A Grand Narrative explaining London’s present housing problems has evolved in recent years. Emanating from a Protest Left intelligentsia of academics, upmarket liberal journalists, oppositional politicians and media-savvy neighbourhood activists, it helps sustain the populist belief that rich foreigners should take all the blame for galloping house price and rent inflation and a related “social cleansing” of people on low incomes from desirable parts of London. Anna Minton’s book Big Capital – Who Is London For? is a one volume distillation of that Grand Narrative. Its strengths are its succinctness, its sharp critique of witless national housing policies, and its heartfelt concern for London’s social and cultural condition. Its weakness is its sidestepping of facts, contextual considerations, moral dilemmas or living human beings that might complicate its argument or interrupt its flow.
Big Capital begins with an orgy of high end property porn, a spectacle guaranteed to gratify its target audience. Familiar culprits are lined up for loathing: oligarchs, non doms, super-rich colonisers of the financial “safe haven” the UK capital has become. Such opprobrium for an influx of foreign riches has not occurred since the fallout from the 1970s oil crisis, when cockney tour guides bemoaned the purchase of The Dorchester by “the Arabs”. Minton asserts, quite rightly, that any virtuous, self-correcting market mechanisms are short-circuited by the development industry’s unctuous courting of the “high end” of the residential asset scale and the profitable scarcities it confects for its own ends. To make her point that even posh London’s old money households are affected by the influx of the kleptocratic new, she walks us through the avenues of South Kensington, regretting the disappearance of old counter-culture emporia, noting the digging out of extravagant “iceberg” basements, saddened by the thought of cash-poor elderly owners of houses worth millions who can’t afford to switch their heating on but do not want to sell up and move.
It is not an appealing tableau. And like Minton I can be nostalgic about the now closed Kensington Market: I own a three-album compilation of obscure reggae tunes bought on my first visit there, circa 1980, a big dreamer from Little Nowhere. But things are missing from her picture, as they are from equivalent depictions of change in Camden, Hackney, Islington, Southwark, Wandsworth, Lambeth and more outlying boroughs too, places where the days of cheap private rents and first-time buys “with potential” for people on average London incomes are long gone.
A South Ken resident describes herself as being of “the generation of bankers who pushed out the artists and journalists” who are themselves now being “pushed out” by mysteriously mega-loaded twentysomethings serviced by Filipino maids. But does the term “pushed out” wholly explain the demographic shifts that London’s property market brings about? Somewhere in this scenario, mutually-agreed transactions have taken place. Owners of stately piles in Elgin Crescent or those to whom they are bequeathed are not dragged from their beds by Muscovite Ferrari-racers and frogmarched to new lives in converted farmhouses in the stockbroker belt or smaller homes nearby that they decide suit their needs better when they are old. Have these people been “pushed out” or have they cashed in? The erosion of a rackety and bookish Notting Hill set and the influx of something less romantic and more flash may be a matter for regret. But there is more to their departures than just a purge.
And what about the artists and journalists and other creative types on whom London’s economy so depends, who often rent rather than own and can indeed no longer afford a one-bed, an office or a studio in Hornsey or Brixton or Shad Thames, never mind Earl’s Court? A home-owner in Clapton since 1992, a time when that place name was (unfairly) synonymous with people being shot dead, I’ve seen the centre of gravity of that London world flow right past my front door, moving steadily eastwards from Islington to Stoke Newington and Dalston (all of which I was too young and too late to ever afford), through shabby, disreputable Hackney Wick and Homerton (which, in the late 1980s I just about could), and now into Leytonstone (where one of my daughters lives) and Bow (where one of my sons lives) and Plaistow and even Barking and Dagenham. All of these are fast-changing places whose borough leaders are writing live-in workspaces into their development plans, revving up their night time economies and installing cycle lanes as tides of the higher educated and young professional, with their energy, ambition and extraordinary appetites for anything at all that says it’s made from sourdough, wash inexorably up on their shores.
My point is not simply that it’s an ill wind that blows no Londoner or part of London any good. Nor is it merely to recognise the under-appreciated truth that outward population flows seeking larger or cheaper or better properties or all three, or just a different way of life, have been a feature of London’s social geography for a range of reasons for at least a hundred years, one whose blend has changed with the city’s fortunes and constant reconfigurations over time. Can the influx of Bangladeshi and other South Asian Londoners into leafy Redbridge during this century be straightforwardly attributed to “the rich” invading Tower Hamlets and Newham and “displacing” them, or might choice, family values and good, old-fashioned East End upward mobility be factors in the human algebra of spatial development that has brought them there? Is that not an intriguing question? The Grand Narrative passes it by.
