Back in August I was on London Live TV alongside politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt, debating the contentious issue of gentrification, and whether it is something to be welcomed or a shameful exercise in social cleansing. Never one to duck a challenge, I argued in cautious defence of the principle of gentrification and the seemingly interminable dereliction-hipsterisation-bankertown cycle, and said that the benefits of gentrification would outweigh the costs – if only Britain would start building new housing supply at the rate and volume we need.
Three months later and I stand by my argument. But as successive governments have failed to stand by their pledges to tackle the housing crisis, gentrification rightly remains a hot-button issue; we should all be concerned that increasing numbers of people are not just being priced out of their neighbourhoods into slightly cheaper adjacent areas, but are having to contemplate moving half way across the country, far from families and support networks, in order to be able to afford to keep a roof over their heads.
This blog has always been an enthusiastic proponent of free markets and maximal personal freedom, and will continue to fight that corner. But when housing supply is artificially restricted through NIMBYism, political cowardice and simple bureaucratic ineptitude, interventions in the market become not only plausible but even desirable. Since the government is in effect already picking winners – choosing to bless existing homeowners with rapidly increasing house prices at the expense of those trying to get on the property ladder or live anywhere in the south east of England – any possible reticence about siding firmly with the underprivileged, the vulnerable and the low paid goes out the window.
It was in this spirit that I was happy to appear as a guest writer over at the lively left-leaning blog In My Shoes, authored by a great guy and a fellow Poached Creative contributor. My article was prompted by the ongoing battle over the fate of the New Era housing estate in Hoxton in the rapidly gentrifying borough of Hackney, East London.
The New Era estate was built in the 1930s by a charitable trust in order to provide low-cost London housing for people and families on low-paid jobs and fixed incomes, but was recently sold to an American property development company, who have announced their intention to serve notice to the tenants, refurbish the property and re-let the units at market rate rents, a significant price increase that would put the flats beyond the financial reach of most of the current tenants. You can follow the twists and turns of the story as it unfolded here, here and here.
There is nothing illegal about any of this – and nor should there be if we want to keep Britain open for business and see old housing stock and infrastructure updated by the private sector. But national and local government is gravely failing in its duty of care to the people when it allows a housing situation to fester whereby the only options for the 90+ tenants of the New Era estate are to relocate to cheaper towns and cities as far away as Birmingham, or to be made homeless and take their chances with emergency accommodation through the local authorities.
As I wrote in my guest article over at In My Shoes:
Setting aside the human frailties exhibited in the New Era campaign, the remorseless and seemingly unstoppable process of gentrification and displacement raises difficult questions that now require urgent thought. Are we willing to accept the increasing homogenisation of inner London as a place for the one percent and the upper middle classes? How will we bear the social costs of an increasingly stratified city, where citizens are increasingly unlikely to work, rest, play – and so learn to empathise – with other people of differing financial circumstances? At what point is the marginal benefit of another luxury apartment building or soulless shopping precinct outweighed by the cost in human misery of uprooting entire communities from their homes?
London is arguably the greatest city in the world, and it is absolutely right that people should pay a premium to live in the metropolis. But let’s not delude ourselves that this is a simple case of supply and demand in a well functioning market, or that any external intervention would automatically be improper or obscene. Housing supply is being deliberately restricted at a time when non-subsidised or non-social accommodation in our capital city is beyond the reach of the low-paid workers who keep it moving, and when net migration is adding the equivalent of a city the size of Plymouth to the population each year.
You don’t have to be a bleeding heart, misty eyed socialist to deplore this state of affairs or to acknowledge that something drastic needs to change, but as long as the pain is being felt by people a few steps further down the socio-economic scale we have an unfortunate tendency to turn a blind eye. This is short-sighted, because if the current trajectory is maintained, the struggles of our low-income brothers and sisters today will become the middle class woes of tomorrow. So whether or not we choose to express solidarity with the people of the New Era housing estate, the laconic days of looking at Britain’s complex housing problems and saying “crisis, what crisis?” must now come to an end, for the good of us all.
Read my guest article over at In My Shoes here, keep up to date with that blog here, and learn more about Poached Creative here. Comment on this article using the box below, or the link to the left of this article.