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The Neoliberal City

Housing campaigner Glyn Robbins discusses how the market is remaking the council estate where he works, eroding the bonds that build working class communities.

In January’s edition of Tribune, David Harvey wrote about society’s changing attitude to housing and how this is reflected in shifting use, exchange and speculative values. Before publication, Professor Harvey visited the council estate near Old Street where I work, an area where these forces are evident.

The estate was built in the mid-1960s when, as Harvey recalls from his own experiences, the concept of housing as a personal commodity and investment vehicle was largely alien. The working class neighbourhood now being rebranded as Tech City or Silicon Roundabout, is studded with council estates, a legacy established by the pioneering Finsbury Council of the inter-war years. The Spa Green estate and nearby Finsbury Health Centre, both designed by Soviet émigré Berthold Lubetkin, embody a vision for the future that has survived to the present, but is now under existential threat. The ideological onslaught against municipalism in general and council housing in particular is the essential accompaniment to the reshaping of our cities. As Jay Arena has written in relation to the demolition of public housing in post-Katrina New Orleans, such buildings represent “an obstacle to the full spatial, cultural, political and economic emergence and maintenance of the neoliberal city, which could only be achieved by clearing the ground of poor people”.

Like many other places, this project is well-advanced in Old Street. The estate where I work is surrounded by building sites, encapsulating the transition of housing’s use value as a home, to its use for speculation and exchange, as described by Harvey. Glass towers of multi-million pound apartments along City Road are the most obvious sign, but the market’s domination is multi-faceted. This is illustrated by one address on the estate, almost a parable of our urban times.

The original occupants, first generation Irish immigrants, lived there as council tenants for 20 years. When the father died, the family decided to exercise the Right to Buy, but continued to live in the home. With adulthood, some children moved away, others stayed in the area, living on other parts of the estate with their own children. But when the mother died in 2013, the remaining brother in the original family home decided to sell-up. He’d already become worn-down by the rapid changes to his familiar physical and social environment and wanted a quieter life outside London. The three-bedroom former council home was sold to a young couple, originally from the US, for half a million pounds. They played an active part in the local community, but the extent of their difference and the shifting character of the estate was encapsulated by the use of their garden shed as a workplace where the husband traded commodities on several computer screens. Brexit put a stop to that and they went back to the United States, selling for £750,000 to a City banker. He’s barely been seen on the estate since and it’s become obvious that the home was bought without any expectation of living in it.

This example typifies how the sinews of a working class community are weakened as homes become sites for speculation. Elsewhere on the estate, the UK’s exponential growth of private renting, which was the deliberate and inevitable corollary to the diminution of council housing, also leaves its mark. I estimate the annual turnover of residents at 30%, as households of predominantly young people, renting expensively from absentee landlords, come and go. In a foreshadowing of Grenfell, when there was a fire in one of those homes, we realised we had no idea who was living there–and that the people who lived there didn’t know each other either! The tell-tale signs of slightly bemused groups with wheelie cases outside suggests some addresses are now on AirBnB. This level of transience and anonymity makes building the kind of social networks that used to sustain council estates almost impossible. But breaking communal identity and solidarity is another key objective of the neoliberal urban project.

The lazy epithet “gentrification” doesn’t take account of such nuance. It’s true that the demolition of council housing–still threatened on many estates–and the overall scarcity of genuinely affordably homes, leads directly to displacement. But sometimes the process is more subtle. I often hear residents describe feeling like strangers in their own home. This cultural displacement isn’t as vivid as that resulting from a housing market few can afford, but it’s symbiotic. As well as council housing, Old Street used to be an area of small manufacturing industry. One of the buildings where that used to happen, immediately opposite the estate, will soon become the European offices of CNN. Estate residents are braced for another wave of disruption. They’ve already seen local shops like Superdrug and Peacock replaced with a Marks and Spencer food store and private gyms. There’s a Wetherspoon across the road from the new CNN HQ. Its days may be numbered.

All this takes place against the background of chronic policy failure. Successive governments, of all hues, have been besotted by the capitalist forces surrounding and transforming Old Street. The idea that the market is the solution to our massive housing problem rather than the cause is hard-wired, including within leading Labour Party politicians. In London, Sadiq Khan is setting a developer-friendly table from which he hopes a few more crumbs will fall. But his agenda of new, publicly-funded homes stratified by income, much of it misleading called ‘affordable,’ only provides a gloss to the status quo. Bill de Blasio is pursuing a similar path in New York City, with similarly divisive results. There is emerging evidence, too, that rents for the new council homes built by Sadiq Khan will be significantly more expensive than those for existing council housing. Khan opposed means testing and ‘Pay to Stay’ for council tenants when the Tory government tried to introduce it in 2016. It appears that position has waned.

As David Harvey argues, this forms a picture Engels would have recognised from his description of the Victorian city where “existing uses had to be displaced and present occupants evicted, or current residents had to pay higher land costs for the privilege of staying put.” It doesn’t have to be this way, but changing it will require a fundamental rethink. Almost four decades of denigrating and denuding council housing, while looking to private developers–including State-subsidised housing associations–to build the homes we need, has failed miserably and at massive cost. Swathes of formerly public land, including thousands of homes now worth billions of pounds, have been privatised. Communities like the one I work in face a battle for survival against the predatory capitalism surrounding them.

Restoring genuine council housing to the policy mainstream isn’t a panacea. But it is the route to closing the deep social divisions now tearing our cities apart. Like millions of others, my grandparents escaped the squalor and exploitation of private renting in the 1930s to a new council home. They described their three-bedroom home in Dagenham as the best thing that ever happened to them, providing an affordable rent, secure tenancy, comprehensive repairs service and a place within a stable community. How many of today’s private renters wouldn’t take that if it was on offer?