Joe Bastable interviews Leslie Barson to discuss foodaid, social housing issues and gentrification in London and across Britain.
I met Leslie after doing a food collection in North West London with the North London Communist Party Branch, to donate to Granville Community Kitchen. Upon speaking to her I quickly learned that she is incredibly knowledgeable on both housing issues and food aid, in London and across the country. This is due to the tireless work she does for her local community on the South Kilburn Estate. I knew that I had to interview her so that we could learn from her experience and knowledge, especially in relation to our housing campaign and food aid work.
We started the interview with Leslie giving me a brief overview of the history of the Granville and what it does.
“Granville community kitchen was formed in partnership between me and my dear friend Deidre Woods. We met through an organisation called the otherwise club which has been at the Granville for nearly 28 years, it’s a community centre for home educators.
At the Granville was this wonderful kitchen which was run by Merle’s diner for many years all through the life of the otherwise club. The whole community used to come to Merle’s diner, it was the heart of building, and when she retired in 2009 the kitchen was empty for quite a few years. Deidre is also a wonderful cook and we could see that the building was becoming under threat, and when Merle left the building a lot of the heart of the building left. So we decided to try and do some sort of project, it wasn’t about a café it was about community through food and food related activities, building community teaching the community and basically bringing out the power of community.”
She then went on to talk about some of the great things the Granville has done since its inception
“So, in 2014 we launched the kitchen and at that time it cooked lunch for the otherwise club, where we partnered with the local adult disabilities project. People from that project came and helped serve, cook and washup so they got experience with catering and front of house-work, and we all learnt lots and got to know each other. We also had film nights and Salsa nights where there was food involved, it was a really great project, and as we developed and went along we did all different types of events”
One of these events that Leslie is Particularly proud of was the “urban feast” that they put on which soon developed into a weekly event
“We did an urban feast in January 2018 where we had about 300 people and we addressed all sorts of food related health issues that people might face, such as diabetes and toothcare. After this the project started bowling along; with the crown of it being a community meal that happened every Friday, we’ve been doing that since about 2015. It’s all free and halal and before lockdown people would come from all age groups, all ethnicities and backgrounds and people would come for all sorts of reasons, such as isolation, mental health, and financial problems. We gave away surplus food, which we got from a group called “City Harvest”, which was a fantastic project, it was really successful, and we fed about 50 to 70 people on Fridays”
The lockdown that we had during March obviously posed a problem to the events and activities that the Granville was providing to their community
“we couldn’t have people come in anymore, so we started cooking and giving away the food, and this grew very quicky to us doing food aid”
During our discussion I referred to this service as a foodbank, Leslie went on to explain why the Granville is different to a food bank, and why the term food aid is more accurate
“I take slight issue with you calling us a food bank, it is very important to us that we are food aid, we run on a solidarity not a charity model. So, with a foodbank you generally have to be referred, and there’s quite a lot of paperwork. So, this means that anyone who is worried about or can’t get a reference, for example people with no recourse to public funds, are not allowed to get referred to food banks. Which I just find so shocking, that in this vastly wealthy country this is happening, anyway that’s the situation.
The other difference is that food banks tend to give what is called in the trade ambience food, so that’s foods that sit on shelves like tinned and dried foods, where as we very much focus on the more healthy side of foods like fresh fruit and veg, and we don’t accept things like fizzy drinks”
She also explained why at Granville they reject the term “Food Poverty” and how COVID-19 brought the issue of hunger to the forefront of people’s lives
“The term food poverty we reject entirely because there’s no such thing as food poverty, only poverty. So, if you’re in need of food you’re also struggling with rent, or your heat, or your transport costs, and so on. So, food is just another essential aspect of life that needs to be included and interestingly hasn’t been up until this virus. The virus has brought the issue of food much more into play, people have concentrated on housing and wages but food is just as important, the food system needs to be challenged because it’s very much monopolised by big business.”
“there seems to be a commonly recited statistic that people either eat or heat their house, its one or the other” She added when we were discussing how it is impossible to separate food poverty from poverty.
I then went on to ask how people can get involved to help tackle these issues
“In regards to food aid what is largely needed is volunteers, there’s a great organisation called “independent food aid network”, which is linking together food aid centres across the UK in Scotland England and wales, so you can look there for food aid groups near you and volunteer.”
