Soyful Alom

The Sylhet Housing Co-op definitely helped

Soyful Alom
Interviewed on 9 March 2020
At Stepney Community Trust
By M Ahmedullah, Project Co-ordinator

My Name is Soyful Alom, and I was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. I came to the UK at the age of 18, in 1977, and lived in a basement flat in Nelson Street. Then we moved to John Scar House, near the Rotherhithe Tunnel. It was a workhouse that we shared with another family. I attended classes after work at the Whitechapel Centre.

I became a member of the Bangladeshi Youth Forum known as Bangladesh Youth Front at the Brady Centre. I used to visit them and talk to those who came to socialise.
Housing was a major problem for us at our first address but soon we found a better place in Commercial Road. Later, we paid ‘key money’ for half of a house in Parfett Street. It was still overcrowded but was better than the previous one. This was also what was possible to get.

My father tried to get another house in the winter but dealing with the council was very lengthy and laborious. They probably could not have offered us a safe place anyway. I saw people living in far worse housing conditions than us, and they were unable to find better quality accommodations.

In a nutshell, in this particular area, there were about 2,000 public housing properties. They were owned partly by the GLC, partly by the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust and partly by Tower Hamlets Council. There were also private landlords and some of the properties were in mixed-use. The mixed-use properties were divided into separate work and living parts. Working parts consisted of small workshop units.

When we came to live in Parfett Street, we saw how people suffered in mixed-use properties. The main issue for everyone was, where do we find somewhere to live? It was not only our problem it was everyone’s.

The GLC and Tower Hamlets Council wanted to demolish and rebuild. One by one, properties were boarded-up, but people moved in and started squatting. Some paid money to existing squatting occupants, called ‘key money’, and became the new squatters. That’s how the entire area was occupied and squatted by people. This was also our story.

The properties were overcrowded and not suitable for people who had to share. There was only one choice, either live there or find somewhere else to go. We had no choice but to live there and share with another family.

My childhood was spent as a student in Bangladesh. I aimed high and made efforts to get to further education. But while I was studying, my father came to London with a work permit. Later, due to a change in the immigration act, people like my dad were allowed to bring their families to join them in the UK. We were also lucky that my parents applied for a family reunion before I reached the age of 16.

In Bangladesh, where I was living, I attended a village school. The education system in Bangladesh wasn’t very good at that time. They were not capable of enlightening people. Whatever education we had, we had to accept it. I enjoyed my village life with friends, family and relatives around.

After I finished my secondary education, I went to college for a year. While studying there, we were granted visas to come to the UK. So, I came with my mother, brother and sister to join our father in the UK.

Apart from education in Bangladesh, as a child, we used to play football, Hadudo and badminton. We used to visit relatives, go to the bazaar in a group, have food and chat a lot. But my main focus was on education. I also supported our family farm. My uncle, grandfather and the employees worked in the field. I would go and see them, support them or supply food. My main focus was education and playing games and sports.

In the mid-1970s, to get a passport in Bangladesh one needed a photograph. That involved travelling seventeen to eighteen miles from my village to the town. Because we were five or six people, we invited a photographer to come to our home to take our pictures. We then went to the passport office and submitted our applications for passports. It was also necessary to get permission from the civil servants. We sent our passport details to our father in London. He then made a visa application to the British High Commission in Dhaka for us to join him in London.

At the visa application interview, due to some translation issues, they were not willing to issue us visas. We had to come back a second visit. Again, they were not happy, so our father had to appeal. This time, they did a blood test – took DNA – which proved that we were all family members of our father. They issued the visas around mid-1977 and we came to the UK in December of that year.

The idea of coming to join my father in London was very exciting. For us, the UK was one of the best countries in the world. But when we physically arrived here, we saw a different situation. There was a lack of proper housing and dilapidation was everywhere. Many people experienced exploitation, and racism was widespread. Support and facilities for people were poor. We experienced a lot of difficulties during the first six months after coming to the UK. I seriously considered whether I should stay here or go back.

