A new kind of uniformity

Submitted by Matthew on 21 October, 2015 - 11:25 Author: Bruce Robinson

The attack by Class War on the Cereal Killer shop in Shoreditch has been rightly condemned as self-indulgent, misguided and ineffective in articles by Gemma Short and Martin Thomas in Solidarity.

Martin has gone further by writing — under the heading “The enemy is capital!” — to give a generally favourable view of gentrification in its impact on working-class communities in London. Where it causes their displacement, it can be resisted, he glibly asserts.

Some of the effects of the movement of better off people into an area can indeed be positive. But alongside these there are necessarily negative effects for the local working-class population which arise precisely because the process of gentrification itself is intimately entwined with the processes of capital accumulation — something that has been researched by Marxist geographers such as Neil Smith and David Harvey.

I have watched this in two socially mixed communities where I have lived. Neither location was gentrified in the original sense of areas of slum or low quality housing with potential for improvement where the original population was moved or priced out, enabling large scale investment in property either by middle class individuals or property developers as, for example, in Notting Hill. Both areas had had socially mixed populations with private and “social” housing for a long time. However the nature of both areas has changed considerably as both the range and cost of housing and the range of shops and facilities comes increasingly to reflect the needs of a growing number of better off inhabitants.

In 1978, Islington Council offered me a “hard-to-let” council flat in Clerkenwell, an area adjacent to and similar to the one where Martin lives on the edge of the City of London. Today it is valued at £440,000 on the open market enabled by Thatcher’s “Right to buy” legislation. Housing there — or anywhere in Central London — is no longer for working-class people. This is an example of Smith’s explanation of gentrification as “an expected product of the unhampered operation of the land and housing markets” and thus not reversible by piecemeal resistance or, given that land is in fixed supply and largely occupied, by simply building more “affordable housing” in the same area. Its impact is entirely negative.

For the last 20 years I’ve lived in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of South Manchester rated by The Times as the 17th coolest place to live in the UK, associated with young professionals but also with a large working-class population mainly living on three large estates originally run by the council. In that time, the area has been changed less by a shift in property ownership but by a process of “trendification”. This is both product and cause of higher commercial rents as capital is attracted by the presence of higher income occupants with more to spend.

As Gemma Short commented of Shoreditch, a wide range of shops that catered for the community have gone, largely replaced by bars, restaurants and shops selling tat, many of which fail and are replaced on a regular basis. A laundrette (one of three to close) has been replaced by a restaurant wittily called “The Laundrette”. Contrary to Martin’s assertions, it has brought a different kind of uniformity, not increased variety.

It has also bred a certain kind of smugness among the middle-class inhabitants about the greatness of Chorlton that can turn into a kind of snobbery. For example, the local vegan health food coop (which, I confess, I use) ran a campaign against the opening of a small Tesco shop nearby, partly on the grounds that it might harm local, small, “special” shops. Never mind that people might not want or be able to afford to shop in the “special shops”. No Tesco for them. This reflects a degree of social division visible in Chorlton in terms of where people eat, drink or shop which in turn points to the exclusion of many from the presumed benefits of the changing environment.

Gentrification in this broader sense of “a generalised middle-class restructuring of place” takes place through two processes.

The first is the economic effect of Smith’s operation of the market. Often the precursors of the better-off gentrifiers are artists, squatters, “‘trendy lefties” (as one comrade called Chorltonites) or young people seeking somewhere cheap to live who move to a district and begin to change things, often for the better initially. Once the area is established as somewhere interesting and “on the way up”, it creates a new demand for property which drives prices and rents up (and often the original population out) and begins to attract capital, either invested in land and property or in other opportunities to take advantage of a better-off population.

Short of a large slump in the property market or radical political intervention, market-led gentrification is difficult to reverse as it is a molecular and self-perpetuating process. It is not possible just to reach the optimum level of upward regeneration and then stop.

The second cause of gentrification is where the local or national state encourages it. Councils have often done deals with developers to redevelop areas where the net result is to diminish the range and quantity of housing available as social or “affordable” housing, while extending that of more expensive housing that creates better returns for developers. Boris Johnson has taken this to its logical conclusion of encouraging private building in London which is then marketed to foreign investors in China. Gentrification can become social cleansing as a result.

Equally national government can set a framework that enables gentrification through the framework for planning, its housing policy, the powers of local government, spending priorities and, as has recently been seen, its social security rules.

To counteract the pressures that lead to gentrification, it is necessary to go beyond the defensive campaigns to preserve council housing and working class removal from particular areas, though they have had positive effects.

We need more than immediate measures such as more social housing, ending “Right to Buy”, rent controls and giving far greater planning powers to local councils. We must a­­ttack the fundamental links between capital, land and the built environment that define our communities through measures such as nationalisation of the land.

We need a new democratic, participative planning system to decide how places develop as town planning in the past has often been itself the bureaucratic vehicle for disenfranchising working class communities.

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