By Linus Rees
It’s easy to understand why The Really Free School have contempt for the media when they portray social reality as something quite unlike it actually is. All the mainstream press when reporting the news story about Guy Richie’s house being occupied by squatters have given the impression that Fitzrovia is “upmarket” and home to just millionaires and celebrities.
Even an email sent out to subscribers of The Guardian’s Society newsletter called Fitzrovia “well-heeled“.
Fitzroy Square is home to many privileged people but Fitzrovia as a whole is not universally well off. It is also home to the poor and marginalised.
Like many of London’s neighbourhoods, Fitzrovia is a mixed area where there is a wide disparity of wealth. There are many people living in council and housing association properties as well as many residents living in poor quality private rented accommodation. There has been a history of campaigning for more affordable and social housing by the many community groups that have established themselves here over the past 40 years. The message from those campaigns is just as relevant today.
A short distance from Fitzroy Square there are several hundred people over 65 years of age of limited economic means living in a relatively poor quality environment and with access to few services and who are often lonely, yet have lived all of their lives here. The whole of Fitzrovia in statistical terms is characterised as environmentally deprived. There is a recognised lack of public open space and what space there is is heavily used.
Fitzroy Square itself is an example of this social divide and lack of public amenity. Unlike many other green spaces in London, it is kept locked for most of the time and only privileged key-holders have access to it. But none of the journalists hanging around outside number 34-35 Fitzroy Square seemed to notice this, nor the crumbling building of bedsits less than 100m away.
Bedford Square not far away on the other side of Tottenham Court Road is similarly kept under lock and key. Both Squares have had renovations recently paid for by Camden Council. These are the only two garden squares in the area and they are both kept locked.
In Fitzrovia hostels that support vulnerable people are due to be shut and community services are under threat because of the government cuts.
What The Really Free School has done is take a house that was not being used and created a space where ordinary people could get together and learn from each other and draw attention to the state of education in Britain. Instead, the press focussed laser-like on the fact the house is owned by film maker Guy Ritchie. None of the press reported that the School had previously occupied an empty house in Bloomsbury Square, put on educational events, left peacefully and returned the place undamaged without its owner having to go to court to seek possession. Neither did the press take much interest in the many progressive activities that are taking place in the School in Fitzroy Square.
A BBC reporter took exception to being thrown out when he was rumbled and The Telegraph grumbled about not being let in. Why do the press think they have a right to be inside when they are clearly incapable of reporting facts that are there for all to see or can’t be bothered to look for?
In reporting this news story they have not only done a disservice to the creative and inspiring young men and women who have set up this free school but also to the thousands of people living in Fitzrovia and the many hard-working voluntary organisations which try to relieve poverty and improve the lot of ordinary people.
These young people are a credit to their generation and we would do well, in the short time that they will be in Fitzrovia, to listen to their voices and embrace their enthusiasm for trying to bring about a better society.
The author is chair of trustees, Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association fitzrovia.org.uk