It took Hitler’s Luftwaffe to provoke the last great exodus of people from London. First went the children, evacuated en masse to the care of strangers in the countryside, and then after the war whole families were relocated from the rubble of the Blitz to the post-modern New Towns of Britain’s brave new world.
Fast-forward seventy years, and a new displacement is underway. But in 2014, people are being driven from their homes and communities not by bombs from the air but by the process of gentrification and the callous indifference of London’s housing market.
Today’s high-profile case is that of the New Era housing estate in Hoxton, which houses over 90 families at below-market rate rents. Earlier this year, the estate was bought by American property management company Westbrook Partners, who announced their intention to serve notice to the tenants, refurbish the flats and let them at market prices.
The Guardian contrasts the philanthropic spirit that conceived the New Era estate with the vulture capitalism that now threatens to tear it down:
[The estate was] built by a charitable trust in the 1930s in order to offer working-class residents affordable private rented accommodation. Even when the blocks were sold this spring, residents say they were assured that the old tenets would apply. Within weeks, new owners told them that rents would rise to market values: spiralling from £600 a month for a two-bed flat to something closer to £2,400. That was meant to happen by summer 2016. After [Conservative MP Richard] Benyon’s firm pulled out of the deal last week, residents were told that Westbrook would accelerate the process.
But what seemed like a hopeless case of the little people versus corporate might has now started to attract attention, with a change.org petition approaching 300,000 signatures in a matter of weeks, and Revolution author Russell Brand lending his support to the cause. Boris Johnson has also pledged to investigate, though it is difficult to see the Mayor of London making a significant intervention.
It must be acknowledged that the New Era residents have not always exerted themselves to enlist the support of the casual observer. Hyperbolic claims about being made “homeless by Christmas” ignore the alternative of moving out of the borough, and the suggestion that the Tower of London poppy display commemorated people who had given their lives for the sacred cause of socialised housing was opportunistic and crass, as well as being patently untrue. Furthermore, in their indignation at the prospect of being forced to leave Hoxton, the campaigners also overlook the fact that there are many Britons who, by accident of birth, grew up outside London and never had the opportunity to enjoy subsidised housing in the heart of the world’s greatest city in the first place.
But 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?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Some purists would argue that the market must be left to function unmolested, the fate of the working poor be damned. Others, such as Russell Brand, would wave a magic wand every time the “American corporations” or other bogeymen of the left try to move in, always siding with the local residents but harming London’s competitiveness in the process. Neither stance is helpful. And in the absence of a national or city-wide conversation on this thorny issue, the residents groups and development corporations go to battle alone.
This would seem to put the New Era residents at a distinct disadvantage, playing David to Westbrook Partners’ Goliath. But people power has already achieved one important victory, forcing Westbrook’s collaborator Benyon Estates to withdraw from their involvement in the estate due to negative publicity. Westbrook themselves will prove a more difficult nut to crack – based in America, they have little cause to fear reputational or political damage inflicted thousands of miles away. But the New Era campaigners are gearing up for a fight nonetheless, seeking international solidarity by pointing out that Westbrook’s principle shareholders are the pension funds of low-paid public sector workers in America.
In truth, we all have a stake in this fight, whether we are homeowners or renters, urban dwellers or country folk. Every day, we bear witness to the unstoppable forces of globalisation and capital flows which are dramatically reshaping our world, and which our leaders often seem impotent to control. These forces may not be coming for our own homes, jobs, or livelihoods – yet. But when they do, who will fight for us tomorrow if we fail to stand up for those like the New Era residents, who need our support today?
More semi-partisan coverage of gentrification and the New Era estate saga is here.