On Saturday Brixton became the centre of the fight against the sell-off of London’s communities and culture reports Dick Pennifold
As property developers peel off London’s communities borough by borough, discontent and resistance to evictions are reaching fever pitch. But beyond the broken glass and tear gas of this most recent demonstration which the media are so keen to focus on, an alliance of market forces and local and government social engineering are working away, removing London’s poorer communities in the name of profit.
A Community Affair
The day before the announcement that Britain’s 1,000 richest families have doubled their wealth since 2009, now possessing more than the collective wealth of the poorest 40% of the population, Brixton once again became the focal point of London’s ongoing battle for affordable housing and opposition to so called gentrification, as families and business owners took to the streets to bare their teeth at soaring rents and widespread evictions that have already seen one of London’s most culturally vital and diverse neighbourhoods dramatically transformed.
The highly anticipated demonstration organised by Reclaim Brixton was to begin at 12 noon in Windrush Square. “Brixton”, reads the event page,
“is widely known for its vibrancy, which is another word for social & cultural diversity. But Brixton’s vibrancy now has a question mark on it. Will Brixton turn into a living museum or will it live?”
From the outset it was a community event that incorporated a broad range of people and concerns from long-term residents, housing activists and market traders. Banners, bands and good vibes filled the streets from the Brixton railway arches – recently the subject of intense local distress after the mandatory eviction of dozens of independent businesses, some of whom have been trading for decades, and huge rent hikes were announced by landlords Network Rail – where traders joined hands to make a ring around the entire block,and artists spray painted community artworks on their closed shutters; to Windrush square where a marquee and live music and a diversity of local food stalls inspired upward of 1,000 participants to join in solidarity with the community, with banner making, face painting and marches up and down the high street.
The atmosphere was one of community fun, engagement and diversity, not dissimilar to the yearly Brixton Splash festival – a sort of downscale Notting Hill Carnival that’s a bit less hectic, underpinned by an air of serious discontent, which was initiated by a lively morning demonstration by London Black Revs under the banner “Black Lives Matter” in Granville Arcade – recently rebranded Brixton Village, where trendy cafés and foody spots to be seen in are now ten a penny.
In Windrush square, community groups put on a variety of demonstrations and performances, the Black Cultural Archive hosted speakers, and the Ritzy cinema’s billboard read ‘Resist Evictions’ (though they still weren’t keen on letting their community members use their loos, and nobody mention a living wage!)
As the day progressed marches intensified, the town hall was occupied, the high street’s much-loathed Foxton’s was – once again – targeted for its pernicious role in London’s housing gold rush, and antagonism between protesters and police erupted, culminating in the use of tear gas to halt an attempt to storm Brixton police station. One window was smashed and “YUPPIES OUT” written across the other at Foxtons, which seems to have bothered no one – even the Evening Standard didn’t call it unjustified. Sadly the Bardnardos charity shop opposite the police station’s window was also smashed during the confrontation there.
Whilst yuppies justifiably attract the ire of affected communities – given that they are part of a process to replace them, and often have a tendency to be particularly obnoxious and either too wrapped up in their own self interest or just indifferent or the plight of the communities they colonise – they are not directly responsible; and their presence in Brixton and London’s outer centre is just a knock on effect of the soaring rents in central areas where buying up housing has become a lucrative business for overseas investors (as well as wealthy British ones).
The regeneration myth
Social cleansing is just the most recent term being used to describe London’s gentrification, which is by no means isolated to Brixton. Although the adoption of this phrase is a typically British hyperbole, demeaning the millions of deaths associated with this phenomenon in the developing world, it is not entirely inappropriate, as successive ‘regeneration’ programs can now be seen to operate on a simple formula: improve transport and public services in neglected areas; bring in property developers and estate agents; remove crime and poverty – i.e. the working class – from the neighbourhood; and sell it all off for as much as possible.
Whilst it may not always happen in this order, the end result is the same. The poor must move elsewhere (further out of London) or face homelessness, so that developers and landlords can make more money. This is also not just a class issue but a race issue, as ethnic minority groups still face significant socio-economic disadvantages in a system that we like to think is only racist at its fringes – opportunist politicians and damaged reality TV stars/the ignorant – but in reality institutional racism goes from the rotting underbelly of British policy to the cops on the beat.
Council re-housing programs are notoriously Kafkaesque in their treatment of tenants. Families – even single mother’s from abusive backgrounds or ethnic minority groups where English may not be their first language, are uprooted from their communities and support networks and moved as far as Birmingham, Manchester or Stoke-on-Trent. This phenomenon has been shamefully under-reported until recently; but has been described as an ‘exodus’ of London’s poorest.
