On Sunday, BBC 1’s The Big Questions asked: Is London only for the rich? I was invited to take part in show, but declined as I had other things to do. Watching it since on iPlayer, I can’t decide if I regret that or am relieved. On the one hand, the debate lacked elements I like to think I could have added. On the other, I fear the set of tendentious clichés it promoted might have made me incoherent with frustration and despair.
“It’s a very divided city, London, most people would agree that without contention,” declared presenter Nicky Campbell. Would they? Would they be right? He invoked, “The two nations that we are living in in London,” not as a point of view, but as a fact. “Let’s talk about the empty properties all over London,” he suggested. Would that be the quantity of long-term vacant dwellings that has halved in size in the last ten years, according to the government’s figures?
Before we knew it we were on to Grenfell, ushered on stage to once more perform its customary, miscast role as damning metaphor for the city’s inequality. Anna Minton, the London academic who does much to legitimise dubious grand narratives about “social cleansing” and the “neo-liberal city”, repeated the mantra that warnings about safety were ignored, never mind that nowhere in the Grenfell Action Group’s extensive online library of claims and accusations have I found any mention of the tower’s cladding, let alone that it was a fire risk.
At one point, a woman called Sophie mentioned research for Sadiq Khan by the cream of the LSE’s housing experts which found that overseas investors have made little difference to London house price inflation, that without their money there would even fewer social and other “affordable” homes built, and that “buy to leave” barely exists. She also raised the question of building on Green Belt land. Minton sharply dismissed her. Such notions must not contaminate her thesis.
It’s hard to know where to start, but perhaps The Big Questions’ question will suffice. Is London only for the rich? The answer partly depends on what is meant by “for”. Most Londoners do not fit into that category, yet nearly nine million of us live here and the capital’s poverty rate is higher than that of the rest of the country. Is London expensive, especially for accommodation? Answer, yes. Too expensive for too many people? Yes, again. But is that all the fault of “the rich”? Claiming so is far too glib.
Historical perspective helps us here. London has always been expensive, including in the four decades after the war, when its skilled working-class migrated to New Towns, its population plunged and its economy declined. It has long struggled with a mismatch between housing demand and housing supply – yes, there was homelessness even in the years of large-scale social housing construction.
The story began to change in the second half of the 1980s, when a booming financial sector fuelled economic and population growth. Later, London’s schools, public transport and crime rates improved, all adding to its attractions, both domestic and international. Make a place nicer, and more people want to live and work there and invest money there. They need homes and they need buildings in which to run businesses and be employed. More demand for property tends to push up the price of it and also strengthens arguments for redevelopment, such that more and (ideally) more useful buildings replace some of the old.
Wealth is undoubtedly part of this picture: the wealth of the City, which also helped bankroll the social investment policies of the last Labour governments, including those improvements in London’s public transport and state schools; the wealth of London middle-class professionals – including its indignant Corbynites – who have migrated into areas once thought undesirable, gentrifying as they go with a variety of effects.
These are things that have happened because London has become more populous and more appealing. What has not happened is a national policy response to enable London government to regulate and mitigate the undesirable outcomes of this, such the powers and cash required to bring about the building of sufficient housing affordable to people on low and middle incomes and to better reconcile the often competing benefits of continuity and change.
Another impediment is Nimbyism, a political cause which Hard Left and Conservationist Right frequently share. We find the former fervently objecting to new housing supply and demanding the preservation of damp and dilapidated social homes, even when its tenants wish for better. We find them demonising wealthy foreigners. Is that “progressive”?
Remedies exist, but they are not easy to sell. On The Big Questions, an angry London restauranteur called for a reform of Council Tax bands, so that owners of high value properties in London pay far more than they do now. Good idea. But would the London electorate agree? Ed Miliband’s proposed “mansion tax” was a sort of super council tax band. It made even some Labour MPs nervous, most notably core Corbynite Diane Abbott.
The very premise of the view that “London is only for the rich” is flawed, and those who foster it use flawed arguments. And yet it has become a widespread received wisdom, a hegemonic howl, a “common sense” of our time that is reductive, misleading and often reactionary. It is a feelgood, populist fable that people like to tell themselves, and its proponents in the media and academia have gone unchallenged for far too long. Maybe the next time I’m asked to talk about it on TV I’d better turn up and try to remain calm.