New Labour's Assault on Housing Co-operative
"We were in pretty shitty private accommodation and we thought, 'Why not play the system?'" recalls biology degree drop-out Martin Newman, whose fascination with radical ideals of bands such as The Clash, The Specials and New Model Army belied a determination to work the system, rather than fight the class war. "We decided it was cheaper to buy a place rather than keep on renting," Newman says. "And Mrs Thatcher, after all, was encouraging people to make money, so we hatched this plan to organise and achieve, rather than bringing down capitalism first."
But in solving their own accommodation crisis, the young idealists - "green, practical anarchists", according to Newman - soon discovered they could help others who were living rough. They learned a few tricks of the building trade, taught themselves rudimentary joinery, plastering and plumbing, and used their first property as collateral for another house. Then they acquired another. Giroscope workers' cooperative was born....
Remarkably, the cooperative is still in business, and the future should look rosy. Two of the founders - Newman, the DIY all-rounder, and Michael Shutt, the plumbing specialist, both aged 40 and much wiser - provide a lead for younger partners such as John Wood, the 25-year-old administrator, and Andy Holden, 36, another jack-of-all-trades. They pay themselves about half the average national wage - less than £10,000 per annum - and now manage 32 houses and flats, while letting a corner shop and part of their solar-powered headquarters to an organic food cooperative.
Unlike other landlords, Giroscope demands no deposits from prospective tenants - although references are needed - and the weekly rent, which varies between £45 and £70, is modest by today's standards. "There's always a big demand for our places," says Shutt.
Despite New Labour's ostensible support for such social ventures, the co-op is menaced by a national "housing market renewal" program, which uses "selective demolition to match supply with demand" in order to raise property values. The program works on essentially the same principle as farm price-support programs in the U.S.: the government mandates destruction of part of the supply in order to drive prices up. The result is predictable:
As a result, Newman and his colleagues fear that their enterprise is now on the line. If houses are compulsorily purchased, as a prelude to demolition, they say that compensation on offer will be insufficient to buy alternative properties - because, ironically, prices in the area are now the highest for 20 years.
Behind all the "progressive" NuLab rhetoric, it's just a disguise for old-fashioned gentrification.