Before I moved to the midlands I lived in London for nearly ten years, starting at university. A penniless student is not exactly the best way to enjoy life in the Great Wen, but on leaving and finding a Real Job (albeit nothing to do with my degree), I was able to find out a bit more about the city – its day and night life, its many nooks and crannies. Of course, I then had the bright idea of going back to being a penniless student to do a Masters. The problem with leaving after that one was that instead of a Real Job I found a recession, and instead of a blooming salary I found a Conservative government that was wiping out all the jobs I might want to pursue for a career.
All the time I was there though, I was very much aware that on my wages, only a certain level of access to London was granted. I was permitted up to London’s trendy East London for instance, or to go sight-seeing in Richmond Park, but at the end of the day I would have to head back to my shared terraced house in Wood Green. Now, I was by no means the worst off even within the postcode but there was never any chance of me living in, say, the trendy bit of East London, or Richmond. There was certainly no thought of buying a property, or living in a “sought-after” bit of anywhere, let alone an apartment complex. ‘Colourful’ Wood Green was where it was at.
London has always been a unique identity in the urban history of Britain, with massive inequality of income and opportunity coexisting more closely then anywhere else I can think of. Housing is my subject of course, but it’s an excellent indicator – the property market is currently an obscenely disproportionate bubble, but always was. The chart here indicates exactly how ridiculous it is.
It’s nice to be out of the capital. I’ve been back rarely (it was mostly roadworks), but it seems the Boris-ification of the city is proceeding apace. For those who thought Ken Livingstone’s was a reign of socialist terroire (not me), I hope you’re happy swapping your reasonably-priced bus services for yet another skyscraping apartment block (or a cable car, bizarrely). But even I was shocked by hearing of a development that Londoners will have come across six months ago: the poor door.
The ideological rugby tackle of social housing by successive governments from Thatcher onwards has led to an attempt to force the invisible hand of the property market to do something it doesn’t want to do: to provide homes for the less well-heeled. In Georgian and early Victorian times, it did so quite willingly because of the jerry-building phenomenon: if you throw up a tatty row of houses using the cheapest materials and rent them out for more than they’re worth to the exploding urban working class, you’ll still make a healthy profit. When awkward things like conscience and health got in the way and demanded that houses be better, the market approach toppled over and, depending on whose account you read, paved the inevitable way for state-provided housing.
These days, municipal housing seems to be as unfashionable among the ruling elites as it was 200 years ago, and provision for the ordinary folk has to be legislated onto the so-called free market. In the UK, for instance, many new developments are required to provide a certain proportion of ‘affordable homes’ so that Joe Bloggs can get onto the property ladder. Easy enough if you’re building a low-rise estate, but how do you manage this in an apartment block?
Not too difficult you might think. Ken thought the same, instructing developers to ‘pepper-pot‘ the affordable properties throughout the development. (I thoroughly approve: this is very reminiscent of Aneurin Bevan‘s “living tapestry of a mixed community”.) But developers seem to think otherwise – to get around the massive inconvenience of one set of residents paying a hefty service charge and one set being serviced by a housing association, developments such as One Commercial Street have completely separate entrances. For the former group, a stylish lobby with chandeliers and concierge for your £500,000 studio flat (not even joking). For the latter, a shabby door onto a side alley, next to the back door to Pret a Manger: the poor door.
Of course, there’s lots of justifying and explainifying, but at its heart is a segregation between haves and have-nots that has been there from time immemorial. I once visited a flat in Covent Garden that was costing £2000 per month (12 years ago!); if I’d have gone back 150 years the land would have been occupied by the most archetypal slum of the industrial era, the St Giles rookery, an overcrowded, unsanitary cess-pool of a district by most accounts; but right across the road from the British Museum. If I explored the industrial cities of the same era I would find something similar: facades of grand Georgian houses joined together leaving little tunnels through to courts at the rear, where wealthy urbanites had fled to the suburbs leaving developers to fill in gardens with shoddy houses stocked with the very poorest of society. But it’s alright, they’re out of sight. Wherever you looked at land sliced up by railway lines or canals or industry, you’ll find the poorest tucked away in the areas nobody wants to live, out of mind of those who don’t want to have to look on the dirty poor.
This has turned into a bit of a grump, sorry. In some ways the Victorian model was the more honest. Their situation was entirely down to market forces and nobody questioned it – it was just the way it was. We live in a society today where most people seem to know better than to accept such discrimination; yet in that society, money finds a way to disadvantage the poor, again. It’s enough to make people question whether a radical alternative might not be the way forward.