Most neighbourhoods inside Zone 2 (and now beyond) have had money thrown at them in the form of ‘regeneration’ programs in the last ten to fifteen years. The process in Brixton can be traced directly to the multimillion regeneration of Windrush sq in 2010 that was coupled with ongoing crackdowns on crime – in other areas like Peckham, Hackney, and East and South-East generally, the arrival of the hugely expensive Overground line has been fundamental in opening these areas up to middle class workers desperately in need of ‘affordable’ housing from which to commute into the city.
In principle regeneration is a good thing: cleaner, safer streets, better housing, more jobs and better public services have been desperately awaited by residents of London’s poorer boroughs and town centers for decades. It is a cruelty that its arrival should come at the price of their departure.
But regeneration has never been about improving long-term residents quality of life. In Brixton, the last one bedroom flat for under half a million sold well over a year ago. Property developers, councils and those lucky enough to own their own homes who can sell up for six bedroom detached houses in Kent or Surrey will see the profits, not the community (except all those local business owners who’ve cottoned on to selling cocktails in jam jars; except of course, the final phase is to replace them too).
Those buying are exclusively those wealthy enough to do so; whilst some may become homes, the majority are merely an investment and will be going straight onto the private rental market, where an average one bedroom in Brixton for example, is just under £2,000 per month through Foxtons.
This process has come to a massive head recently as the Central Hill, Cressingham Gardens and Loughborough Park estates in Lambeth have all come under threat of redevelopment; and across the border in Southwark, the Aylesbury estate – Europes largest council estate – has been the site of ongoing campaigns against redevelopment plans. Just as with the Heygate estate before, all of these demolitions involve shady dealings by the councils, inadequate provisions for existing tenants and the displacement of their communities. Each time, without fail, the percentage of housing allocated as supposedly affordable – a regularly abused concept – goes down and down.
What’s really causing gentrification?
The surge in gentrification and the cost of urban renting has been attributed to all manner of things including craft beer, coffee, Boris bikes, property guardians, hipsters and yuppies. Some may look further to the property developers, and they’d be getting warmer. All of these are symptoms, but not the cause.
The truth is that urban renewal has never, ever been about regeneration for the existing poor, but explicitly about creating profits for big business. Regeneration is inextricably linked with gentrification as a process of creating profit; and this requires, as a fundamental, the removal of the poor from the area and their replacement with more affluent communities capable of bringing more money into the area from which investors can continue to reap a profit.
The truth is that gentrification is not about hipsters or yuppies – middle class people steamrolling extant communities with their own culture – it’s about capitalism. To understand gentrification, and to fight it, we must begin to view it as one elemental part of the complex system of exploitation that dictates economic and social policy.
At times when profit or pacifying the population has necessitated development in urban centres it has occurred, and capitalists have invested their capital to create housing for workers, whose labour in turn could be put to industry to create profit whilst also creating the next generation of workers from which to extract further profit, as happened in London after the first and second world wars.
As can be seen, once the capital from initial development and the city’s industry was extracted or exhausted, developers and capitalists moved elsewhere, to suburban areas where land was cheaper and less developed and could be utilised to extract profit from middle class homeowners, or other growing industrial centres.
From this point on, working class housing in the city was left to decay as capital could not be gained from sustaining it, so deteriorating further and further. Whilst the working class existed in relative poverty and deprivation, their communities were left to their own devices, and indeed where they were not entirely benefit dependent or corrosive to society as a whole, they were needed for continued labour.
Whilst housing, community and family stability are prerequisites for a stable workforce and therefore useful in a capitalist system, there is still one more way for its capitalist class to make a profit from this housing: the liquidation of these communities and their replacement with middle-class communities who’ll pay more for the privilege – sorry, human right – of shelter.
As room for development dries up in suburban areas, capital seeks new investment, even if this means competing with itself and contradicting one of its requirements by eliminating some of its labour base – after all, if the middle classes can commute, so can the poor!
At the same time (post 1990’s) the existing social housing in the centre has nearly reached the end of its life span and all attempts to turn a profit on this dwindling asset have been exhausted, as with Thatcher’s Right to Buy (the very fact that David Cameron has just announced the extension of this Tory flagshhip to housing association tenants shows the degree to which the stops have now been pulled out – the fact that this is being done under the auspices of “helping working people” by “allowing them to own their own homes” shows how stupid they think we are).