“And then on a larger scale it supporting “land workers alliance”, who are a group of small independent farm workers in the uk who are fighting the massive industrial food system, Brexit has helped this as it will allow a new agricultural bill. They’re part of “Via Campesina”, which is an international and very powerful organisation made up of about 18000 subsidence farmers, subsidence farmers means people who can feed themselves and are independent of big capital orgs, and that’s what capitalists don’t want, they wants us dependent on them, so people who can feed themselves are a threat to them.”
After this discussion I spoke to Leslie about the housing issues she deals with when fighting for the tenants on the South Kilburn estate
She begun with a brief history of the creation of the estate
“Up until about 1959 the area was small Victorian terraces which are now mostly gone, 60s blocks were put up from 1959 to 1963, they were big block buildings made of concrete prefab that was slotted together, and there was a lot of corruption around this. The blocks were put up wrong so that for example, in these blocks there’s supposed to be rubber seals between each of the pieces of concrete, but they weren’t put in. So there was terrible drafts in the blocks and water would drive in. So there were real problems there, but there was also security in the tenures, the prices were kept down, there was reasonable repair times, and there was a lot of community in the blocks; even if they were ugly and badly built”
During this overview of the estates history she went on to speak about the period in the 90s when Blair brought about the “new deal for communities”
“During this period there was a lot of away days and a lot of training up of residents, but it tended to be the same people who were the strong tenants before the new deal, and basically there is very little if nothing to show for those 10 years and 100 million pounds that came through the area. much was spent on various away days and much of it was, I don’t know how to put it more subtly, stolen. If you look at the Kilburn times articles from those days, there was practically a new scandal unearthed every week.”
“So that finished around 2005ish with a great whimper, not much came of it. But that started up the next regeneration period, which is happening now, and this is driven partly by Thatcher’s policies of councils not being able to use any of their money to spend on housing. So they partner with developers and the developer has to get something out of it, which often is that the developer is given some of the flats to sell on the private market, and what happens then is the whole nature of the estate changes.”
Leslie then described one of these changes which has been coined “poor doors”
“Some of the new builds the council tenants go in one door and the private tenants another, and we had to fight in one of these areas for the council tenants to be able to use the outdoor space which is now gated. The old estates were open so if your child lives in one building and mine another and they want to play together they can, but now that’s not possible in the new builds”
One of the ways council housing has been attacked in the UK is through housing associations, Leslie explained this to me
“Because the council can’t afford to build anything, when the build is finished, they’re giving the builds to a housing association to run. Now the people who are moved from the old council flats to the new housing association flats have the same rights to some extent as the old council tenants, the new housing association tenants however do not have nearly the same the rights as council tenants. So it’s very important that the old council tenant’s rights move with them, but if they leave that tenancy or when they die, the flat reverts to the housing association, so it’s a slow gift of publicly owned property into private hands.
In 2016 I think, the Tories brought in a bill where housing associations can give up any public realm ethos, they can just become plain corporations and several have, including ones that are on the South Kilburn estate, so they’re just companies now, there used to be an idea that they would replace councils when it comes to housing but that’s been lost in some places”
She then explained how this has affected the regeneration on South Kilburn (which undoubtedly parallels what’s going on with other council estates across the City)
“In South Kilburn they chose to do the regen in a very peculiar manner, they haven’t given the whole estate to one developer and one builder, they’ve divided it into phases, and each of these phases has to be economically viable on their own, so each of these phases will have to have their own housing association, developer and builder so that they can bid for different bits of the estate, and it’s broken into chunks with different landlords. This means that it’s all very cut up, so the repairs are very cut up, the tenants are all in different housing associations, the council has nothing to do with them, and they have to now deal with their respective new housing associations. The other issue with this is that they can up their service charges as fast as they want. So if you look in the Kilburn times, you can see that L and Q have been putting up their service charges by 30 and 40 percent since they took over four or five years ago, while their repair record is diabolical, so what you have is a very difficult situation for tenants to group together and fight because they’re fighting different landlords and different problems, you know divide and rule is very affective.”
Leslie also brought the issue of flexible tenancies to light
“Brent council is the only labour council in London that chose to change its definition of secure tenancy for council tenants. The Tories had a policy where you could have something called a secure flexible tenancy, flexible in the sense that every five years you must prove that you’re eligible for a council house. And if you’re not you have to leave, so when they say “secure” it’s not. It’s secure for four and a half years, and when they say flexible it means that the council can throw you out. So all tenants here since 2015 have become secure flexible tenants, it’s not a for life tenancy anymore. The council claim that on the estate they are rebuilding all the council homes that they are knocking down. So, every council tenant that wants to stay on the estate is able to do so by being put into a new home, but they will no longer be a council tenant, they will be a housing association tenant and that flat will only stay social until either the tenant dies or leaves. So gradually there is less and less social housing on the estate.”
