic stagnation, there had been a real breakdown of community. This had led to petty rivalries between Mears tenants and ‘native’ East Enders who, cramped together in stressful and degrading living conditions, were happy to divide themselves.

But the necessity of making homes safe allowed many tenants to overcome these mainly self-imposed divisions. In the face of a serious crisis and a concerted effort to improve their lot, people went the extra mile to build neighbourly relationships from scratch. Regular door-knocking evenings and phone banks became vital; gazebos were erected in the centre of tower blocks to create spaces where tenants could chat, meet each other, and even share regional and national cuisines as part of fun days. From being complete strangers, people would soon to be sharing each other’s samosas, jollof, Bajan shrimp, and basbousa. ‘I’d see people around, but I didn’t know them at all,’ tenant Mimi Newton told Tribune. ‘Now I even know their children’s names.’

This new sense of community pride challenges the very conditions which helps developers thrive. Before any organising efforts, many locals were happy to tell anyone listening that they’d be happy seeing their area be bulldozed. Today, many of those same people are saving what remains of London’s council housing — not only saving it but transforming what it means to have council housing.

Some perspective is necessary: after all, this is only one area of a city gripped by a brutal, worsening, housing crisis. But organisations like PEACH show that progress is not impossible. In Newham, it’s clear that the impunity enjoyed by property companies and developers has been perforated. The cracks are showing in a planning model that has treated people in neighbourhoods like Custom House and Canning Town with nothing but contempt. None of this has been achieved by magic, or by going it alone; to be sure, nobody involved would deny that overturning a right-wing council leadership and replacing it with one that has a strong affiliation to local working-class people has been vital.

But PEACH has now become a springboard for every tenant to shape local government services. The organisation casts a vast net: the youngest member is 16 and the oldest is 85. At least 80 different languages and dialects are spoken in its ranks. By committing to building a tenants’ organisation that hasn’t flinched in the difficult tasks of overcoming differences, building collectivism, and sustaining meaningful social institutions, people are not only winning real improvements in their own conditions, but building a nicer environment for themselves and growing — both individually and communally — as a result.

Reflecting on their ‘great achievements’, Lorraine Marler tells Tribune: ‘I feel very proud that my personal input has impacted on what is happening now.’ Mimi Newton agrees. The struggle for better conditions has given her the first winter in her life where she was warm, but it has also meant that she now knows her neighbours, and ‘pops around, like neighbours do’. But for her, collective struggle has changed even more than that: ‘People aren’t just putting their heads down anymore.’