In the midst of growing economic disparity, within the enduring fiscal bastion, the towering, extortionate juggernaut that is London, the horizon bears a burgeoning storm. Rising house prices herald a gathering tide and as rents swell, as our social housing is demolished and our land turned over to racketeers, so the icy surf wells; the wave an imposing wall of wealth that threatens to come crashing down upon the poor and the modestly paid, who, caught like fettered fish in this cataclysmic deluge, are set to be washed further ashore.
Let us take a closer look, where, in the tumultuous realm of Elephant & Castle, great, ugly, dormant behemoths of concrete architecture belch forth from the hallowed ground that is the circle cast by the sleepless eye of Canary Wharf, (Zones 1 and 2 if we’re being precise) where social upheaval has become something of a normality, a small group of activists establish a stronghold in the infamously bleak Aylesbury Estate. Their occupation a protest against Southwark Council’s plans to demolish the monolithic structure and ‘regenerate’ the area, this 9000-home concrete labyrinth abandoned as the waiting list for council housing grows to eighteen thousand in the borough. These protestors squatting safely in the boundaries of legality with their intent to protest rather than reside, their origin an offshoot of an Occupy march for Homes on Boris—a five thousand strong rally lobbying on the behalf of over 70 housing estates set for demolition. This social housing block, once a place to call home, now a desolate ghost town, welded shut by council officials fearful of a burgeoning invasion, and fit with garrisoned police officers barring access to and from the squatters perch. “A siege” the protesters refer to it cordially, as those gathered to show solidarity lift supplies up to them via a makeshift pulley. The term a response to the evening before when dozens of policemen in riot gear attempted a violent eviction of the temporary denizens, ending in six arrests and a shrewd reshuffling of squatting dominion.
The irony that this was the scene of Tony Blair’s inaugural speech upon election cannot be lost. Especially when you realise Southwark is yet a Labour constituency. For a party who claim to be ‘progressive’ this appears an incredibly cynical and hypocritical move. “For 18 years,” enthused Blair, the warmonger, from the bowels of Aylesbury, “the poorest people in our country have been forgotten.” How time makes fools of us all.
Southwark residents will be all too familiar with the shape of these events having seen it all before when, less than a mile away, the same fate befell the Heygate Estate in 2008. In the wake of that mass eviction, stories emerged of council corruption. Who then can blame the erstwhile residents of Aylesbury, and the wider community, for suspecting that the council do not have their best interests at heart here?
Attached to the eviction letters, proffered like goofproof lottery tickets, is the promise of new, ‘affordable’ housing. Yes, ‘Affordable’—that wholly precise term with a meaning consistent to all socio-economic backgrounds. Slippery semantics in mind, one can but wonder what’s to be gained from shrouding the issue in vague intentions rather than making concrete promises. If the implication is that this ‘affordable’ housing will correlate in rental value to the council properties planned for demolition, then why not just say so?
Though it’s tempting to view the trials of the Aylesbury Estate residents as a mere drop in the ocean, the prudent assumption would be that this is in effect a microcosm of London’s housing blackout. As we sit by idly aligning candy on our smartphones, our Thatcherite councillors are handing over the deeds to public land, our landlords, free from the threat of rental caps, are gleefully testing the strength of our purse strings, and our dearly beloved governments are tossing us cheap promises about egalitarian gentrification. In the wake of welfare cuts elsewhere, who can believe them? In the wake of evidence of callous council promise-philandering, who can believe them? Who, I ask you, can believe that these assurances are not merely sound bites, to be tossed aside in favour of the already wealthy, so that they might hoard property in prime locations, whilst the disadvantaged are priced of the areas they call home? Social cleansing is the charge brandished in response, and I feel inclined to agree.
But then why would they care? One has only to look at the hostile nature of our architecture to see where attitudes towards poverty lie. Homelessness, of course, is an extreme, and the number of rough sleepers on our streets, though disheartening that their struggle exists at all, not all together high, but I would argue that it’s this same outlook towards these members of society that demeans our ability to coexist. There is a massive distrust and overall ignorance towards those who reap the benefits of the welfare system, for example. The majority of which are employed and actively contribute to society—the tax money handed to them fed back into the economy via consumption. They do not hoard it like private landlords. Or lose it like bankers. Money, unlike capital, is not finite.
Look too at the term ‘underclass’, reserved for that especial variety of layabout. You know the one, that particular slack-jawed slacker content to spend their entire life on the dole, harbouring a singular ambition to win the jackpot on the fruit machine in the corner of their local. As morbidly fun as they are to deploy, generalisations such as these help no one, and this sheer disregard for a whole section of society has the makings of a cynical ploy by mainstream media to deflect our discontent from real issues. And don’t even get me started on the incredibly disparaging name. Underclass. Under. Oi, you, plebeian scum, yes you with the hood and the stench, you—you are beneath me. At least, I suppose, we can take comfort from the fact that the term ‘working class’ is spun from utilitarian restraint.
Meanwhile insincere calls for ‘social mixing’ lead to phenomena like that of ‘poor doors’, acting an extreme allegory for growing segregation, as self-important fiends of wealth demonstrate their aura of superiority by arriving, resplendent in cape, via luxury foyer, complete with doorman and lounge, whilst their lesser-paid neighbours shuffle through the dungeon door round the back. Let us applaud them I say; let us applaud them for their incredible foresight, safe in the knowledge that very few would ever willingly suffer the stench of those who bathe in a thousand pounds worth of eau de toilette. C’est nectar des dieux, darling.
The positives of a socially diverse city are there for all to see—it’s what London is lauded for. Let us not overlook the boons of multiculturalism—because let’s face it the growing disparity in wealth essentially equates to cultural difference; our interests are not dependent on, but affected by, our disposable income—a socially diverse city creates variety in thought and encourages economic progression. We should not forsake that in favour of short-term windfalls.
What, then, of the madness touched on above dispels the conjured vision of a post-dystopian London? An Elite metropolis in which the wealthy reside south of the river, the Thames acting a barrier from where, in the dreaded northern outskirts, the contemptible poor carry out their meagre lives? Perhaps such a vision is terribly embroidered, but if in the event of this burgeoning tide we do not attempt to part the waves and reverse the damage, are we not freely committing ourselves to a mass exodus?
Where art thou Moses?