Where will we live?
London is changing. Not since the Great Fire of London or the Blitz has the city faced such devastation.
The inflated property bubble in London has led to some dysfunctional decision-making.
Currently, according to recent research from Birkbeck University, ninety London council estates face demolition — tens of thousands may lose their homes.
The rationale is that high-density housing will replace the demolished estates. There are several reasons why this is faulty thinking. Firstly, it is a waste of natural resources; the cement industry is the most energy intensive of all manufacturing industries — it is more ecologically sane to refurbish than rebuild.
Secondly, while there are promises of “mixed tenure” and “affordable” housing, there is no definition of what is affordable, and no guarantee that council tenants can return to the new developments. The Heygate estate (where Madonna shot her Hung-Up video) in the Elephant and Castle has seen 1,194 council flats demolished to make way for a new development of 2,500 homes, of which only 79 will be available as social housing.
Thirdly, the social cost is incalculable. When functioning and thriving low-income communities are felled, an intricate spider’s web of support is also destroyed. You put in motion huge social problems for generations to come.
As Brixton resident, Roger Lewis, of Disabled People Against Cuts says in the verbatim play Where Will We Live?: “And it takes time, takes a long while to build up those kind of networks and that safety and security. So there’s huge, huge anxiety about losing all that.”
Brixton-based Changing Face Collective commissioned me to write a verbatim play about the current gentrification of Brixton and Lambeth. The collective conducted in-depth interviews, and, with director Lucie Curtis, we set about turning people’s words into a play. Where Will We Live? premieres at the Southwark Playhouse 25–28 November 2015.
The playwriting challenge was to bring a complex picture to life. Six social housing estates in Lambeth including the Guinness Trust are facing or undergoing demolition, and all are at different stages of the process. Councils promise to listen to tenants but do they? Cressingham Gardens, an award-winning estate featured in the play, found 86% of its tenants want their homes refurbished — not demolished. After two years of “listening”, the council has decided that refurbishment is too costly and demolition is the answer. A Cressingham Gardens resident has mounted a judicial review to challenge this decision.
Meanwhile in the heart of Brixton — London’s Harlem — small family businesses are closing down in the face of rising rents and eviction. Stella has run a successful hairdressing salon in Brixton Arches for over twenty years. “If you can afford it, you can be here. If you can’t, you have to go. What am I gonna do? I have no pension. You know, I’ve not been scared for a long time,” she says in Where Will We Live?
Gentrification starts with when artists move into inner-city ghettos — a no-go area where you can’t even get your shop insured, but it is cheap and the right side of edgy for (usually white) bohemians. They are followed by middle-class professionals who buy and renovate houses, and colonisation continues with the supermarket chains and developers.
As Spike Lee comments: the upside of gentrification is your garbage gets picked up, there are more police and the public schools improve. And, if a family were able to buy their home when it was a ghetto, you make money.
The downside is, he says, that no one can afford to live there any more.
What is currently happening in London is way-beyond the usual model of gentrification. People forced to move from their communities and city; even people who bought their homes under Thatcher’s right-to-buy are not immune but are being compulsorily purchased.
It is gentrification on a massive scale. Instead of a piece-meal individual acts, we are witnessing accelerated top-down erosion. Many initiatives are from Labour councils which championed post-war social housing. Today’s politicians give a spirited defence in Where Will We Live? saying gentrification in Lambeth will fund 1,000 new council homes to help solve the housing crisis.
In turn, former Lambeth architect, Kate Macintosh, says in Where Will We Live?: “It is terrifying that Lambeth, a Labour authority, should set out to destroy the best of its own achievements. They are acting like cannibals.”
Increasingly London is regarded as a safe investment. Rather than viewing property as homes, they are seen in monetary terms. Richard and his family who face the threat of eviction says in the play. “I’m feeling a sense of injustice. A sense of hurt… that money talks.”
Yes, the UK has a housing crisis, one so severe it was investigated by the United Nations in 2013.
However, leaving the solution to the market is a crude, imperfect tool.
Kate Macintosh, who joins the post-performance panel on Thursday 26 November, says: “It is artificially created, this housing crisis…the value of houses depends on scarcity. The private sector has a vested interest in scarcity.”
The market left to its own devices is an out-of-control juggernaut that takes all in its path. There is no wise hand to halt the greed.