Social Cleansing And Gentrification — The Fightback

By Londonist Last edited 116 months ago
Social Cleansing And Gentrification — The Fightback

Photo by Amanda Farrer via the Londonist Flickr pool.

Four years ago, Boris Johnson famously ruffled the feathers of politicians on the left and right when he told BBC London that he would resist a "social cleansing" of the city, where the poor would be turfed out by wealthy landlords. "On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots," he said.

Yet, London today is experiencing just the sort of "social cleansing" that Johnson railed against on air, according to a leading thinker on the subject. Loretta Lees, a professor of human geography at the University of Leicester, says the city is experiencing a form of demolition and new development that's extracting an unprecedented price from London's housing estates, unlike building booms of the past, which saw old housing stock being refurbished.

"The reality is that central London is becoming socially cleansed. It's coming to a crunch point now where there will not be locations for people to live [if they are] earning less than £60,000-£70,000 per year," she says.

An anti-gentrification handbook

Lees has joined with housing advocates and local groups to write an "anti-gentrification handbook" with detailed advice for estate residents facing imminent redevelopment. The handbook, titled, Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification for Council Estates in London [PDF], is written by Lees, the London Tenants Federation, pressure group Just Space and the Southwark Notes Archive Group (SNAG).

Funded by an award from the Antipode Foundation the book is available as a free download from each organisation's website. SNAG says in one month, it has been downloaded 500 times from its website.

Strategies for Staying Put

Staying Put makes no bones about what it thinks of developers and councils that enable gentrification. It calls legally-mandated affordable housing and consultation a "con" and dismisses local government claims that council estates are being "regenerated" for the benefit of all.

For example, it says consultation can be an exercise in building "phoney agreement" on an estate for a new scheme. The publication recommends that residents run an alternative consultation event to ask a list of "difficult questions", including asking about the benefits for residents from the Community Infrastructure Levy, a relatively new scheme that can channel money from developments to fund local schools, hospitals and other facilities.

The book's message is inspiring communities across the capital. At Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, for example, the tenant and residents association is negotiating with the council about a proposal to demolish and rebuild parts of the estate. The association received copies of the handbook from SNAG, and plans to put some of its advice into practice.

"We have copies of the handbook here and found it interesting and useful, with some good links to organisations which we will be looking to get in touch with," said association co-chair, Nicholas Greaves.

Southwark's Heygate Estate

The handbook's bold language is also backed-up by detailed case-studies. One particularly strong example is an analysis of Southwark's Heygate estate, which has been the object of regeneration schemes proposed by Southwark Council since the late 1990s. Yet the last resident, a teacher named Adrian Glasspool, was forcibly removed by bailiffs just last year.

The derelict tower blocks of that estate are unmistakable to anyone travelling west past them on New Kent Road towards the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and are currently being demolished.

"The Heygate estate is so infamous, [residents elsewhere] say, 'let that not be our estate'," said a member of SNAG, who wanted to remain anonymous. But how did the Heygate become so derelict in the first place?

Southwark Council says the Heygate had to go because of "poor security, low energy-efficiency, and environmental issues", according to its webpage explaining its regeneration scheme for the estate. It took five years to empty the estate of residents, a process that began in 2008. Two years ago, two of the estate's blocks were torn down, completing the first phase of demolition. The second phase is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The abandoned Heygate Estate. Photo by murphyz via the Londonist Flickr pool.

The council offered former Heygate residents a "guaranteed right to return" to the newly-built housing in the Elephant and Castle area. But, even by the council's own description, the initiative had problems. The council's original plan was to rehouse Heygate residents in new housing immediately. New housing wasn't built in time, so ex-residents now have to move twice in order to exercise their right to return, according to the council's information on the programme.

Staying Put's authors found that of the Heygate's more than 3,000 original residents, only 250 tenants signed-up for the offer. Of those, just 45 have exercised their right to return. A map in the handbook showing where former leaseholders have moved shows that the majority have gone to the eastern suburbs of greater London, within a 20km radius of Southwark. According to the handbook:

"The lack of maintenance and of central heating since 2010 also forced many, among them elderly and long-term ill, to leave."

Southwark Council's cabinet member for regeneration, Mark Williams, agreed to discuss these findings with Londonist, but had not responded to written questions at the time of publication.

State-led Gentrification

The Heygate is just one high-profile example of a new type of development taking place in London today. Unlike earlier gentrification, when original houses were improved by new middle class residents, the buildings going up are brand-new. It's a new form of gentrification, says Lees, that sees cash-strapped local authorities selling estates to the private sector, in order to exploit rising land values.