(Laying the foundations of the neoliberal marketisation of our housing and cities, now being consummated by the ConDem coalition, Right to Buy was a brilliant way for the government to avoid paying for an estimated £19bn repair backlog on council homes whilst pacifying tenants who were under increasing strain from government cuts, and simultaneously liberalising mortgage lending for buy-to-let investment, stimulating the private rental sector and the development of major property companies, agencies and estate agents – whilst turning everyone into “little capitalists”.)
At this interval, after decades of sink estates and despair, with residents cornered by crime, poverty, drugs and discriminatory policing, a plan is hatched and the investment of money back into these urban centres returns in the form (or pretence) of regeneration, whereby the council makes a deal with property developers to build new housing in exchange for, maybe 20% of the profit, leaving the developers to invest and capitalise as they please, as long as the council see some money and house enough of their constituents to placate them and avoid widespread insurrection.
Speaking of the future “viability” of the Heygate estate, one prospector says in this must watch short documentary on regeneration by VICE News, that “a large estate, a large piece of land, might need to be propped up by valuable uses... [which] might be private residential, it might be office space, it might be a retail space or a restaurant. So it’s whatever makes the most money at that particular point.”
That’s a lot of might’s, but one thing’s for certain, “whatever makes the most money”. Oh, and of course, the removal of the existing community, as they won’t have nearly enough disposable income to afford the exorbitant rent prices AND shop in the MiniWaitrose where their community centre used to be.
Renowned geographer and anthropologist Neil Smith, and Michele LeFaivre, in A Class Analysis of Gentrification, have this to say:
“Gentrification . . . (defined as the rehabilitation of working-class inner-city neighbourhoods for upper-middle class consumption) . . . is an international phenomenon occurring simultaneously in many cities––and at a specific period in the history of capitalism. In other words, after a long period when their dominant function was to assist in the reproduction of labor power, many neighbourhoods are now being used for their alternative functions––as commodities or groups of commodities, the production, consumption, and reproduction of which are a source of profit for certain members of the capitalist class. At least for the moment, the economic function of neighbourhood has superseded the broader social function.”
At street level, gentrification eventually alters an area to such an extent that no trace of the previous working class community that had historically lived there can be seen – as in Fulham or the Isle of Dogs – as these are replaced with affluence signifiers like gastro pubs, coffee shops, chain stores and glass towers. The previous neighbourhood is written out of history while another rises from the ashes like a steel and glass corporate phoenix.
In Brixton, this ruthless profiteering is an egregious assault on London’s collective culture – an assault that can also currently be felt in the alleyways of Soho, in Camden market and all across London. The regeneration of Brixton’s central square in 2010 and its renaming 12 years prior after the Empire Windrush, the vessel that brought the first Jamaicans and their culture across the Atlantic in ‘48 – in days where vibrancy and social or cultural diversity were not even in London’s vocabulary, mark both the celebration of over half a century of Caribbean culture in London, and the beginning of its decline.
But with a post-war history as rich as Brixton’s its hard to believe that it can just be swept away. Not only one of London’s most dynamic working class communities, since the 70’s it has stood as the zenith of the struggle, culture, fortitude and community of black Britain and the integration of Afro-Caribbean people into the fabric of our society – a cornerstone of British multiculturalism.
It is fitting that on Saturday it became the centre of the fight against the sell-off of London’s communities and culture, for if this process is not halted here and all that Brixton stands for is allowed to be erased, what kind of London will we be living in, and where next?
But we must also not look at this problem as isolated to Brixton, nor fight the battle only there, nor expect Brixton to win it for us.
The courageous actions of housing activists across London, the campaigns and occupations of Brixton and Lameth; Sweets Way in Barnet; Save The Aylsebury, Southwark; the Love Activists in central London and the victories of the FocusE15 and New Era Estate campaigns show that the people of London will not lie down.
They have brought this struggle onto the front pages of our usually apathetic and toxic newspapers. They have shown that through solidarity and resistance, activism and organised struggle, victory can be achieved.
We must support housing activists, we must join the demonstrations and we musty use our voices on the street and on the internet, and we must join in the nation-wide March Against Austerity on June 20th.
Above all, we must not accept piecemeal offers designed to pacify and placate us. Our homes, our futures, our lives mean nothing to the capitalist class beyond our value as commodities, consumers and labour from which they can profit. Whoever wins the upcoming election will still be running the country on these fundamental principles, however heavy handed or indirect their approach may be.