We travelled by Bangladesh Biman. It was a new airline established after the independence of the country in 1971. I don’t think the airline was very supportive, and its customer services were horrible. The journey from Bangladesh to London felt very long and not very comfortable.

When we came out of the plane in London, we went through the immigration process and [had] a medical check-up. When we came out my father was waiting at the exit. He came to the airport with my uncle and took us home by taxi.

When I came to London in December 1977, it was snowing and, obviously, very cold. It was very difficult, initially, to make an assessment about life in London. But after a couple of months, when the weather improved, I started to go and walk around with my friends. I also took up small jobs in the sewing industry.

But when I went slightly out of my immediate area, I saw different kinds of living conditions, accommodation and levels of cleanliness. When I went further towards the east of the East End, I saw that most of the houses were dilapidated, falling apart and boarded up. I saw an entire block boarded up. The area looked very poor.

We came to realise that this was due to a lack of investment by the authorities. It was clear to us that the GLC and Tower Hamlets Council didn’t invest to keep the properties at a good standard. Legally or illegally, this was also an industrial area and people used to work sewing on the machines. They set up small workshops in the old houses, either in squatted or rented properties.

People used to work flat out. As a result, a lot of trash and rubbish used to pile up. The council was unable to clean the rubbish on time, which created more problems. Obviously, at that time, we used to always blame the government, any government, either labour or Tory, and the lack of investment and the poor leadership of the council. They had a different focus that resulted in inadequate investment.

Slowly, slowly, I started to meet non-Bangladeshis. The first was at nearby shops. They were Jewish people, and the shop owners were Jewish. Despite the difficulties in communication, I tried to make them understand and they tried to make me understand. At work, I met different people. Many were Pakistanis and other non-Bengalis. I also got to meet many different people when I attended English classes at Whitechapel Centre. They were young, males, females, Indians, Bangladeshis, and so on. Our English teacher was a non-Bengali, an English woman.

Gradually, I went to various places and to community meetings, where I found some non-Bangladeshi males and females helping us. People like Caroline Adams, Peter East, Joan Newbigin, Terry Fitzpatrick, Claire Murphy, Dan Jones and many others.

I mention ‘buying key’ earlier. So, what was ‘buying key’? I will illustrate with a typical example. In Fieldgate Mansions, there were over 200 plus flats. They were for students who went to university, medical students or x, y, z. The flats were allocated through some GLC and hospital schemes. When the students finished their education, they used to leave Fieldgate Mansions. This was because the area was difficult, dirty and overcrowded. Some properties were also boarded up. In such circumstances, some people used to approach the students and say, if you leave, we will give you a few hundred quid and you give me the key. That’s how keys were swapped for cash and new squatters moved [and] started occupying.

On this side of Fieldgate Mansion, Myrdle Street and Parfett Street, there were two or three complicated people. They were persuaded to leave, and they asked double the amount of money they had invested, for example, £1000, £500 or x, y, z. So quite a lot of touts were there, because people who knew each other communicated and so on.

When some decent people used to give keys back to the GLC or Tower Hamlets Council, their duty was to secure the building until demolition. They could not demolish mid-terraced houses until all the properties were empty. So, they boarded up the property when someone left. They used to destroy the toilet, bath and kitchen, and disconnect services.

So, when people were encouraged or had nowhere to go, they used to go into empty properties with their friends, take the boards down, enter and occupy. The first thing they used to do was to call the electricity board to connect. They didn’t ask whether you were legal or illegal, they just connected the service. As squatting became a tradition in the area, they turned a blind eye and provided the connection. The water and gas connections were the same. Later, the council used to start collecting rates and license fees from the squatters.

I think it was 1981 when we came to live in Parfett Street. Luckily, our house wasn’t really vandalised. Someone managed to persuade someone who sold two units to give him the keys. As two people wanted to buy, we shared. He took the upper part [and] we lived in the lower level. We shared the gas, electricity, and water bill. We stayed there until 1986, when we managed to get to number 1 [on the list] of a house or maisonette in this building.

