Postcards from London: before and during Covid-19

Postcard 1 was written for a conference to celebrate the work of Frank Moulaert in 2017 and published as chapter 12 in Social Innovation as Political Transformation: thoughts for a better world , eds Pieter Van den Broeck, Abid Mehmood, Angeliki Paidakaki and Constanza Parra, ch 12, pp 66-69, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar. https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/social-innovation-as-political-transformation

Read aloud on the Architecture Foundation’s Instagram Live, 2100-2130h on Wednesday 27 May 2020 & thereafter on their YouTube (link to follow), part of their #BedtimeStories series, curated by Alicia Pivaro.

Postcard 1 

sent in 2017 to an international meeting to honour a great friend, Frank Moulaert

Forgive a short message from our offshore island, written in moments diverted from challenging the neo-liberal framing of our city’s narrative, watching the eviction of people from their homes and the expulsion of ‘foreign’ friends from their city of choice and now, suddenly, grappling with an intractable parliamentary election. All that is solid melts into air. 

The sub-text is a warm appreciation of what I have learned as a guest at the feast of Moulaert and its community over many years. 

London is a big city by European standards (10-15 million people) but that’s as precise as one can be. Its administrative area was already too small when it was defined in 1965 and becomes ever more so as its growth sucks commuters from much of England and migrants from everywhere, flinging out others. We know the importance of multi-scale relationships, though, and live with very distinct and localised economic, social and political experiences in the cities, towns and villages which make up our country: various capitalisms surviving under one Queen (the rentier par excellence) but a country increasingly financialised and divided. 

The dominant discourse about London is so familiar. City leaders, (almost all of) the political parties, policy communities, professions and mainstream media are proud of its rate of population and GDP growth, its prowess in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, the ‘light touch regulation’ of its financial, housing and labour markets, its cultural richness, its universities and its youth. A wonderful place; the engine of the nation. 

Policy is crafted to sustain and extend this pre-eminence, with much reliance on the benefits of agglomeration as a convenient and reassuring rationalisation. The co-location in London of state and diplomatic functions, finance, business HQs, elite universities (including Oxford and Cambridge an hour from the centre) and leading cultural institutions has been a winning combination of course, all speaking English but with hundreds of other languages on hand. This magic might even, we are told, carry us through our separation from the European Union. It can also be presented as slightly green: public transport is elaborate, expanding and popular, we have reversed the growth of car use and cycling is booming. 

But London is a poverty machine as well as a wealth machine and has been for centuries, harvesting the value produced under slavery in the former empire and under capitalism in the post-imperial world, exploiting its resident working class in making the coffee, cleaning up, doing the caring, building, driving and security to support the growth. So it’s a city of mounting inequalities and it’s not so green either: its road space is increasingly filled with diesel vehicles delivering online orders and ferrying passengers who summon them by apps. The air is illegally toxic and we don’t even count our massive use of air travel and container shipping in computing our pollution load. 

Much of this could be said of other cities in the world but there are some distinctive London or British features in our experience. 

Above all Britain embodies the strong survival and periodic renewal of the privileges attaching to land ownership. Monarchy and aristocracy were never abolished and the early evolution of capitalism benefitted from the channelling of old landed wealth into capitalist enterprise – in the expansion of a slave-based empire, in the innovations of factory and mining production and in speculative urban development and infrastructure. Land owning interests have retained, though all this, powerful privileges in taxation, in their contractual relations with tenants, in inheritance law and tax and in political representation. 

The privatisation of common land in earlier centuries has a natural continuity with today’s enclosures of public space, commodification of collective assets and subordination of public planning to private profit. All of this has generated great contradictions along the way as private land ownership has blocked and distorted the evolution of infrastructure and cities, prevented the efficient housing of the population and starved local administrations of revenues. 

Modern London is substantially a product of successive waves of speculative investment, but also contains the products of important class struggles in the form of extensive social housing, mainly distributed through the inner neighbourhoods where left-wing local authorities built workers’ housing in the twentieth century. This had given inner parts of London a rather fine-grain mixing of social class and some inoculation against rapid transformation: a distinctive feature of the city and one which we had rather taken for granted until about the turn of the millennium.

The other important and distinctive inheritance is the planning system established after World War II as part of the social democratic settlement and the policies and practices which developed it in the subsequent decades. In particular London is surrounded by a green belt, now merging into other restrictive designations of open land which extend far into the surrounding regions, preventing lateral urban growth. And within the urban areas we have many restrictive designations protecting neighbourhood character, architectural interest, views and landscapes. The market in housing has become also a market in proximity to these amenities, to the best schools (in a highly unequal system) and best environments. A few of us argue about the relative importance of monopoly, absolute and differential rent but we all agree that rent is a massive allocator and redistributor of the social product —a major mechanism making London a poverty machine and a wealth machine. 

It is in these specific London conditions that housing market demand has surged. It has been a combination of population growth, income growth for the rich who then tend to acquire more housing, policy and subsidy support by governments for expanding ownership and for capital accumulation —and all that supercharged by three decades of credit expansion and pervasive financialisation. Overall this has been a financialised boom in house prices. Affordability falls and the proportion of households in owner-occupation which had risen since 1918, peaked in the 90s, has fallen as more dwellings are switched to private renting —a tenure form almost completely unregulated and highly insecure for tenants. More and more households are driven to rent privately at almost all income levels: better paid workers who can’t yet afford to buy and poorer workers who would, in former times, have entered social housing. The social housing sector has shrunk steadily through privatisation and is now rapidly eroding as many housing providers raise their rents closer to market levels. In real terms, after allowing for housing costs, London median incomes are among the lowest in the UK and have recovered more slowly than other regions since the credit crunch of 2007/8.


