London belongs to me no more
The banlieuefication of London
I left London earlier this year, when I started to feel like a stranger in my own city. For each of the past 12 years that I was a homeowner in London my house earned more money that I did. After a while such crazed economics warp a person’s mind, and they warp a city too. London is turning inside out.
London is not big enough for all the people who want to live there, drawn like Dick Whittington to the opportunities the city affords. This creates a pressure, and where demand exceeds supply in a capitalist society, a rising market. What troubles me is that the cry of the market is drowning out all other voices.
Perhaps more accurately we should say there is not enough property in London for all the people who want to invest there. It has become a city not of homes and houses but of properties and portfolios, of ‘stunning developments’ and ‘real estate investment opportunities’.
Battersea Power Station is an instantly recognisable London landmark that has lain empty for 30 years. After a number of false starts, the site is finally being renovated as a phased development of luxury apartments. Earlier this year when the first phase went on sale (“the first chance to own part of an icon”), nearly all 686 apartments were snapped up in days by overseas investors, many from Singapore.
And the situation is the same for almost all new build developments in the capital. Figures from estate agents Chesterton Humbert suggested that up to 70% of new build property in prime London locations are being purchased by overseas buyers.
This influx of overseas investment is inflating the London property bubble and it shows no sign of bursting anytime soon. Even the global recession barely slowed down the inexorable rise of private property in London. New build residential prices have risen by 56.3 percent from 2009 to June 2013.
Sucking in vast amounts of capital from a global financial market is transforming the city economically, socially and culturally. The centre of London is becoming a city that operates primarily for a global elite business class, to the exclusion of all others. The playground of a privileged few, London is now one of the most expensive cities in the world to spend time, let alone live.
Mapping the great inversion
The urban theorist Richard Florida terms this global elite as the ‘Creative Class’ of “knowledge, professional, technical and culture workers”, making no distinction between the Canary Wharf banker and the Dalston hipster. A map published by Florida (produced by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute), in a recent article for The Atlantic Cities shows the ‘Creative’ class predominant in the central areas of London, while the ‘Service’ class (“of low-wage, lower-skill workers in routine service jobs”) dominate the rest. A third class, the ‘declining’ Working class, do not make up more than 50% in any of the neighbourhoods mapped in this study.
It’s a trend also mapped in a recent article in The Economist, based on research by estate agent Savills. London it claims, “is turning inside out”. It reports an inversion on the traditional wealth distribution in the city with gentrification in the centre pushing the less affluent further and further out.
But as others have argued, this is more than mere gentrification, with its implication of middle-classes buying run-down properties and fixing them up. This is something more sinister — class war, plutocratisation, a coup d’etat by the one per cent. “The great cities are becoming elite citadels.”
Writer China Miéville called this process banlieuefication, in reference to the situation in Paris where low-income families, often migrants, live in housing projects on the outskirts, far away from the attention of the centre.
“In Paris, cheap housing is pushed out of sight of the boulevards, to the banlieues, the impoverished, underserved, tense suburbs. With its history of public housing, London has always been far more of a medley, incomes jostling together. Now the poor are to be pushed centrifugally, faster and faster. The banlieuefication of London is underway.”
But as architectural critic Douglas Murphy tweets, “at least in France they still build social housing”. In Britain we are knocking them down. The imminent demolition of the social housing estates at Heygate at Elephant and Castle and Robin Hood Gardens at Poplar to make way for new build developments is a form of social cleansing, with almost all the residents forced to move further out.
The 1200 social housing units on the Heygate Estate are being replaced with 2335 homes, with only 79 of them rented social housing. The cheapest one-bedroom flats to buy will cost £350,000, and like I can confidently predict that, like Battersea Power Station, most of them will be bought off-plan (i.e. before they are completed) by overseas investors.
The redevelopment of the Heygate and Robin Hood Gardens will include by law a modest provision of ‘affordable housing’, often for ‘key workers’ — essential public sector roles within the community rather than private sector employment. But by its very definition this means that most housing is unaffordable, except to a select few. Perversely the key worker provision also supports the growth of the property bubble further, with no correction in the market. The growing global city recognises that there are essential jobs that need doing — teachers, nurses, firemen etc, but doesn’t have to pay the market rates required for these people to live near where their labour is needed.
Welcome to Shed City
And what of the low-paid service jobs that supports the elite classes? These are either being provided by resident workers living many miles outside of the city centre and forced to do long commutes, or by migrant workers prepared to live in cramped, often squalid, living conditions more centrally. Property owners have realised there is plenty of money to be made housing migrant workers in hostel style accommodation, or in a ‘Shed City’ of rented outbuildings. The Daily Mail — which revels in this perfect trifecta of illegal immigrants, spiralling property prices and rapacious landlords, to feed the rage of its Little Englander readership — calls them Suburb Slumlords.
What these maps hint at but don’t highlight is something that has become apparent for some time — that London no longer welcomes all. One of the defining characteristics of London was the melting pot of cultures and classes, but today these divides are too great.
The vitality of the city is being replaced by the boring monoculture of a privileged elite. The things that make London ‘cool’—diversity, youth culture—are the very things that are being driven out.
The ‘right to the city’ in London has never been more unequal than it is today. At an art installation in Trafalgar Square in 2010 I proclaimed publicly that ‘London belongs to me’, but in 2013 that’s no longer the case.