We then went onto discuss the plight of leaseholders on the estate
“Lease holders are in the worst situation, and these are the people who followed Thatcher’s ethos to the letter, “they’re doing their bit they bought their flat, It’s going to make them freer” and so on. But they can’t sell them because they have Grenfell style cladding, so they’ve lost that 160 grand or whatever they’ve spent. We’ve got leaseholders in blocks where compulsory purchase orders are now confirmed, and often because the blocks are going to be teared down soon, the council will offer them market price plus 20 or 30 percent. And that sounds great; but market value plus 30 percent on a council flat that hasn’t been repaired very much, (because the council knows that they’re being knocked down, one of the things they’ll do is stop repairing them so the tenants will think “god I want to move out this is horrible”) is not enough to buy a flat it’s not the same price as a nice flat even in an old terrace in the same area or even in London, not nearly enough, so these people have to move far away.”
As you can see these practices are helping social housing to be absorbed by private companies to make a profit, and as a result people are also being displaced.
“It disrupts and moves old communities. So, it is a gradual wearing away on many fronts of what was important working-class communities, and often they’re pensioners. It’s social cleansing and not just social cleansing in the sense of them being working class, but also you’re leaving everything you know and your community, and where your children grew up, and where you worked for thirty years you know, your whole social life is decimated.”
During this conversation Leslie also told me that there is a big fight going on about who’s going to pay for the Grenfell style cladding in South Kilburn, and that the housing associations are asking the leaseholders to pay thousands of pounds that they don’t have to replace the cladding. I found this particularly disgusting, that they are risking the lives of thousands of tenants to try and save themselves some money, only three years after the tragedy in Grenfell tower which took place only two miles from South Kilburn.
Another thing that came up was an absolute undermining of democracy by the council when it came to a vote to get funds from the GLA to help the regeneration go ahead
“Councils have to run a ballot to show they have the support of the local people, and in our situation what the council did was promise temporary tenants access to secure housing if it was a yes vote. And they threatened them with not housing them if it were a no vote, because they said it wouldn’t be a regeneration area anymore it would mean they would have to just stay in temporary accommodation. And low and behold they got a huge majority. So, we have objected to the mayor to say that the ballot was invalid, the amount of money spent by the council in promoting the yes vote vs us trapsing around with some fliers is just disproportionate”
I went on to ask Leslie what people can do to help with these issues, and the sort of things she’s been involved with
“Well its really tricky on the estates, again its divide and rule. We’ve been involved with a fantastic organisation called “just space” who are helping communities who are trying to fight these regenerations, if you’re interested in housing they are a great place to start, they have a wing called “estates watch” which is watching what’s going on with council estates in and around London, and trying to support tenants and housing activists.
Each estate is different and the councils treat them differently so it’s not like you can form together, but you can support each other, “defend council housing” is another group, they were active in the West Hendon estate that is now gone, and they sent people down to help leaflet here before the regeneration vote. There is also a group called “radical housing network” but it tends to be people who are already involved in different campaigns coming together.”
Leslie concluded with some thoughts on the near future of social housing
“Housing is massive and I’m hoping that the virus will help change things dramatically, England will no longer be the great place to invest, especially with Brexit as well, and the whole notion of offices is changing because people are working from home. They’re moving out of London because they don’t need to be in this ridiculously expensive place. Also, if the housing market crashes it will be dire, but it will open up huge cracks where hopefully change can come…”
We as socialists must be there with great activists like Leslie to make that change. As this interview has revealed, our social housing has been and continues to be gutted right in front of us, by greedy property tycoons trying to make as much money as they possibly can. And by indifferent politicians who do not see housing as something worth investing in or protecting, who often have links to the aforementioned group. It has also highlighted the poverty that grips many people in this country which leads to people going hungry. Our society should not be one where people are struggling to get enough food and feel ashamed to ask for help, especially whilst those at the top are profiting off the situation.
I would like to say a huge thankyou to Leslie for taking the time out to do this interview and for the tireless work she does for her community.
These are the links to the websites of the organisations Leslie spoke about:
The full audio from this interview will be available on the Challenge Spotify channel soon!