No. The biggest gap in Big Capital is where swings and roundabouts should be and a discussion of how the city and the majority of its people can get to ride on them both. The Big Context for Big Capital is London’s return to economic expansion from the late 1980s and the related population growth that has accompanied it, much of it “natural change” brought about by birth rates becoming much higher than death rates: a veteran analyst of London’s housing scene remarked a while back that one of the biggest causes of the current affordability crisis is that Londoners like her aren’t dying soon enough. For 40 years after the war, the city emptied out. Its skilled working class headed for the promised lands of Stevenage and Crawley. Then, everything went into reverse. Middle-class adventurers did up tatty terraces and practiced “conspicuous thrift”. The financial sector flourished anew. When the 21st century began, “Red” Ken Livingstone became London’s first executive mayor and welcomed the globalisation of human and financial capital to City Hall. Inward investment and migration meant modernisation, growth and a source for infrastructure that the state would not cough up for, including social and other affordable housing. The situation wasn’t perfect, but you worked with it or didn’t do much at all.
Here is the huge conundrum with which London government, at both borough and mayoral level, still wrestles: a conundrum born of a particular sort of success. More housing is needed, and a widening spectrum of Londoners need homes they can better afford. How will those homes be paid for? Where will they be built? For those who have the responsibilities of power, addressing those questions requires a messy engagement with a blur of grey areas, blind spots, limited options, exacting paradoxes, hard places and stubborn rocks. Unease about globalisation and privatisation are reasonable. But no outraged, broad brush thesis is going to neatly resolve the pressures on Inner London boroughs with thousands of families in temporary accommodation, social housing waiting lists stretching round the block, teachers, health workers and other vital middle income-earners – people who will never qualify for social housing – being priced out, council stock that’s often falling apart, squeezed budgets, restricted powers and few assets to hand but their own sought-after land, with its potential for higher density, higher quality housing, higher council tax and business rate yields and long term revenue streams into social care and other vital services that government cuts have hammered so cruelly.
You do not have to like Lambeth’s estate redevelopment programme, Haringey’s development vehicle, or the more troubled council estate demolish-and-rebuild sell-off exercises that form such potent totems for Grand Narrative demonisation. But maybe their critics would strengthen their case by at least allowing for the possibility that these policies might represent carefully-weighed attempts to square several impossible circles, rather than automatically indulging in blanket denunciations marked by purism, nostalgia and half-blind ideology.
Estate “regeneration” exercises can be extremely fraught and ill-justified by shifty consultations, questionable maths, the undervaluing of cohesive social networks and fanciful ideas about the socially improving qualities of creating greater “mix”. Some of Big Capital’s most passionate passages make furious allegations about the more highly-publicised examples. But though a default non-demolisher, I think it necessary to recognise respectable arguments for knocking stuff down and starting again. Minton does acknowledge that boroughs “are facing a perfect storm of cuts and austerity” but is “infill” and refurbishment, the alternative model for increasing estate density, always painless, practical or preferable, including for existing residents?
The displacement theme is most fervently deployed in these scenarios. Minton’s interview with a couple in their late fifties, who had to leave the now levelled Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, where they had exercised their Right-to-Buy, and purchase a place near Sidcup is a poignant portrait of unhappiness and betrayal. (Leaving aside the irony of beneficiaries of Right-to-Buy, a Margaret Thatcher initiative that has deprived London of so much social housing stock, now being so often rallied round by the sorts of people who oppose Right-to-Buy most strongly, it is absolutely true that levels of compensation for council estate leaseholders removed by compulsory purchase are often disgracefully low).
But are all demolition outcomes bad for those they most directly affect? Is tenant support for that type of regeneration – sometimes in striking contrast to leaseholder opposition to it, as apparently found on Lambeth’s Central Hill estate but not mentioned by Minton – always and only the result of a public relations con trick? Or might it actually reflect a genuine desire for something different, something better, something new, especially if your home is overcrowded, with thin walls through which unpleasant neighbours can be heard? Tenants who feel that way aren’t going to launch a campaign of opposition and put in a call to the Guardian. They are going to keep their heads down and their fingers crossed. Do we know for sure that every re-housed Heygate tenant feels worse off than before? Is there a risk of wrongly assuming so? Isn’t there a danger of whole vistas of lived experience among those who’ve been re-housed being screened out of Protest Left versions of what has been done to “the community”?
