Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nine Acres and no end of trouble, but this family are fighting to stay

WHEN Cricklewood bus driver Anthony Counihan inherited a piece of land in Co.Galway from his late father it didn't look like it would change his life or that of his family greatly. It was 9.5 acres of poor farmland with a shack but no drainage, and it brought £18 a week in rent.

Being an honest man, Mr.Counihan reported his gain of property to Brent council. They decided that the Counihan-Sanchez family now had a "capital asset" and so were no longer eligible for housing benefit. Not only that, but they landed the family with an eviction order and a demand for repayment of £70,000 of housing benefit.

Since then council officials have advised the family to 'move back to Ireland' - although only Anthony was born there and his partner Isabel and the five children were born in Brent. Local MP Glenda Jackson suggested they move to Wales. When Mr.Counihan asked the council official who had said the family should go to Galway whether she was saying he should give up his job driving buses out of Cricklewood depot, she advised him not to, because jobs were hard to come by.

That's a bit of a commute even though we know the government expects workers to travel longer distances. Evidently joined-up thinking is not a requirement for council officers, or their geography is a bit hazy.

Anthony and his family had moved from a council property in Kilburn to Galway to look after his sick father in 2007, signing away the lease on their council property after the council had failed to advise him they could sublet the tenancy for their year in Ireland. On returning to Brent, the council eventually found them a high-rent private property in Kilburn, but they were unable to afford the rent and were evicted. The council then found them temporary housing some miles away in Ealing, despite the children attending five different schools in Brent - and this was also at a rent the family were unable to afford - and again they were threatened by eviction. Brent Council has decided that the Counihans have made themselves "intentionally homeless", which would enable them to avoid their statutory duty to rehouse them. Anthony has offered to sell the land, or even to give it to Brent Council after they threatened to sue for fraud as the land was 'capital' and thus he was not entitled to benefits.

Local people who are supporting the Counihan-Sanchez family's right to housing and to stay in Brent accuse the council and its officers of showing an astonishing level of both incompetence and lack of humanity. Campaigners also see a link with the "social cleansing" policy which some London councils are adopting, to comply with government cuts and high-priced land and housing by driving out working class families.

The Counihans are not going quietly.

Labour-controlled Brent's new leader Mohammed Butt was challenged about the way the family have been treated when he addressed Brent trades union council last month, and the family and their supporters have even occupied the council chamber as part of their protests.

On October 6 about 100 people gathered in Kilburn Square then marched along Kilburn High Road and through South Kilburn for a rally which was addressed by Isabel Counihan-Sanchez and her daughter Sarah, 15, as well as trade union and community activists. The marchers' banner said "Housing for the Counihan family, Housing for All, No Cuts in Brent", and they sang a song, "You cannot throw the Counihans out of Brent!"

  • On its way through South Kilburn the march stopped outside a house on Cambridge Avenue, to honour the memory of another local victim of austerity. Here was where Nygel Firminger lived in a basement flat. He had various problems over employment - including 3 months in work for which he did not get paid - and had received a head injury at work for which he required medication, but was still being pressured to find work and facing possible sanctions by the Kilburn job centre. When he wasn't getting paid he had turned to loan companies and was having to pay back these loans rather than pay his rent, and was evicted from the flat by the housing association. On the day he was evicted he was barred from returning to the flat to collect his medication. Later in the day he got back into the flat and was later found dead there. An inquest on this death is to be held on Nov 1st. Kilburn Unemployed Workers group which had been in touch with Nygel hopes to attend.
    The next Counihan Campaign public meeting is tomorrow, Wednesday 17th October 7pm @ Marian Community Centre, 1 Stafford Rd, Carlton Vale Estate, NW6 5RS

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