Let’s get our gentrification story even straighter

Dave Hill is an award-winning (and deservedly so) commentator on London and I’ve never had much cause to take issue with him. But on the issue of regeneration/gentrification (they are not the same but let that pass for now) he takes a line that is a deliberate challenge to the developing orthodoxy. As someone who can’t avoid the charge of being a metropolitan leftie – although I’m not sure it’s an insult – it is important to take his commentary seriously.

Dave’s latest blog for the Guardian – Let’s get our gentrification story straight – sets out his argument. I would summarise it as this:

Gentrification is now getting blamed for destroying London’s soul. Pejoratively, it characterises demographic change as colonisation by the rich and the pushing out of the working class. Reaction to it has created a political battlefield across the capital. There are genuine anxieties but the analysis of it is not as solid or righteous as it seems. It has been going on for decades. It is the product of (Inner) London’s revitalisation after the era of decline and falling population. Ordinary people have always migrated to the suburbs and continue to do so. Growth and the failure to meet housing demand cause competition for space. Yet there are still high levels of social housing in the most gentrified boroughs, like Islington. Poverty rates are still high. There are also benefits: like middle class pressure for better schools. It is not a simple battle between communities and gentrifiers. Urban neighbourhoods are constantly changing. He quotes the Centre for Cities who say it is a ‘myth that creative incomers are to blame’ and the true root of the problem is ‘poor city management’. Dave concludes by saying we need a constructive practical flexible political response ‘that helps to shape urban change to best and most equitable effect’.

I hope I’ve done his argument justice in one paragraph. But the point of this is that I absolutely agree with the last two sentences – I would also agree it is the product of revitalisation – but I would get there through a different logic. Location and city growth theory would predict that something like this would happen in a free market. A rich centre, spreading outwards, surrounded by a poorer ring with more affluent suburbs beyond. Over the last thirty years, London’s poorer ring has moved out organically. It appears to me that parts of what used to be Outer London now resemble what Inner London used to be like. Market responses are leading to large family houses being divided up into a lot of small (and profitable) flats and sharing of existing accommodation (sometimes to the point of overcrowding) is becoming more common. When I first moved to north Paddington in the 1970s the area was a mix of private renting and cheap home ownership, housing mainly working class English, Irish and West Indian families. Physical conditions were pretty awful. This population has now gone – I assume by moving out to Harlesden,  Willesden, Cricklewood and beyond – it is now a cosmopolitan area where houses have been converted to flats occupied mainly by professional people of all nationalities, but with private renting winning the battle against home ownership over the last decade. It has not yet reached the point of neighbouring Notting Hill or Queens Park where even middle class professionals can’t compete.

So a growing city produces organic but often predictable market change. It is the outcome of millions of individual decisions, most of them quite rational given the circumstances of the individuals concerned. But there is another factor: it is not a free market for space, it is a regulated market. Government, national and local, sets a framework of planning policy, housing regulation, subsidy and tax. To do so, it must have objectives in mind. Ken Livingstone’s objectives as mayor were totally different from Boris Johnson’s. Market-driven change can be facilitated through laissez-faire policies or channelled through policies designed to protect good features of London (like, I would argue, mixed communities) and to provide housing to those who cannot compete in the market (through, for example, social housing).

Two of the most important public policies that have affected London concern Government attitudes to tenure. First, the deregulation of private renting and the encouragement of ‘buy to let’ which has become such a big force in London, to the point where it is displacing home ownership. And secondly, the failure to provide enough additional homes of all kinds but especially those designed to meet the needs of people on lower incomes, now compounded by active policies to reduce the number of social rented homes.

These were political choices: other choices were available, the outcome could have been very different, and the City could have been shaped to better preserve the rich tapestry of mixed communities which most people see as one of London’s greatest attributes.

In the 1970s and 1980s the struggle against ‘gentrification’ focused on private landlords and estate agents who were ‘winkling’ tenants out (infamously, Prebbles in Islington which led to a bitter campaign). Now, there are big issues in the private sector like the impact of the housing benefit caps, and rents that are generally unaffordable, but most areas of predominantly private housing in Inner London have already seen transformative change.

Most of the protests that are taking place concern plans to redevelop existing council estates which find themselves sitting on very valuable land which could be more intensively and profitably used, but often at the expense of the existing residents. It’s hard without researching each development to be precise about the rights and wrongs, but the London Assembly Housing Committee last year looked at 50 council estates that had been ‘regenerated’ in the previous decade, bringing some transparency to the debate for the first time. In total, some 67,000 homes had been proposed to replace 34,000 but there was huge tenure shift. The increase was largely in market homes with some ‘intermediate’ but there was a large loss of homes for social rent – down from 30,000 to 22,000.

These regeneration schemes were having clear redistributional impacts. The 8,000+ lost social rent dwellings alone could have provided homes for one in six of the households forced to live in temporary accommodation in London (often a long way outside London) in 2015 – not an answer to the housing crisis but a damn good start. The Committee made a number of important recommendations, many of which will form the basis of the revamped policy on regeneration being adopted by Sadiq Khan.

So, City Government has failed. The policy framework facilitated rapid organic market change that benefited some people at the expense of others and produced outcomes that simultaneously enriched London life (revitalisation) and impoverished it (loss of traditional mixed communities and homes for people on lower incomes). So I agree with Dave – it needs a constructive flexible response to shape these changes. But we need to have clear objectives. It’s not about blaming incomers, it’s about adopting public policies that protect the poorest from paying the price.

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One Response to Let’s get our gentrification story even straighter

  1. Dan says:

    Thanks for posting such a thorough and thought provoking response to Dave Hill’s article (which I’d also read with interest) – lots of good points well made here!

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