Minton’s favoured antidote to the evils she describes is a “paradigm shift” involving a reinvigorated neighbourhood democracy, reforms to the planning and benefits systems and controls on foreign investment. It is attractive in some ways: she’s really good on the idiocies of housing benefit, and fuller grassroots participation in local decisions is always a good thing. But in others she should be careful what she wishes for. Her book gives thanks and shows great deference to several members of the publicity-hungry Radical Housing Network, but I’m far from convinced that these vociferous entities represent the wishes of the people they claim to speak for any better than the elected councillors they frequently berate. And I can assure her that not every anti-demolition campaign in London that’s handed over hard-raised funds to the (ahem) “Dadaist” Architects for Social Housing has been delighted with the service provided. She claims that, thanks to intensive post-war council house-building programmes, “there was no shortage of housing” in the late 1970s. But there was. The uprooting of working-class people those very programmes brought about is skipped over in a sentence and any contribution of allocation policies favouring those in greatest need to today’s hateful denigration of residents of so-called “sink estates” is not teased out.
As for those “rich foreign investors”, it is unarguable that London’s dependence on them for new housing, especially in or near the centre, and on cock-eyed, opaque financing structures dependent on footloose international capital, is less than consistent with shaping the city to most efficient and equitable effect. But, notwithstanding the recent evaporation of promised affordable housing on the Battersea Power Station site and all the aggro about slippery viability assessments, a lot of the social and other “affordable” new homes built in London lately, especially in “high value” areas, have been paid for by those means. Without it, supply would be even smaller than it already is. Inconvenient. Inadequate. But true.
There would also be fewer build-to-rent dwellings, something London has wanted more of for a long time. They are expensive just like everything else, but young incomers sharing accommodation in order to get by is nothing new to this city. The change is that, these days, the sharing phase lasts longer. And tales of widespread “buy-to-leave” appear greatly exaggerated. The replacement of this imperfect state of affairs with reformed planning, public spending and housebuilding regimes that better marry social justice with economic utility in London would be far preferable. But there’s not much sign of them turning up. And even if there were a pipeline bursting with the kinds of homes the city most needs more of, the problem of where to put them would remain. How much capacity for estate infill is there? How much land is available, at what price? If we don’t want to knock older stuff down to make room for new, where would the new stuff go instead? What about a new generation of social housing in the suburbs, where land is more plentiful and cheaper? But wouldn’t that be “social cleansing”? Has anyone run the idea past Havering?
The other big boo word in Big Capital is, of course, gentrification – that urban phenomenon most piously reviled by the very sorts of people who start it. Living where I do in Hackney I reflect often on its effects often, notably when taking a 253 or 254 up to Manor House Underground station, a journey which draws to its end next to the reassembled Woodberry Down estate, but before that takes you past block after block of municipal housing that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: more than 40% of the housing units in my borough are for social rent; the same goes for Islington, where gentrification was invented; in Camden, more expensive still, the figure is a tidy 35%. No, London’s poor have not all been exported. But if gentrification is the unalloyed threat the Grand Narrative says it is, rather than a jumble of curses and blessings depending on who you are and what you want from a cafe, school or corner shop, there are ways it can be stopped.
A law preventing people from selling houses to each other in London would impede it. Too draconian? In that case, perhaps a similar outcome could be achieved more incrementally at local level. Boroughs could stop collecting rubbish, slag off their own schools, encourage police officers to be lazy, and let packs of dangerous dogs roam public parks, snarling, biting and defecating freely on the grass. Southwark could close Borough Market. Lambeth could rip out Windrush Square. Sadiq Khan could end all new public transport investment and launch a campaign called London Is Closed. A sustained collective effort of that kind would soon limit the capital’s attractions, deter foreign investment and eventually bring its population down. Perhaps house prices and rent levels would then fall and there would be more social housing to go round. But it is difficult to say if life for most Londoners, however affluent, however poor, would be better or worse overall.
Enough facetiousness. Despite my large reservations, Anna Minton’s book is worth a read. Housing in London is an unruly octopus of an issue and hers is a focussed and committed attempt to get to grips with it – no easy task, and one that is routinely beyond me. But while sections of Big Capital are penetrating and persuasive, its diagnosis of London’s housing predicament, though often crisply detailed, is selective, reductive and one-dimensional, too often feeding the self-perpetuating set of narrow arguments and fixed false beliefs that the Grand Narrative comprises. It is a comfortable place to be, applauded by admirers, insulated against disturbance. A luxury home, in its way.
You can buy Anna Minton’s Big Capital via here.