After we moved in, we saw that everybody was suffering. We thought we must do something to improve the conditions. So, we started campaigning. We set up a small housing cooperative at that time. The GLC used to support self-help projects. So, we set up and surveyed to find out to whom the houses belonged. We found a total of thirty-four properties. They all belonged to the GLC, which the GLC passed onto Tower Hamlets Council. But Tower Hamlets Council was not prepared to do anything to improve the situation. Any property that became empty, the GLC passed them on to the local authority. So, we started setting up a housing cooperative.

There were bodies like Solon Co-Operative Housing Development Agency that provided professional consultancy to help us progress. They came to our meetings, provided all the support and communicated with the GLC about the properties in the area. They were the professional people who found out which property belonged to whom. They also advised us on how to set up a housing co-op. They provided our plan to the Housing Corporation and the GLC supported it.

Later, we discovered that the housing conditions in this area were so bad and dilapidated that the GLC wanted to declare it an ‘emergency housing action area’. GLC wanted the area redeveloped into mixed residential and commercial units. There was some vested interest in the properties in the area. So, they set up a committee comprising of all the bodies involved, like Samuel Lewis Housing Trust, Bethnal Green & Victoria Park Housing Association and Tower Hamlets Council. But initially, Tower Hamlets did not cooperate at all. They set up a housing action area and encouraged local people to take part through representatives rather than everyone directly involved. As such, they prepared a master plan to spend within five years £23-£25 million to improve the area. Plus, they would encourage more investment from outside.

In the master plan, Samuel Lewis wanted to build one-bedroom flats, but our needs were for two, three, four, five, six-bedroom properties. The GLC Housing Action Area Steering Committee stipulated conditions for the redevelopment of three blocks. They will have to address the issue of environment, prayer facility and ratio. So, they converted some two to three-bedrooms together to make larger units. GLC provided cash (financial) support through housing improvement grants. Where there was space available they built new houses. The steering committee encouraged them to be 2 to 3 bedroom unit maisonettes. The GLC encouraged us to setup up a housing cooperative and forced Tower Hamlets Council to support it.

Houses in the area were mixed-use properties, mixed commercial and residential. Some parts of the building had factory units (machinist workshops). In other parts people lived. This set-up lacked basic facilities. Many properties didn’t have a bath and the toilets were outside in the garden. People had to go through quite a long way into the garden to use the toilet. It was not very nice.

The steering committee encouraged converting the factory units into larger residential properties. We provided grants to landlords and factory owners to convert their factory units into houses and make general improvements. Similarly, we provided grants to private landlords to improve the conditions of their properties. This included basic facilities like kitchens and bath and bringing toilets within the building. That’s how we managed to do it.

The last building was the Tower House, the GLC single person hostel. GLC was very keen to improve the building but lacked funding so they couldn’t take forward any improvement initiative. In the end, they sold it to a private developer, and the building is currently used as a single person hostel. The homeless people who have nowhere to go can go and live there, by paying 50p. So, that’s how the area got improved.

The Whitechapel Centre wasn’t as accessible as needed for community purposes. So we suggested and worked to establish a small community centre in the area. We managed to buy 46 Myrdle Street and converted it into a community centre. The local housing action office was based there and provided services to the community. We had meetings and get-together events. The Sylhet Housing Co-op office was also based at 46 Myrdle Street.

We surveyed the needs of the community and discussed the issues they faced. From our interactions with the local community, we realised that there was an urgent need for a primary school in the area. The Commercial Road was known to be one of the busiest streets in the whole of East End. Local children used to cross the main, busy road to go to schools elsewhere. The parents had to give up their jobs to take their children to school and bring them back.

We demanded that Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) build a local primary school. At that time, education matters were the responsibility of ILEA. At that time, there was a need for seven new primary schools in Tower Hamlets due to the number of children of that age. Through our networking efforts, we persuaded them of the need for a new local primary school.

