This article was originally published on the In My Shoes blog, and subsequently at Guerilla Policy.
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.
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.