Published 4th December 2019

Community organising makes the powers that be think again!

[Originally published as ‘People Powered Change of Heart Helps to House Luton’s Street Homeless’ by RevoLuton Time]

Last winter was the final straw. As the number of street dwellers in Luton mushroomed before everyone’s eyes and the number of homeless people dying reached disastrous levels, the issue became one of the main talking points at our Social Action Hub.

That Luton Councils planning committee had recently rejected an application to turn a disused block of student flats into a shelter for the towns street sleepers only made it worse, especially as the reasons given for rejection were coated in stereotypical warnings of crime and disorder and it being against ‘town centre policy’.

In light of this heartless decision and the worsening crisis our social action hub was buzzing with talk of the need for some collective community action to address the problem.

The trigger to action came when a local green party activist commented about the tragic irony of seeing homeless people sleeping outside the long empty ‘British Home Stores’ shop in the heart of Luton Town Centre.

We took the image of the empty shop and made a meme flagging up the insulting irony and asking the question ‘how much longer are we Lutonians going to put up with this?’. The meme suggested a community occupation of the shop to turn it into a place to sleep and a one stop shop for street sleepers to get some love and support.

The response to this suggestion showed people were ready to do something about this and occupying the empty BHS shop was definitely a popular idea. When we found out the shop was owned by a faceless offshore ‘Trust’ (who featured in the controversial ‘Panama Papers’) with no affinity with or connection to Luton, this only added to the level of support for the idea.

As community organisers we knew that even the prospect of a community occupation would give the owners of the shop and the shopping mall it sits in as well as the council plenty of food for thought.

Our strategy was to raise the issue publicly to put some pressure on the owners and the council before approaching the owners London based agents with a community demand for negotiation of a ‘meanwhile lease’ that allows free community use of the shop until permanent tenants were found.

An organising meeting was held at ‘Little Red Creative Studios’ (one of our partners venues opposite the BHS shop) and asked anyone willing to commit a minimum four hours volunteering a week to come along to show we had the community capacity to do this safely and properly.

A good turn out at this meeting was also important to show the owners and council this was not just a facebook discussion but a real and viable community move to action. So to boost the message and the appeal we teamed up with local artist and activist Si Phili to make a video.

The response was inspiring with dozens of people turning up to offer their skills, talents and time. We did a ‘skills audit’ and formed ourselves into work groups covering Admin, Health & Well Being, Security, Catering, Maintenance, and General Stewarding. All agreed it was a good idea to make the rota public on social media so that others could join in and to show the ‘powers that be’ the community have the capacity to make this happen.

However, before a delegation from the group even had the time to approach the owners builders were hired to white out the windows and put signs up. The owners were clearly sending a ‘Not In Our Shop’ message which we all took as meaning we were already having an impact on the powerful and forcing them to move.

A second organising meeting was called to discuss the response from the owners and next steps.

At the meeting the group noted the impact we’d already had and agreed to look at another couple of suitable sites we had already scoped.

Within a couple of months the old BHS shop (which had been empty for the best part of the last few years barring a short let to a pound shop operator) was quickly re-occupied by new (or maybe even the old?) tenants running a ‘less than a pound shop’ operation.

Then Luton Signpost, a great team who have been providing homes, care and support for homeless people in Luton for years announced a new application to convert a different block of unused student flats in the town centre to create 45 new beds for street homeless people.

This was a great proposal but obviously it faced being rejected by the council planners on the same spurious grounds as the previous application. When private assurances were given to our group by senior officials at the council that officers would be recommending support for the application this time round, it looked like popular pressure had helped bring about some much needed common sense.

However, in the week before the planning committee meeting where the decision would be made we received notice that the planning officers were again recommending refusal. The reasons were pretty much the same as before, a mixture of ‘it goes against our town centre policies’ and a repeat of police objections stating:

“This proposal has considerable scope to generate significant levels of crime and repetitious demand for police resources. I have evidenced this previously and will do so further if requested.”

In light of the recommendation to refuse we reverted to the meme generator and called for a lobby of the town hall to urge Councillors to reject the officers recommendations.

The meme was quickly and widely shared throughout the town and it helped to mobilise dozens of people in a lobby of the meeting. The room was packed to the rafters and with the firm support of the housing portfolio holder (who to his credit was as staunch as anybody in his opposition to the officers nonsense) the committee rejected the officers recommendation and ordered the officers to work with Signpost with a view to doing whatever was needed for the committee to support the application.

At the next Luton Council Planning committee the application was approved!

Councillors have approved a new homeless hostel in Luton town centre despite planning officers recommending it for refusal. Passionate support for rough sleepers in the town persuaded Luton councillors to overturn planners’ recommended rejection of the project at Guildford Hall on Guildford Street.
Luton Today newspaper report.

This is a victory for common sense and will go a long way towards ending street sleeping in Luton. It also makes the Luton Community one stop shop idea much easier to run if it only needs to be a daytime operation.

There is no doubt that community organising and mobilising made a big difference to the ‘powers that be’ at all stages in this scenario and helped Signpost achieve a positive outcome for our homeless neighbours.

The volunteers who signed up for the rota will do all we can this winter to help Signpost and other homeless support groups provide shelter while the new permanent shelter gets ready to open in February 2020. Then we can get down to working with Signpost to look at the need for a one stop shop.

Viva Signpost, Viva people power and Viva community organising!

Click HERE to view the original post on the RevoLuton Time website.


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