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The battle of Burton Street revisited

Uni professor Linda Clarke discusses new book Building Capitalism

10 June, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

WHEN developers planned to knock down a row of run-down Regency houses in King’s Cross to make way for a hotel in the 1970s, campaigners had a major weapon at their disposal – Camden Council’s housing chief, John Mills.

Mills, founder of shopping channel firm JML, joined a protest in Burton Street to prevent bailiffs from evicting residents as part of the move in 1973. Then he got the council to buy up the entire terrace using a compulsory purchase order (CPO), adding it to the borough’s property portfolio.

The events were recalled by one of the tenants threatened with eviction that day, the activist and academic Linda Clarke, as a guest speaker at a meeting on Highgate’s Whittington Estate last week to discuss the current housing crisis.

She said: “CPOs were central in fighting the speculators and bringing places like Burton Street under council control to provide more homes. More and more families were ending up in bed and breakfast accommodation, and we were lucky to have the help of the chair of housing, John Mills, in our campaign.”

Ms Clarke, a professor at the University of Westminster whose book, Building Capitalism, examines the development of Somers Town, went on to become a leading light in the Camden Tenants Federation, which oversaw a borough-wide drive to improve estate maintenance.

“At the time, tenants benefited from the fact that Camden employed a 500-strong direct labour force, rather than contract out repairs as they do now. This whole contractural system does not work very successfully,” she told the meeting, which as organised by new campaign group Women4Change.

However, given the political will, councils could revert to direct labour, she said, pointing to the example of Glasgow City Council which currently operates a thriving in-house building and maintenance arm.

Among those attending was Bernard Miller, son of Millie Miller who led Camden Council in the early 1970s.

“We are sitting in a place initiated by Millie Miller,” he said. “The legal structures that enabled the Whittington Estate to be built have been destroyed, first by Mrs Thatcher, then by Tony Blair and David Cameron.”

He added: “There has been a deliberate dismantling of everything public and we have to campaign to get it back.”

Kilburn ward councillor Douglas Beattie, another invited speaker, raised questions about the council’s flagship Community Investment Programme, which has allowed private developers to build on public land, regenerating estates through property sales and market rents in the wake of government cutbacks.

Some councillors have called for a cross-party scrutiny investigation into how well the programme is faring and what its targets should be. Women4Change was launched earlier this year by a group of Labour Party supporters to campaign on key issues.

The meeting was the first of several planned events.

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