London workers are thus simply unable to compete in this bloated housing market. That contradiction had been partly bridged by Housing Benefit, a part of the social security regime which government capped in a desperate attempt to contain its escalating cost. Wages remain low and static for much of the population while rents continued to escalate. The outcomes are an accelerated displacement of poorer people to cheaper areas —often far from London— growing overcrowding, broken and dispersed communities, ill health and disruption of schooling. Another outcome is mounting household debt.

Mainstream economists point out how well our unregulated private rental sector meets the needs of a dynamic international economy: anyone arriving in London can find housing to suit their purse and their preferences within a day: a penthouse or a villa for the rich; a shared bed in a damp cellar for the poor. Perhaps this is what they mean by a perfect market.

Finally the housing crisis has become a crisis for the productive economy since land used for industry, workshops and other economic activity can be sold at prices between 3 times and 10 times higher if it can be switched to speculative housing use. Planners, under strong pressure from politicians —and all of them bewitched by supply-side economists— have permitted and encouraged this switch, ignoring the erasure of economic life and useful services which had existed on this land, often ignoring the disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities.

In this context there are the beginnings of resistance: untidy coalitions of housing tenants —always rather fragmented by the different kinds of landlords they confront— environmentalists, small and medium enterprises and neighbourhood associations. London has always had a tradition of micro-local activism and the challenge has been to knit local struggles with policy debates at city-wide scale. My own involvement has been with the Just Space network in which about 100 organisations support each other in this activity: building both organisational capacity and counter-narratives to the neo-liberal orthodoxy. This is the forging of new ‘communities of practice’, especially in the governance of landed commons: the streets, green space, water spaces and the social housing estates so hated and demonised by the elites, and also in challenging the London Plan itself.

In the present conjuncture we have the national state pumping billions into radial transport infrastructure so that the growth can continue, fuelling land and property markets where the value is harvested by owners, investors and their attendant professions. The local state fosters densification on multiple fronts (though not in the most privileged areas) and prizes open new investment opportunities on former social housing and industrial sites. The central bank is aware that the financial system is at risk of this bubble bursting. We shall see. Meanwhile the challenge is to grow the critiques and resistance from the bottom up, maintaining exchanges with other geographic scales and with movements in other regions and countries. 

Postcard 2 May 2020

Now we are in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Covid experience is, to begin with, exposing & dramatising some of the less-visible pathologies of the city. Overcrowding of low and middle income people in the housing stock fosters infection; care homes and prisons could perhaps be made safe places if adequately resourced with staff and equipment but starved of both they are death traps. Middle and upper classes have second homes to retreat to, or at least gardens and balconies in London. Working at home is familiar or feasible for office workers but for most personal service and working class people you only get paid if you travel to your workplace and the transport network is itself a major spreading hazard for the infection. The class society becomes so visible.

The growth of household debt means that so many households have NO financial buffer and face destitution when work stops and government has refused to adopt a universal basic income. The patchwork of emergency supports is inadequate and full of gaps. Arrears are thus mounting up in all the rental housing sectors and a delayed wave of evictions threatens.

Especially terrible is the mounting evidence of the discriminatory impacts on black and ethnic minority people as deeply entrenched occupational and housing inequalities are sharpened by the management practices of health, care, transport and construction sectors. 

On the other hand, we discover how wonderfully air quality improves when traffic stops and that the city became as safe and quiet as Venice, suddenly. We discover our immediate neighbourhoods as pedestrians. We also discover that state power and money could be used to requisition unused hotel rooms for the street homeless to self-isolate (though not yet empty housing or Airbnb). Perhaps most important (so far) is the widespread realisation that the value of people’s work to society is almost inversely related to their rate of pay & their conditions. The valuation placed on the products of bankers, lawyers and accountants relative to nurses and bus drivers has given London its massive GDP but also its gross exploitation of ‘key workers’, now more transparent than ever.  

When we look back in a few years perhaps we’ll also focus on the fabulous proliferation of local self-help networks, rent strikes and other grass roots initiatives as citizens take their own actions in response to a failing state and incapacitated local governments.

So what does all this mean for the city? Fast-reaction pundits are already writing about the death of the city, the exodus of upper echelons to the provinces, or the accelerated expulsion of the working classes to the provinces, curtains for high density living or a golden age for high density living, back to the suburbs with electric cars. We just have to hope and insist that careful analysis and unpacking of class relations inform whatever happens next, otherwise the property and finance interests which rule us will simply latch on to the glib diagnoses which suit their needs and we’ll be back to the old normal, just with extra bike lanes.

It is deeply alarming but also has gleams of light for potential change. And remember that, hard on the heels of Covid-19 come the bigger tsunamis of Brexit and climate change and their attendant vultures.

END

A longer text with more emphasis on housing, and with references and links is Michael Edwards, (2016 April) The Housing Crisis and London, in Special Feature on London edited by Anna Minton and Paul Watt, City, 20, 2, 222-237, (paywall – or email m.edwards@ucl.ac.uk for a copy) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13604813.2016.1145947

The web site http://justspace.org.uk has links to official and oppositional reports and academic work, together with campaign documents. The network is part of the European Consortium for Rights to Housing and the City http://www.housingnotprofit.org/en and has links with INURA.org

Author: Editors

Editor

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