"Now, [gentrification] is much more state-led. Estates are implicated not just through national policy but also local redevelopment schemes. Estates are being offered up on a plate to developers who demolish and build new-build schemes," Lees said.

These large-scale developments led by the state are in stark contrast to the pattern of change identified by researchers of London in the past. They observed a gradual process of new settlers moving into historic housing stock, refurbishing it, and ultimately raising prices beyond the reach of earlier residents.

"People think of [gentrifying areas] as up-and-coming areas with historic housing like Spitalfields, Barnsbury and Canonbury. People don't think of new-build as gentrification," Lees said.

The Future of Council Estates

London's council estates were a bulwark against gentrification, even in the 1960s when UCL researcher Ruth Glass — who coined the phrase 'gentrification' — first documented the phenomenon (see A History of Gentrification, below). As Lees notes, central London's estates are a distinct feature of the city and they provide an invaluable reality-check to the middle- and upper-classes.

"The wealthy have always lived cheek-by-jowl with low-income communities... If you remove that, and people are just living in an upper-middle class, rich, bubble, it creates a very different kind of environment. You end up in an Americanised, hermetically-sealed bubble. It means you don't understand what it means to be poor," she said.

The antithesis of London's model is Paris, where the wealthy reside in the centre and the poor are "pushed out" to the suburbs, Lees said. The French capital was also cited as an undesirable model for London by Johnson during his outburst on the BBC. London's council estates, comprising 12 per cent of homes in the city, are a key factor distinguishing it from more segregated cities.

But Johnson has now earmarked £150m for the private sector to regenerate council estates in the next four years. It's part of the effort to "turbo charge" London housing supply to meet accelerating population growth, Johnson writes in the scheme's prospectus. Now the London Assembly is investigating the demolition of council estates. It has held two formal meetings and will publish its findings this autumn.

A Nimby attitude?

If Johnson is denied the estates for new housing towers, where will the estimated 62,000 new homes that, according to London Assembly estimates [PDF], the capital requires come from? Are the campaigners and academics behind Staying Put simply adopting an unrealistic and perhaps selfish NIMBY attitude to development? Not so, says a member of SNAG, who wanted to remain anonymous: "Gentrification affects everyone in the city in different ways, even people on high incomes... It's not just about something getting built behind you, and you don't like it. It's going to have a knock-on effect. Maybe you own the house but you have children — those children won't be able to afford to live in the neighbourhood."

Perhaps Ruth Glass put it best when she first wrote about gentrification in London in 1964, observing the rush to occupy central London, "however dingy and unfashionable" the accommodation might be, pushing up property prices to new highs: "London may soon be faced with an embarras de richesse in her central area — and this will prove to be a problem, too."

By Joon Ian Wong

A history of gentrification

The term 'gentrification' was coined by University College London researcher Ruth Glass in 1954. She observed a process where Victorian houses were gradually upgraded by new, middle-class residents, raising prices and eventually causing working-class residents of the area to leave. She singled out Chelsea and Hampstead as early sites of gentrification, but also Islington, Paddington, North Kensington and "the shady parts of Notting Hill". In Aspects of Change, she wrote:

"Once this process of 'gentrification starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed."

Similar processes of displacement have been documented by Lees herself, who conducted a seminal study on gentrification in London with King's College geographer Tim Butler, analysing the "super-gentrification" of Barnsbury by members of a newly-emerging global elite; and Jane M Jacobs' study of the reclamation of Georgian housing stock in Spitalfields by conservation-conscious groups starting in the late 1980s, to name but two widely-studied examples.

In Lees' view, the type of development gripping London today has less in common with the genteel gentrifiers of Glass's day and more to do with the large-scale building projects proposed by a man eulogised as New York's "master builder" by the New York Times upon his death in 1981 — Robert Moses. For four decades until the late 1960s, Moses oversaw the creation of vast swathes of new highways, bridges, housing blocks and other urban projects in New York.

It was toward the end of his career that Moses encountered Jane Jacobs, a writer in Greenwich Village who opposed his plans to build over tracts of lower Manhattan for a highway. Jacobs rallied local groups to her cause, ultimately stymying Moses's plans. She went on to write the urban studies classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which eschewed strict zoning rules for mixed-use development and focused on human over automobile traffic. It is to this tradition that Lees traces the current development boom in London.

"It's very like the 1960s, where there were these bigger renewal schemes, the kinds of things Jane Jacobs was standing up against."

Last Updated 27 August 2014