In Settle Street, there was a depot (a cleansing depot) where the council’s refuse collection used to keep their equipment, cars and lorries. We demanded that ILEA relocate the depot elsewhere and empty the site for a primary school. The ILEA agreed to the demand but Tower Hamlets Council weren’t very happy. They had a deposition from the union, challenging the ILEA’s willingness to accept community demands. But the ILEA and GLC were very supportive. They forced the council to relocate the depot to Toby Lane, off Harford Street, in Stepney, and vacate the site for the primary school.

The same with the location of the London Muslim Centre (LMC), which was a fire brigade site. Obviously, the GLC kept it empty for donkeys’ years because they wanted to relocate the Aldgate East Fire Brigade there. This was to enable them to turn their fire brigade lorries quickly. In the end, with the break-up of the GLC, that plan got shelved. Ballymore, a national developer, acquired the site from LRB and we managed to persuade Ballymore and Tower Hamlets Council to give this particular land to East London Mosque, to meet the growing needs. So, that’s how and what we did.

About 80-90% of the people in this immediate area were squatters. They occupied residential units, not commercial ones. Some of the commercial units had leather factories, sweatshops and other manufacturing setups. Easily, I think about 80-90% of the local residents were squatters. Some of the properties were also owned by private landlords. These were known as rented accommodation.

Facilities were very scarce. The utilities needed weren’t properly available. This was particularly in relation to the tenanted properties, owned and managed by private companies. There were other properties that people used to get lease of or rent from private landlords. The GLC supported our efforts to improve the area’s housing to provide basic facilities, such as a toilet, bath and safe electricity.

About five or six residents of the Sylhet Housing Coop were non-Bangladeshis. I knew everyone one of the names. Many Bengali families also lived in non-Sylhet Housing Co-op properties. Besides being squatters, some Bengalis were also private landlords and even full owners.
Why were there only thirty-four properties that came under the Sylhet Housing Co-op? This was because they were under GLC and Tower Hamlets Council control/ownership. In Parfett Street alone, half of the street belonged to Bethnal Green and Victoria Park Housing Association. There were also some factory units on the road. Some properties in Parfett Street belonged to private freeholders, who purchased them in full.

From a GLC document, 1986

The thirty-four properties belonged to the GLC. After their demise in 1986, they transferred them to Tower Hamlets Council. But these properties were squatted. So, the day before the GLC ceased to exist, they provided us a grant to purchase them from Tower Hamlets Council. So, we acquired them.

I remember quite a few other families that came under the structure of the Sylhet Housing Co-op. Some properties owned by private individuals who did not live in them but rented them out. One of the Bengali families from a privately owned rented property got evicted, so we helped them get re-housed. Many such people were either re-housed or taken to a hotel to stay.

The GLC officers were very supportive of the ‘housing action area’. The GLC was quite big. So, they supported anyone who came under the threat of eviction. Our staff used to approach the GLC to help re-house evicted people as, otherwise, they would be homeless. On many occasions, many people claimed more than one family in one or two units. The Tower Hamlets Council directly or indirectly re-housed them.
Our steering committee was chaired by Lesley Hammond. She was from the GLC, chair of housing and chief whip. She chaired the steering committee, where most of the senior officers of Tower Hamlets and GLC used to attend. Her direction was always taken seriously.

People like Nora Connolly and Jon Hems lived in Sylhet Housing Co-op properties. Jon Hems, Bodrul Alom and I were part of the Sylhet Housing Co-op and we employed staff to run the organisation. They were Oona Hickson, Bodor Uddin, late Shabuddin Belal, Lukman Uddin, and others. We were all parts of a small gang.

I used to chair the housing co-op, Parfett Street Housing Action Area Committee and the Housing Action Area committee. The prominent people who used to be a part [of it] included Jon Hems. He also made regular contributions at the steering committee meetings.

It was their specialised advice, regarding how to deal with the GLC, that was invaluable. Jon used to know quite a lot about housing, so he used to argue a lot. Luckily our campaigns attracted three big national figures. Sir George Young, the Environment Secretary, visited Settle Street. We persuaded him to invest to address our needs. David Waddington, the Home Secretary visited the area. Our local MP Peter Shaw also supported us in many ways. His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, came to the area with many business people to see for himself what the area was like. He was very annoyed seeing the conditions of the area.

