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Housing Rebellion: Extinction Rebellion group says tackling housing crisis could save the planet

The campaign group occupied a block of vacant flats to demonstrate how empty homes are feeding the housing and climate crises. The Big Issue was with them on the day

Housing Rebellion want to tackle the housing crisis and climate crisis

Housing Rebellion fly banners from the occupied apartment block in Islington (Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue)

Extinction Rebellion’s protests have pushed climate change up the agenda, but now a new splinter group is taking aim at how the housing crisis is contributing to the ongoing environmental disaster.

Citing issues of high energy bills, increased homelessness and poor living standards, Housing Rebellion (HR) says both housing and the climate are at the crosspoint of a “greedy economic system that puts profit before people and the planet”.

Last week, after their first day of action across London on 8 July, the group held a weekend of workshops discussing how to tackle the UK’s housing crisis before occupying a disused Ministry of Justice (MoJ) apartment block in Islington. After they were swiftly removed by police, they held a workshop on the street outside as officers and residents watched on.

The group held a workshop outside the occupied building. They hung more banners from exterior walls (Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue)

The Big Issue was on the ground with an exclusive insight into the protest and one of the country’s newest activist groups.

Wellington Mews: A Housing Rebellion day of action

Up to 20 Housing Rebellion activists occupied empty flats at an estate behind Pentonville Prison in Islington from 10am on Saturday.

The flats at Wellington Mews are currently owned by the Ministry of Justice. Formerly accommodation for the prison’s police officers, the estate contains 28 potential homes, each with three or four bedrooms. 

The estate, stuck in planning limbo for “decades”, has remained mostly unoccupied while the MoJ and Islington Council struggle to strike a deal over the property’s future. The apartments inside are now in a state of disrepair: with dilapidated walls, boarded windows and rotting floorboards, the block will need considerable refurbishment before it can be let out to residents. 

The interior of Wellington Mews has fallen into disrepair in the years it has been left vacant (Image: Housing Rebellion)

Housing Rebellion protesters took pictures and videos of the dilapidated interior as they made their way through the estate. Two protestors also used a ladder to climb onto a balcony, draping banners that read “Climate Justice” and “Fill Empty Homes” for passersby to see.

After the majority of the group were booted from the property, they set up camp on the street outside to host their first workshop of the day. They came prepared with tarpaulins, picnic blankets and camping chairs, which they set up behind a police van. Police officers supervised the entire time, and several cars and passersby stopped to see what the commotion was.

The group took turns to share their thoughts about properties like Wellington Mews, and how they tie into the wider climate disaster. 

The group says that the MoJ – instead of selling the block to Islington Council who can retrofit the interior and let parts of the building as social housing – is trying to sell the property to commercial developers, who will demolish the estate and build luxury apartments from scratch. 

Islington Council and the MoJ have consistently failed to reach an agreement on what should happen to the disused property. The MoJ had initially agreed to lease the properties to Islington Council for social homes, but backed out of the deal in 2019 in hopes of “guaranteeing the best deal for the taxpayer”. 

Housing Rebellion set up camp for their workshop outside Wellington Mews (Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue)

Grace Lally, a Housing Rebellion representative, accused the MoJ of acting like “profit-crazed developers” by holding onto the property just so it can be demolished for cash.

“New builds are a really carbon-heavy process and it’s just not justified here,” she said. 

“There’s a huge environmental and social cost when we choose to redevelop land purely for cash value, and there should be a penalty on land owners who leave properties empty like this. It’s a criminal waste of public resources, land and homes.”

The Ministry of Justice has since rejected these claims, saying they have tried to work with local authorities to secure a deal for Wellington Mews.

“An application to turn the site into new housing was turned down by Islington Borough Council in 2021,” a spokesperson told The Big Issue. “We are continuing to look for the best way to use the property.”

However, the MoJ has reportedly had to fork out more than £600,000 in council tax on the property since 2016, paying an escalated ‘empty homes’ rate as a penalty for leaving the properties unused. 

