One of the most striking features of last week’s televised leaders’ debate was the extent to which it displayed a common vocabulary among the party leaders, regardless of political persuasion. In this new policyspeak, citizens have been transformed into ‘hardworking families’ (when they are not ‘customers’ or ‘taxpayers’) and homes are invariably ‘the first rung of the housing ladder’.
These rungs are only too evident in Dalston. Despite valiant attempts by local groups, such as Open Dalston, to save some of the area’s cultural and architectural heritage, the ‘town centre’, as the planners call it, has become a giant building site. Cashing in on Dalston’s hip reputation, the hoardings show images of the young and cool and feature slogans like ‘see it, be it, love it’ placed strategically where they can catch the eye of people leaving the nearby Arcola Theatre and Cafe Oto and late night clubbers staggering their giggling way towards the Overground Station.
Yet it is hard to imagine a larger cultural gap than that between the edgy, self-ironising hipster aesthetic that made Dalston cool in the first place and the bland mass-produced blocks produced in their thousands by Barratt and Taylor Wimpey who are currently the two main developers in the area. They also happen to be two of the largest construction companies in the country. Even the staunchly Tory Telegraph regards Taylor Wimpey as a predatory company that is bringing undue pressure on public bodies to allow it to develop where it likes (see this article for an indignant expose of construction companies’ attempts to pressurise politicians to let them develop the Green Belt) while Lawrence Barratt (founder of Barratt Homes) is a well-known donor to the Conservative Party).
The evidence is that the overwhelming majority of buyers of these flats are not the young ‘creatives’ referenced in the images on the hoardings. Many are investors from countries like Russia, China and Pakistan (and more recently from crisis-hit economies in Southern Europe) wanting to park some of their money in the London property market. Such has been the increase in value in recent years that many do not even bother to rent them out – the flats are earning so much money (and, no doubt, helping their owners avoid so much tax and/or financial scrutiny back home) that there is no need for the hassle. In other cases they are bought by buy-to-let landlords. Their tenants are often people who work in the City of London, which is just a few bus stops down the road. Few, if any, are people from the local authority’s list of people with a real and desperate need for shelter. It could also be (but I have no firm evidence of this) that we are beginning to see a phenomenon that is already statistically visible in New York, whereby single people or couples who cannot afford the rent take a 2- or 3-bedroom flat that is too big for their requirements on the basis that they can boost their income by renting out the spare bedroom (or even in extremis the whole flat) through Airbnb – a process that drives up the market rents in an area, while depriving the local housing market of affordable rental properties for families
What is clear is that these flats are not intended for long-term occupation by people who want to put down roots in the area. A couple of years ago I actually went and viewed a show flat in the Barratts Dalston Square development on behalf of a friend of mind who is disabled and was looking for somewhere she could buy that had a disabled parking space and full wheelchair access.
The disdainful young woman who showed me around was completely unprepared for such a request. All the glossy documentation she showed me featured graphs demonstrating the return on capital over various different time periods according to a range of different economic scenarios, carefully differentiated to show both capital appreciation and potential rental income. When I asked her which flats were actually wheelchair accessible she told me that only two floors (four flats) in one 13-storey block (out of several blocks for which they were selling apartments ‘off plan’) came into that category. I noticed that the show flat had a lip over the threshold of the front door that was difficult to get a wheelchair over and asked her if the ‘accessible’ flats were available without this. She didn’t know. I also asked whether it would be possible to get kitchen units with the lower height worktop that wheelchair users need and she said ‘You’d have to talk to the architects about that’. It would definitely ‘cost extra’. How much? Again, she didn’t know (and clearly didn’t give a damn). When I said that I thought the point of buying off plan was to be able to customise such things she said that it wasn’t part of the normal package, had to be dealt with by a different department and – when pushed hard – admitted that ‘it wouldn’t be less than £20,000 extra’. The disabled parking space would also add £20,000 to the cost of the flat. She couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The last thing they wanted, it was clear, was to have owner-residents actually living there who might make real demands on them as freeholders.
Dalston residents have fought long and hard to try to get the planning applications for these developments amended, but with rather little success. After strong lobbying, the number of ‘affordable homes’ in one development (a vast tower block that will go up beside Dalston Kingsland Station and cast its shadow down Ridley Road Market when the sun shines from the west and all the way across the borough boundary into Islington when it is in the east) was increased to 14 (11%) out of the total of 125 flats. When questioned about this policy of allowing these huge private developments, Hackney Councillors on the Planning Committee explain that there is a requirement for a certain number of homes to be built in the borough imposed by government policy and that they have designated this area (which has also been designated as a retail area and a centre for the night-time economy – uses which might seem to clash with each other) as one of the places this quota will be met.
