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28 February 2018

Walthamstow Save Our Square occupation: "This land is our land!"

Waltham Forest Socialist Party members

"Who is Walthamstow for?" asked David Gardiner, secretary of the Save Our Square campaign, in his opening speech at the campaign's protest and occupation event in east London on 24 February. "Is it for the people who live here now, their descendants stretching forward into the future, and others like them? Or is it for the Gordon Gekkos - with their briefcases and their second homes out in the shires - to use as a weekday dormitory with an easy commute from their offices?"

This reflected the mood of the crowd - angry at the knowledge that the planned development of the town centre, far from being for the benefit of the local community, is in fact part of the working class being forced out.

We'll lose one third of our green space, 81 trees, and the children's playground will be moved. 'Monster blocks' of up to 29 stories will provide 500 homes - only 20% of which will be 'affordable' (but not for the majority of the local population) shared ownership properties.

As the local trade union council commented: "After weeks of leafleting and raising the alarm, around 600 angry demonstrators came together. A whole range of people and organisations came, many with homemade placards; artists brought models of the proposed monster blocks and marked with posters the trees destined for the chop.

"A line was sprayed to show, according to the plans, exactly how much space was going to be lost. The demonstrators occupied the area by gathering along this huge line and then marched around the square, singing and chanting, joined by musicians playing 'This land is your land'. The tail of the demo only just set off as the front arrived back in the square!"

Housing need

Suzanne Muna, secretary of the Unite housing workers' branch, said she was pleased to be taking part with "yet another community forced - unfortunately - to come together to defend the community, the community spaces and the community housing that they have, in the face of corporate greed, and government greed, and council greed."

Linda Taaffe, secretary of the local trade union council, asked: "Does anyone think that any one of those 8,000 families registered as in housing need in the borough will get one of these flats? Does anyone think any one of the rising number of street homeless in the area will get one of these flats?" The crowd roared a decisive "no!" in response.

Opposition expressed

Many objections were raised to the plans. Tony Phillips, from Unison's fire authority branch (personal capacity) said: "It's outrageous that the council, just a few months after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, is giving permission for a new tower block to be built, 26 to 29 stories."

We received great shows of solidarity from other groups, including a speaker from the successful Haringey campaign against the planned mass privatisation of social housing there.

Councillors were deselected and now a majority of the candidates for May's election oppose the HDV. "We managed to turn around the largest planned demolition of council homes in UK history. We overturned 22 councillors. We overturned the leader of Haringey council."

Hundreds signed up to join Save Our Square on the day. Upcoming events related to the campaign include a meeting for those interested in standing as council candidates on 3 March, a protest at the headquarters of the developers Capital and Regional on 14 March, and a public meeting on 5 April (see more on the Facebook page: Save Walthamstow Town Centre).

May local elections

The Socialist Party believes that the 3 March meeting is particularly important and that the next phase of the campaign must place a big emphasis on the upcoming local elections.

David said: "This square belongs to the residents of Waltham Forest and the job of the council is to act on our behalf with regards to how it's managed and used - it's called local democracy. The council does not dictate to us, we dictate to them - and this May we'll have the chance to issue new orders."

Linda added: "In the local elections there will be candidates asking for your vote. We want you to ask every candidate a question - are you in support of the plans or are you opposed? If they say they're in support, why on earth would anybody vote for them? If they are opposed - and we know there are a few at least - we say: put your head above the parapet, come out, start organising, get a council meeting and reverse the decision of the planning committee."

Needs-based budget

Tom Taylor, the vice chair of Leyton and Wanstead Labour Party (neighbouring Walthamstow and in the same council area) highlighted that the council can make a stand: "Councils around the country are selling off land to generate income to pay for vital local services as a result of the chronic underfunding of local government. We believe there's a need to deal with the cause of that problem.

"The council could, for example, set a needs budget following this year's election, and campaign - ideally alongside other councils up and down the country - for the government to fund the difference between its income and its projected expenditure."

Socialist Party members were pleased to hear this approach, which we have long advocated, supported by others at the event.

Socialist Party member and young renter Isai Priya added: "One of the things we put forward is that local residents and young people in the borough should have the right to a say on what regeneration takes place - to a referendum.

"The right-wing councillors can't get away with turning their back and making the decision on our behalf. We need them to be accountable. We think they should be deselected. We want left-wing councillors with Jeremy Corbyn's policies to represent us."

The rally speakers were introduced by Save Our Square co-chair and Socialist Party member Nancy Taaffe.

Socialist Party members from around London took part in the protest, selling 74 copies of the Socialist and gathering details from several people interested in getting involved in the Socialist Party.

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