Islington councillor Diarmaid Ward told The Big Issue that filling the apartments has been a priority for the local government, and despite the high rate of council tax they’re paying, the MoJ has refused to commit to a full planning application.

The property was visibly dilapidated from the outside, with broken and boarded up windows (Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue)

“Islington Council has been fighting to get the 28 homes at Wellington Mews back into use for many years,” Ward said. 

“In 2019 we came to an agreement to use these homes as temporary accommodation for homeless families, but the MoJ pulled out at the last minute.”

“If the MoJ wants to talk about how we can work together to get these desperately needed homes back into use, my door is always open. I will happily meet with them as early as this afternoon.”

With no immediate end in sight for property disputes like at Wellington Mews, the flats will remain empty.

This comes at a time when Islington Council is still struggling to house the estimated 384 households in the borough facing homelessness. While across the country, the demand for affordable housing continues to grow out of pace with supply

Housing Rebellion has further plans to bring attention to how the housing and climate crises are inextricably linked. The group’s campaigning comes at a time when the government’s Public Order Act has increased crackdowns on “illegal” protesting.

After their swift removal from Wellington Mews, activists claimed they were followed across London by police officers to their next meeting at House of Annetta in Shoreditch.

“After we moved from our initial spot in Islington, we travelled across London to a different venue for the rest of our workshops. Shortly after we arrived, the police turned up demanding information about upcoming protests,” said Olly, a Housing Rebellion member. 

“They wanted details on who the group’s organisers were and didn’t leave until we told them we had no more protests planned. It’s just unnecessary and wasn’t good policing – it’s lucky that I’m more comfortable chatting with them and could take the lead, because there were less privileged people in the room who have had traumatic experiences with the police.”

“Information was passed that demonstrators were making their way to an address in Princelet Street, E1,” a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said. “Officers attended the location and found that no protest was taking place. Officers then left the location with no offences disclosed.”

The wider movement

Housing Rebellion members told The Big Issue that they are evolving the way they demonstrate, now opting for squatting, blocking and occupation tactics to reflect their new chosen issue.

“We’ve done plenty of marches and protests that haven’t led anywhere, so we’re trying something new,” said a Housing Rebellion member who goes by the name ‘Silver Birch’.

“We’re trying to demonstrate how we evolve our tactics by investing time and thought into them – using squatting tactics for example highlights from the inside that these spaces do exist and can be used.”

‘Silver Birch’ sits on a camping chair across the road from Wellington Mews (Image: Rose Morelli/Big Issue)

The group said that the 250,000 homes currently sitting empty in the UK like those at Wellington Mews are a symbol for how the UK is ignoring both its climate and housing problems. They claimed that by prioritising the construction of new luxury homes over retrofitting and refurbishment, the UK is simultaneously worsening its carbon emissions and undermining the social housing sector.

“We just see how the climate crisis and the economic growth agenda feeds into other social justice issues,” said Lally.

“It’s ultimately about sharing current resources more fairly, and housing is at the forefront of that. The housing crisis is the perfect example of the changes we need to make on a societal level.”

Another Housing Rebellion member ‘Turk’ said he had already experienced homelessness as a result of the housing crisis and was keen to get involved to stop others suffering the same fate.

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“I’ve been homeless for a total of seven years throughout my life, throughout childhood right into adulthood,” he said.

“It started when I was living on a council estate and I could see it being knocked down portion by portion. We received a letter one day that said 65 per cent of people on the estate were going to be made homeless, as they were selling most of the property off to the commercial market instead of social housing.

“I’m here because I thought the housing crisis would have gotten better by now, not worse.”

Housing Rebellion’s occupation at Wellington Mews could be the first of many – the activists are working with other housing groups to occupy and protest on more estates. Undeterred by the national crackdown on protests, Housing Rebellion could be coming to an empty home near you.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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