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March 2, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The Fall of London Pt3: Expulsion

Following on from the two previous parts – Enclosure, and Privatization – this final part takes in the third and essential part of the process of the current transformation of London. Having marked off and then privatised the city, it seems obvious that those that are not welcome are excluded. This is often done in the name of ‘urban regeneration’ or even ‘place-making’. As we have seen in the previous parts, this process asks the question: ‘who is the city for?’ more and more often the answer is ‘not you.’

This is a subtle movement often spoken in positive language. It seems that the global cities of the world have agreed on the same algorithm for success, seduced by the quick-fix simplicity of TEDheads who can transform the city’s problems to an opportunity in 17 minutes and a smile. Attract the Creative Classes, they are told; build an art cluster; a tech city; invest in smart technology. All these off-the-shelf solutions turn the city into a corporation, offer a management strategy, and pushes questions of democracy into the small print describing ‘life style choices’.

Over the past few years, I have attended breakfast briefings in City of London head offices, spoken on platforms and attended ‘unconferences’; I have clicked through dozens of policy documents for new cities – to revive Rust Belt US, say, to ‘green’ Amsterdam, or to vault China into the global marketplace and to launch India’s ambitions for 100 tech cities by 2030. I have attended a Smart City conference in Buenos Aires where I spoke on a panel with representatives of multinational corporations, global engineering firms, local entrepreneurs and faculty deans; all hoping to push their city into the future, to own the right to be called ‘world class’. I have spoken at the top of the Shard about the future of London, and at the LSE Cities school. More often than not, I feel that we are having the wrong conversation. And there is a failure to engage with the real issues that face us today.

The term, gentrification, was first used in the 1950s by the sociologist Ruth Glass  to describe the regeneration of post war Bethnal Green. In the 1980s we saw the development of sites like Canary Wharf and Docklands, that drove whole communities out of the city. In this instance, government and local councils worked with developers in what might be called state-driven gentrification. Then, in the 1990s, the architect Richard Rogers was named head of the Urban Task Force to rethink the social make up for the city (it was said that he spent more time in the Mayor office than the head of the Met police). He developed ways of thinking about revive the inner boroughs of the city, making denser communities with more attractive amenities.

 

This process of regeneration hoped to revive poor neighbourhoods by attracting the middle class back into the centre rather than the suburbs. Thus the inner city was made available to the young, the educated and creative. But this came at the expense of those who already called these neighbourhoods home. As a result, the story of gentrification in London is also one of race, for it is the ethnic minority communities that have been most affected by these machinations.

Carpenter Estate is more than a train ride from the City to Stratford. It was only a short walk from the station, turning your back upon the hubbub of the Westfields shopping centre, crossing the tracks and making your way to the deathly quiet of the Carpenter Estate, less that 500 metres away from the 2012 Olympic site.

It feels as if I am moving between worlds. The square was quiet, only disturbed by a couple of kids on bikes, but there was little noise or anyone stirring. I went into the shop, the keeper was standing at the till but did not look up from the TV screen that was under the counter. We spoke briefly but he could only repeat what I had already seen: most residents had left; only the last few remained. This used to be a vibrant community but it was now ruined.

The Estate has been under threat since 2001, with consultations, public meetings and assessments. But every solution has been deemed too expensive, unfeasible. In 2010, it was included in the Stratford Metropolitan Masterplan, part of the Olympic regeneration scheme. This included plans to replace the community with a new campus for University College, London.

The expulsions started in 2006 with the clearances of the two tower blocks. The council said that they had become infested with ants, or that they had found evidence of asbestos, and so the flats had to be emptied. Walking around them today, the ground floor windows have been blocked up but you can see that some of the upstairs flats are still occupied. You can bet that the council have cut off the power to the elevators ‘for safety reasons’.