Sir George Young, the Environment Secretary

Prince Charles was the founder of Business in the Community (BiC), based in Old Street. The negative publicity of the East End housing conditions went to a national level. This was thanks to our good media who focused on this issue. Prince Charles wanted to visit the East End in 1987 to see for himself what it was like. He wanted to bring some city business leaders to show them around and encourage them to invest.

Business in the Community arranged with us to show Prince Charles around. He wanted to visit some of the houses, meet local people and understand their living and working conditions. He knew the potentials of the insurance and banking industry in the wealthy City of London. He wanted to convince them that, as good neighbours, they needed to invest in their neighbourhoods. So, he brought with him a hundred businessmen, including big bankers and big insurance companies.

The itinerary included a visit to Rampart Street, which was on the other side of Commercial Road and off Cannon Street Road. At that time, it was in a state of real dilapidation. On one side people lived upstairs with factories downstairs. There was rubbish everywhere. Some were industrial units and most of the properties were planned for demolition.

On his way to Rampart, he came to the Parfett Street area. He said that the initiative that he had taken was to help to address the issue of housing improvement. Prince Charles had visited one of these houses. He looked around, shook hands with some people and spoke to them. He was astonished and surprised at what he saw.

He then went to some properties and workshop units of Spitalfields Small Business Association (SSBA) in Princelet Street and Fournier Street. Obviously, they were also very dilapidated, with health and safety risks. His visit ended with a meeting at the Montefiore Centre with businessmen who came with him, members of the local communities and councillors.

He expressed his anger at what he saw and urged everyone not to relinquish their responsibility because they lived or worked in a very nice environment in the city. These people were their neighbours [and they were] suffering. But the bloody media twisted this story. They got a story from Calcutta of some people picking food from the rubbish and suggested that the Asians in the UK lived in similar squalor conditions.

Farrukh Dondhy and Mala Sen played an important role in the East End Bengal housing activism. At that time, they knew the struggles of the Bengalis in the East End and how they were being attacked on the streets. So, as they were students, they understood the situation. They used to come and see what can be done and what needs to be done.

Many socialist types of people used to come to the East End to see Brick Lane, talk to people and encourage them to fight for their rights. Farrukh Dondhy and Mala Sen, together with some others like Terry Fitzpatrick, used to congregate in the area and discuss issues. Then, they started supporting the squatter movement, helping people to squat at night and support them.

They managed to get Terry with them, who had multiple skills in electric, water and gas works. They all got together and helped people squat houses. They supported the people to identify and occupy the boarded-up houses they liked. They took off the boards and provided security, safety, and services like gas, electricity, [and] water to cook.

The movement became stronger when the squatters took over seventy-six flats in Pelham Buildings. Situated in Woodseer Street, behind the Montefiore Centre, most of the flats were boarded up. Overnight, the entire block became occupied by Bangladeshi squatters. Farrukh and Terry helped establish basic facilities like toilets, gas, electricity and water.
Then, they started campaigning with the squatting movement to get the squatting houses or squalor conditions to be improved. Mala Sen was one of them at that time. She used to encourage both women and men – we are talking about around ‘75, ‘76, ‘78, ‘79 – to go to the Town Hall to picket and campaign, displaying placards. Mala Sen was instrumental in this but many other people were also a part and parcel of the whole campaign.

The Sylhet Housing Co-op operated from July 1983 to May 1994. Due to the management skills issue, the whole thing collapsed. In 1994, it voted to transfer its assets to the CDS Co-operatives. Later, the thirty-four properties, formerly under the Sylhet Housing Co-op were divided between the Bethnal Green and Victoria Park Housing Association and CDS Co-operatives.

But the process of establishing a housing co-op by local Bangladeshi definitely enabled about 40 families to live in a very peaceful manner, improved houses, and their children went to local school and so on. So, it definitely helped a lot of people.