Last night I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Tom Slater from the University of Edinburgh give the annual David M. Smith lecture at Queen Mary, University of London. The reason why Tom Slater’s talk was so interesting was because he brought together scrutiny of British rightwing think-tanks and the social issues at stake in regeneration in London. Regeneration can be beneficial, but in the process of ‘tidying up’ perceived social problems in council housing, it can also lead to displacement of residents, free market land grabs, and higher rents not just for council tenants, but for London residents more generally too. Slater’s argument is that this compounds existing inequality and doesn’t always solve the underlying issues at stake.
What struck me was how little I know about think-tanks, and yet some of the most influential and established think-tanks, as featured in newspapers, TV reports, and BBC coverage, have decidedly murky links with rightwing politicians, with Conservative government advisors overlapping with ex-politicians who provide the rhetoric the government wants to hear, especially when it comes to ‘sink estates’. Reading some of the policy releases of rightwing think-tanks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that their social policy credentials are rather lacking, as they blame social problem after social problem on those most likely to be affected by those issues: the poorest level of society, basically. It says a lot that those think tanks who are registered with the Charity Commission (registering as a charity provides tax exemptions) have serious variability in their transparency:
Still, it’s a small mercy that there is an external group who examine exactly these oddities, called WhoFundsYou?
Surprise surprise, the more rightwing the think tank, the poorer its funding transparency – perhaps because they would rather you didn’t see their relationship with Tory donors. As Slater noted, the party line from Policy Exchange is that ‘we respect our supporters’ rights to privacy and do not disclose their details unless they wish to be publicly acknowledged’: possibly because doing so would expose the odd dynamic that exists between rightwing politicians, business and property developers. These supposedly academic, expert think tanks are supposed to provide policy on important social issues. Yet their websites are so slick that it takes a while to see that they very rarely come down on the side of those who need it most, preferring instead to laud the free market as the solution to any problem.
These think tanks feed into a dangerous, divisive us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians capitalise on, blaming benefits claimants for everything that is going wrong in society. It’s a neat way to disguise the real cause of why public services seem to be breaking down, which is disinvestment – and at times wilful mismanagement – so that public services will start to get to such a sorry state that the government will ‘have no choice’ but to privatise them, the NHS being the major body on the chopping board (excuse the pun). And in many cases it will be Tory party donors, who conveniently run private healthcare businesses, who will win those contracts. Don’t forget, the government’s austerity measures have by almost every economic and social indicator made things worse (for the time-pressed, here’s a shorter BBC take).
But the larger picture painted is one of deprivation that can’t be addressed by continuing involvement in the community, which isn’t necessarily true. As a result, regeneration – which can be a force for good but can be problematic – seems to be the only solution. Yet as Slater, and, in the audience, both a teacher working in central-south London and a government councillor responsible for what most would consider a wealthy west London borough pointed out, the result is massive disruption for local residents who are relocated far away from their social networks, GP practices, schools and families. If former residents are invited back to live in what has been regenerated, they find that they cannot afford the inflated tenancies, the estate ground rent, or the ‘affordable’ housing market – which, lest we forget, is a pretty forbidding 80% of market rent or sale value. When the rent for the average 2-bed flat – yep, flat – in Hackney is £490 per week and the average price of a flat to buy is £600,000 (thank you Foxtons), it’s unlikely young professionals can afford to live there, let alone poorer former residents.
You might be as shocked as I was to learn that earlier this year the government commissioned the estate agent Savills to write a report into social welfare, council estates and regeneration. Somehow it doesn’t seem likely the estate residents will be the ones to benefit from the plans.
Regeneration doesn’t eliminate poverty, it tends to relocate it, meaning that the success stories we hear from regenerated areas are never the whole picture and rarely help us in knowing how to address structural inequality because they have so much input from property developers and estate agents who know the risks of social cleansing and forge ahead anyway. They barely even bother to pay lip service to the idea of community. Even Sadiq Khan, previously a vocal critic of London’s spiralling property market, this week watered down his ambition for truly accessible housing in London (though the resulting proposal is better than nothing).
So what happens next? One area for hope might lie in rent control – but, as Slater argues here, misconceptions about the impact of rent control on property market value means that intelligent conversations about the potential of rent control remain out of reach, even as we see residents of rent controlled housing in Holland, Germany, and much of Scandinavia continue to prove that it is possible and equitable. The Scottish group Living Rent are campaigning for rent control zones in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I’ll follow their progress to see what happens next.
If nothing else, learning more about all these issues meant that I have a better grasp of why London’s unsustainable property bubble is unlikely to burst in the near future – or even equalise to a position that makes buying a first home tenable. Us young professionals and key sector workings are struggling to survive and thrive when we just can’t get a foot on the property ladder (average 2-bed flat in Hackney, £600,000 remember). What hope is there for housing security for those living in real social precarity?