Elsewhere across the estate you can see evidence of ‘de-canting’, but it is the eery quietness of the place that really hits home. For a few weeks in September last year there was lots of noise here as the Focus15 mothers – local residents, some of them mothers, who had decided to squat the empty houses rather than face eviction. They wanted to make a stand because the alternative was being forced to live miles away for family, friends, work and community.

The newspapers came down, and so did Russell Brand. But now the story has moved on, and the estate has to get on with its inevitable decline. This place is just one in a growing number of crisis points around the city. But at the same time the voices of resistance are also growing: from street protests, squatters occupying homes to organised resistance and residents defending their rights in court. It is in these moments of defiance that the hopes of the city are seeded.   

In a series of recently leaked documents discovered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it was calculated that over 50,000 families have been removed from London as a result of welfare cuts, soaring rents, and council compulsory purchases since July 2011. In each case, they have been uprooted from their communities and either provided with new accommodation far away, or forced to find their own new lodging wherever the could afford it.

For example, between July and September last year, 423 families were sent out of London, some relocated as far as Manchester. Mayor Boris Johnson was criticised in 2011 when he claimed that his own government’s policy would cause ‘Kosovan-style ethnic cleansing’. As history shows us, the process of enclosure always includes the violence of clearance, or as the sociologist, Saskia Sassen’s call it: ‘a savage sorting’. This is what is happening in London today.

Johnson was not so perceptive when he highlighted the problems of inequality in the capital. it is now calculated that top 10% in London are over 280 times richer than the bottom 10%, and this divide is growing: in the last 7 years share of income for the bottom decile has fallen over 25%. Mayor Johnson’s  most recent new Draft Housing Strategy [December 2013], noted that 80% of all housing stock in London is currently affordable solely to the top 20%. Nevertheless, Johnson preached: “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’‘ For the Mayor, the solution is building for those who are in search of investments, ignoring those who can no longer afford even affordable rents.

This policy is hardwired into the plans for the future.  In an unequal city it is more difficult to get access to housing, healthcare, education and the simple task of moving around the city, to get to work. Inequality is connected to higher crime and murder rates, increased levels of mental health problems, teenage pregnancies, obesity, and a reduction in social mobility, poorer exam results, the decreased likelihood of voting in an election, and, more perilous of all, how we die. Thus, inequality reveals itself in the everyday life of the city.

This policy of exclusion can be seen in subtler forms: the poor door at the side of newly built blocks that offer a separate entrance for the apartment owners and those who rent the affordable dwellings that the developers were forced to include in the project. It is also found in the eminent domain payments for local residents to move out of an area that is to be redeveloped. The compensation may be fulsome but is never enough to stay in the same neighbourhood. Recent news stories highlighted the addition of ‘homeless spikes’ outside a storefront to dissuade panhandlers. Street furniture is now designed to discourage long rests, or riveted to the ground so they can not be moved. These surreptitious methods of sorting out establish an uneven geography of who belongs and who does not. And in the end, rather than a safer, happier place, it creates an unfair city that highlights difference as a reason to distrust the others that we come across.

Expulsion  –  of those that do not fit, those who cannot afford the spiralling costs, those who are not productive or efficient enough  –  force us to ask the question of who the city is for. 

The result is that it is the poor and the most in need are being pushed outwards to the fringes of the city. Where once the discussion was the blight of the inner city. In a report in 2012, following the riots of the previous year, of the 430 neighbourhoods that have seen dramatic rise in deprivation, 400 of them are on the periphery of the city. As the academic Alistair Rae notes: ‘it would appear that centrifugal forces are currently helping shift poverty from inner to outer London’.  

Back in the inner city, the process of expulsion goes hand in hand with the policy of ‘Place-making’, which has become the dominant mantra of contemporary urban design. The loss of public space threatens our abilities to be citizens and to engage with the city as a political space. This threat is written in the hidden regulations that restricts usage, such as PSPOs, [public space protection orders], passed by the UK government in 2013 without anyone noticing that they give local authorities unchecked powers to control public spaces, marked by CCTV cameras and the ominous presence of security in hi-vis vests. 

 

 

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