Austerity and gentrification

A London council sticks a feminist library with a massive rise in rent. Emma Thatcher, a volunteer at the library, tells the story.

For more than 30 years the Feminist Library has had a home in Southwark, London; now we face eviction by the council. Seemingly, this is because the council wants to maximise profits at the expense of culture, history and community.

The library collection was started by a group of volunteers in 1975 and documents the women’s liberation movement – not just in the UK but internationally – in all its inspiring, messy, complex glory. It inspires me every day to understand how women before us have come together to fight for social change, share knowledge, and support each other.

They visit schools and host public events.

But this one-of-a-kind library is now under threat from market forces. In December last year we were shocked to receive a notice increasing our rent and service charges from £12,000 to a total of £30,000 per annum. We wrote to Southwark council asking that they work with us to implement this increase gradually, giving us a chance to up our fundraising. They refused to negotiate or even meet with us, meaning that we were faced with eviction on 1 March – ironically the first day of Women’s History Month.

In response we launched an emergency campaign, with a petition that received 15,000 signatures in its first week. Supporters gathered for a “read-in” – reading texts of feminist classics outside Southwark council’s budget-setting meeting.

As a result, Southwark council gave us a six-month extension; we now have until the end of October to find a new home. The council has been forced to offer us some support – but they have made it clear this is help to leave, not help to stay, and that any tenancy they give us will treat us as commercial tenants, subject to market rent and with no protection against any increase this entails.

The building was given to the council by the GLC (the Greater London Council) in 1984 for ethnic groups and anti-racism initiatives.

We are now calling on the council to respect women’s history and help the library find a new, affordable home. In February 2016 Southwark pledged to support the community and cultural heritage in their New Voluntary Sector Strategy. This paper “highlights the need for a thriving voluntary and community sector that mobilises community action and makes best use of community resources, skills, knowledge and spaces”. We cannot understand how their treatment of the Feminist Library is consistent with approving this report.

The move by the council is part of a process of gentrification in the borough – notably with the nearby Elephant Park development and the destruction of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates – and in the wider city, where many other organisations have been forced out of their premises to make way for luxury flats, shops and bars.

Boo on Southwark council.

For more information about the library’s fundraising efforts click here.

I hope the library can survive.

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