Focus Mums at City Hall

After their party at East Thames Housing Association in January I was very pleased to be able to photograph the Focus E15 Foyer mums again in February (though it would be rather better if Newham and East Thames lived up to their obligations and started housing local people in their local area and they could end their protests.) I really admire these young women for fighting for their rights against what appears to be a corrupt and complacent local council, more concerned with feathering their own nests than with serving their local community.

If these women had not decided to fight they would by now be living in substandard accommodation scattered around the country miles from the families and friends and from the various organisations that currently offer them some support. They would be in private rented accommodation with no real security of tenure – at best liable to eviction at a couple of months notice. They would be paying high rents (with the landlords enjoying the huge subsidies provided by housing benefits) for squalid rooms, most likely with mould growing on the walls from rising damp or leaking roofs.

Housing, or at least social housing and the less expensive end of the private sector , has deteriorated hugely in my lifetime. When I was the same age as these women there were large stocks of social housing – though never enough. I lived for around six years as a private tenant, enjoying the protection that tenants then had, at a rent that now seems laughable, even allowing for inflation. Even as very cash-strapped students, the rent of the half a house we lived in for the first two years of our marriage was less than one sixth of our combined income.

It wasn’t perfect – insulation then had not been thought of, and it was freezing in winter, with ill-fitting draughty single-glazed windows, and expensive electricity on a coin-in-the slot meter that ate up half-crowns at a huge rate. Most of the wallpaper in the kitchen fell off too. The next private-rented flat we lived in was more expensive, and the bathroom really was below freezing in the cold winter – and I gave up trying to shave and grew a beard.  Later when I started teaching we got a very nice new flat from the local authority, with a low rent that meant that 3 years later we could afford to put down a 25% deposit on a house, taking out a 20 year mortgage for the remaining 75% at what now seems a ludicrously low repayment.  Nowadays in London we would struggle to buy a garden shed.

Things are very different, thanks largely to various government decisions. Tenants have very little security, most of the social housing has been sold off to tenants (and then sold on) and new developments generally have only token amounts of so-called ‘affordable’ properties, available at rents that only make any sense with large subsidies to landlords (the so-called housing benefit.) Property prices have risen greatly – a house like ours would perhaps sell for 30 times what we paid for it, while salaries have risen rather less, perhaps by a factor of 12 or 15.

I was sorry not to join the mothers in Stratford for their open-top bus ride to City Hall, but that would have meant a very early and very expensive start for me to make my way across London. Instead I met them at their destination, arriving shortly after they did, and while they were still setting up the play tents and banners outside City Hall.

City Hall is a difficult building to photograph, as it usually looks rather wonky. Its a kind of egg shape, and really needs to be seen from a distance, and the protest was right next to it. It curves away and just doesn’t look right close to. However Tower Bridge made a good background that really makes it obviously London.

For some unknown reason I had a problem with the times recorded in these images, which resulted in them being in the wrong order on my web site. I try to keep the images in a story more or less in the order they were taken, though I’ll occasionally alter this a little to fit the page design better, mainly to let me put two portrait images together. Years ago I designed the image pages on My London Diary to a fixed width, with the picture content being in a roughly 900 pixel wide column. The images are all nominally 600×400 pixels (with the D700 this is 600×399) though a few are cropped and panoramas are generally 900 px wide. The column can take one landscape image, 600px wide, either left or right aligned, and two 400px wide portrait images. Towards the bottom of the column the images have to be right aligned to allow for a menu at left (and any portrait format images can’t be doubled up.)

Green Party GLA member Jenny Jones came briefly to talk to the protesters, but I didn’t see any other members. James Ratcliff,  Assistant director of the affordable homes programme in London, came out to meet them and take a letter from them. I didn’t feel he really had much time for the women.

I’d been just slightly worried that there might be problems with security, as the riverside walkway here is not actually public land, but part of the privately owned ‘More London’, and although the public are generally allowed to walk freely across it, at least in theory photography is not allowed. Although there is greater public access than before the redevelopment, there were places along here which were public, and these have now been absorbed into the private estate.

Almost 3 years ago, on World Press Freedom day photographers held a flash mob protest here against the restrictions on photography. But although some photographers have been stopped from photographing in this area, I’ve never had a problem. There were several ‘More London’ security guards watching the protest, but the only thing they stopped was people handing out leaflets.

I took a lot of pictures with the 16mm full-frame fisheye. It seemed a good way to capture the whole scene, with Tower Bridge, the riverside walkway and the protest – and a little of City Hall.

I used it also to photograph three of the mothers with the card (it was a week late for a Valentine) they had written to take in to City Hall for Boris Johnson, with the printed greeting ‘There’s no place like home’ and a longer message about their need for housing in London. I wanted to get in the group with City Hall behind them, and I could get everything in without having to persuade them to walk rather a long way from the building.

It isn’t a very flattering image, either of the women or the building, making it and them look rather too much like Humpty-Dumpty. The Fisheye-Hemi plugin usually does a good job with landscape format images, but can’t really cope with portrait format.  Perhaps I can do better with other software such as the Adaptive WideAngle correction in Photoshop. It didn’t exist in my old version of Photoshop, but I decided recently that although I don’t like the subscription idea it made sense to upgrade to Photoshop CC. More about that in a later post.

It was a little better when I went inside the building with the mothers. As we went in the security man at the gate said “You can’t take pictures in here” but I decided he was talking to Kate who was using a camcorder rather than to me!  The 16mm fisheye was useful inside, and is a rather less conspicuous lens, tiny beside the relatively huge 16-35 zoom.

I left while the mothers were still trying to get in to take their card to Boris, but I think in the end they simply had to leave it at the reception desk for him.

Focus E15 Mums at City Hall for more pictures and text about the event


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

To order prints or reproduce images


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.