No Shame In This Game

The working classes of inner London, demoralised and downtrodden after the Thatcher onslaught on public spending and services stretched local communities to breaking point, now face a new threat: gentrification. Steve Potts investigates.

Stray a few yards from the upmarket 'Granita ' restaurant, where Gordon Brown agreed to allow Blair a free-run for the leadership of the Party, and you stumble into an area classed as one of the most underresourced in England. There around a quarter of the population live in homes assessed as statutorily unfit; over half of it 's pupils qualify for free school meals; while recorded violent crime is the highest in the region. Sounds like? Liverpool 8? Mosside in Manchester? or Glasgow 's Easterhouse even?

It is instead a description (appropriately two faced some may think) of Islington, the spiritual home of New Labour and trendy themepark of 'Cool Britannia '. Plans to resolve this somewhat embarrassing contradiction between the haves and have-nots are already well advanced. However the much trumpeted regeneration schemes will not, as the government would like us to believe, have as their priority the raising of the living standards for Islington 's most impoverished. Instead what we are witnessing here, and throughout inner-London, is a huge programme of social engineering, unprecedented in it 's scale. Quite simply, the working classes are being socially-cleansed, to make way for what Lord Rogers, head of the government 's Urban Taskforce, describes as 'middle class colonisers. ' Contradiction resolution - New Labour style. As Rowan Moore pointed out in the Evening Standard in April, "This is the way they clear sites for development in Shanghai, not London". Until now.

The working classes of inner London, demoralised and downtrodden after the Thatcher onslaught on public spending and services stretched local communities to breaking point, now face a new threat: gentrification. The shiny, happy, New Labour-voting, trendy, middle classes have set about changing the face of former solid working class communities with an infestation of expensive loft apartments and cafe/bars; pushing up prices, leading to the closure of shops, pubs, local amenities and forcing the children of life-long residents to move miles away to find affordable accommodation.

Knowing they 're in the ascendancy, they barely bother to disguise their triumphalism. "All that seems to be published are the whingeing comments from people who have made no effort to move with the times or adapt to the new demographic profile of the area. It is time to accept that the times and the area have changed and like Darwin 's law of natural selection, you adapt to survive or you die out" (Islington Gazette).

The chattering classes openly refer to those prepared to purchase property in the most run-down parts, as 'pioneers '. In fact the language now being routinely used by councillors, council officers and developers alike, goes beyond mere snobbery. It might be called 'racist ' in any other context. Certainly it mirrors the kind of bigoted stuff spouted about the Irish, blacks and indeed the working class at the turn of the century. For example, Geoff Marsh of London Property Research outlined his beliefs to the Daily Telegraph recently, "There is a trickle-down effect, whereby the middle-class pioneer woman will live next to the members of what were once called the 'great unwashed '. Unwashed flats may scrub up a bit as a result." And Labour 's Lord Desai told the Highbury & Islington Express that the key to improving Islington schools is to have more middle-class parents involved because they "work hard to keep school standards up."

Across London, New Labour councils have decided that it is not poverty, but the working classes themselves who are the problem and therefore must be eradicated from the inner cities. They have been aided in this by the crisis in local authority housing whereby, as Rowan Moore says "local and national government have, without perhaps entirely realising it, made a defacto decision not to afford it" (London Evening Standard, 6.4.99).

Many councils have decided to either just sell-off their housing stock, or 'transfer ' them to housing associations. Tenants on rundown estates, starved of cash for years, have now been presented with a simple fait acompli... vote for transfer and receive investment, or vote no and rot. Unsurprisingly, many are taking the cash.

Once privatised, or 'transferred, ' tenants ' organisations will become meaningless as tenants lose their statutory rights, have different rent levels and landlords, and are placed outside of the control of elected bodies. Added to this are Labour 's plans to reduce housing benefit payments to 80%, with tenants who cannot make up the rest being 'persuaded ' to move to cheaper premises in a less sought-after location. With street properties in Islington routinely changing hands for over £500,000, yards from the most 'notorious ' estates, a stark form of social apartheid exists.

But this phenomenon is not restricted to Islington or Hackney. As generations of East End families in Tower Hamlets and Newham are also being targeted, with Bob Young, head of housing policy at Newham, explaining in typical New Labourspeak why in the Docklands only high-priced luxury developments will be given planning permission, "What we have is a concentration of benefit-dependent people in the area. Social housing attracts people that are challenged economically who can 't support local shops and services. "

Pete Clark put Lord Rogers ' report into perspective in the Evening Standard (22.4.99) when he said, "Rogers wants to avoid a class war, but while he conspires in the construction of buildings which are available only to a wealthy elite, this seems an idle fancy. The fact is that all the nice bits of London, and most of those are on or near the Thames, are being colonised by the wealthy." This is certainly true south of the river, in Southwark where the council, London 's biggest landlord, owning 52,000 homes, plans to demolish council estates in sought after areas and replace them with luxury apartments. Once in the public domain, this scheme, along with the comments of Fred Manson, head of regeneration, that "Because social housing generates poor school performances, middle-class people stay away" caused absolute uproar. The Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations, which represents over a hundred tenants associations in the borough, demanded his head and forced a halt to the scheme, setting up an independent panel from which housing officers involved in drawing-up the original plans were discluded. In The Pull of the City (BBC2), Lil Patrick, a long-term resident, summed-up the feelings of most locals, "There is ethnic cleansing [paraphrasing a theme first used by the IWCA in Islington] going on. They don 't want ordinary people in the area, they only want the middle-classes. We have been here all this time. The place was torn to pieces in the war. We stayed here and kept it going. Now, we 're being told to get out."

Clearly the Left in London have failed to fully understand the all encompassing nature of the Blair project, just as they have done on a national scale. Interestingly, some of the confusion may be due to the fact that many of those involved in the privatisation of council housing, have come from what would have been seen as a Left background. In exchanging politics for a career in the 'touchy-feely ' world of housing associations, many are now arch exponents of estate transfer.

New Labour appear intent on clearing the working classes from inner London, leaving a few estates standing in order to house the domestic servants, seen as a necessity by the high-flying middle classes; or as Simon Jenkins put it in the Evening Standard, (22.4.99), "If there is a role for council estates in the inner city it is to retain, in wealthy communities, low-income workers who would otherwise have to travel miles to their jobs."

Far from eradicating poverty, Blair plans to relocate it. Let 's face it, if the working classes reach the end of their tether on suburban, satellite estates, they can, like their French cousins, riot from dawn to dusk without it spilling the froth from a single cappuccino.

Working class activists are fully aware there is no shame in this game. So simply to halt privatisation is not enough. Instead, as the best means of defence is attack, the goal must not only be to lobby Labour, but replace them.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 2, Aug/Sept '99