But this policy seems to have absolutely nothing to do with meeting the actual social needs of Hackney residents. These flats have no gardens and no childrens’ play areas. They typically contain a mix of one, two and three bedroom flats (with the 3-bed ones only conceded very reluctantly after pressure from local objectors). They are not designed even for small nuclear families, let alone extended families. To the extent that they meet people’s housing needs at all (as opposed to the needs of global property investors) these are the needs of those emblematic ‘hard-working people’ who want to get their feet ‘on the first rung of the property ladder’. These people, if we are to believe the propaganda, are childless singles and couples who work in central London (and like a bit of partying). We can presume that they are expected, very soon, to move up to the second rung, which, if the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey have their way, might be a 3-bedroom ‘town house’ in a suburb (in another Barratt or Taylor Wimpey development). In the next stage, they can move up to the third rung, one of those new-build 5-bedroom houses one spots from trains in the home counties or the edges of provincial towns, with an anonymous Disneyesque architecture that strips them of any association with the local soil (although no doubt the interiors feature those all-important en suite bathrooms attached to the master bedrooms and open-plan kitchen-diners that feature in the daytime TV property programmes): houses that really could be anywhere. Probably by this time these third-rung people will have children who, if they have artistic pretensions, will run screaming as soon as they are old enough to the nearest inner city location with enough poor people left living in it to offer some illusion of cultural authenticity, and the whole wheel will start turning again. In due course their parents will downsize and move onto further rungs, before making their final investment in a managed retirement community (releasing the capital for their offspring to start on rung one, having tired of bohemian squalor). But wherever they move, the benefits will accrue to the property developers and the new rentier class.
In the meanwhile, something priceless has been destroyed: the idea of a home as a home: somewhere to live, and for your children to live, as part of a stable community, knitted together through the generations. Whether it is owned or rented, what should matter is where it is, who the neighbours are, who is involved in the local school, the local political parties and the other organisations that make up the fabric of social life. Of course we should not idealise the past. Most London boroughs, for example, have a long history of appalling slum landlords, overcrowding, homelessness and vagrancy, coexisting with privilege and polarisation between the servant-employing classes and their servants. Nevertheless, much of the history of the twentieth century was a history of struggles to ameliorate this: to create decent public housing, education, health services and provision for the sick and destitute and to place these things in the hands of elected and accountable public bodies. To the extent that this succeeded, it created bodies of citizens, rooted in particular geographical areas (often through secure long-term jobs, as well as secure tenancies), who were able to exercise some leverage in their local communities, in the knowledge that they belonged there and the faith that commitments they made to their neighbours and local institutions would be reciprocated. Thus are communities built.
This is not the place to rehearse those arguments, endlessly repeated since the 1980s, of how the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ brought about the destruction of the communitarian and solidaristic values that had been created through such processes. But, with a crucial election looming, it is worth remembering that what we are seeing now, a culmination of this, is a dual process: not only does it place huge and growing proportions of our housing stock, as well as other commons, into the hands of enormous corporations; it also atomises and fractures communities, scattering people willy nilly to wherever the idiosyncracies of the market leave spaces for them.
In this process, Hackney, to stick with this local example, ceases to be a cluster of communities and becomes an unstable and temporary staging post in a myriad atomised trajectories made up of competing individuals fighting for a foothold, one rung at a time. Once designated as an area for the first rung and not for families, it starts to implode socially. People who have been brought up here have to move out. And incomers make little more commitment to the area than they would to the surrounding location of a motel they have booked into for a night or two. Who are the losers? Well interestingly enough, they are quite a diverse set of bedfellows: the several communities that have made their homes here in successive waves of immigration; the British people who settled here because they liked this multi-ethnic environment and wanted to use its interesting shops and restaurants and bring up their children here; the later waves of students and artists and assorted hipsters and their gentrifying hangers-on; but also the institutions of local democracy. Hackney is a safe Labour parliamentary seat and Labour also has a majority on the local council. But in allowing the property developers to ride roughshod across the borough, the party is running the risk of kicking away the basis of its own support: the rungs of its own ladder; its electorate.