James Heartfield Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson on the hustings to be Mayor of London, unable to house the working population
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1. Eva Wiseman, ‘Locked out of the Property Market’, The Observer, 6 May 2012, posted on

2.Ian Abley and Thomas Cooper, Fearing a developer’s charter in 2012: The strange case of the National Planning Policy Framework , 12 March 2012, 250 New Towns Club, posted here

3. 'Planning: from builders' charter to lawyers' delight', 27 March 2012, The Guardian, posted on

4. Steve Doughty, 'Capital gains: Population of London to reach 9m by 2020 as city swells by a million in less than a decade', 22 March 2012, Daily Mail, posted on

5. Table 582 Housing market: median house prices based on Land Registry data, by district, from 1996 (quarterly), London, Communities and Local Government, Housing Research and Statistics, Local Level House Prices, posted here

6. Tim Butler, Chris Hamnett, and Mark Ramsden, Inward and Upward: Marking Out Social Class Change in London, 1981–2001, Urban Studies, January 2008, Volume 45, Number 1, p 67 to 88

7. James Heartfield, 'London's Social Cleansing', 14 May 2012, New Geography, posted here

Green Capitalism - Manufacturing scarcity in an age of abundance

Two Mayors of London and the Social Bifurcation their plans perpetuate

Unscrupulous landlords are forcing poorer tenants out of their London homes, freeing them up to rent out to visitors to the Olympics this summer, according to the housing charity Shelter. At the same time, the government’s cap on rent subsidies in the form of Housing Benefits for those out of work or on low incomes threaten to force less well-off tenants out of the capital. Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales says that they will have to move people as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent if they are to meet their obligations to house the homeless. Fears of "social cleansing" featured in the Mayoral election where Tory incumbent Boris Johnson made sure to distance himself from his own government’s policy to beat off the challenge from veteran left-winger Ken Livingstone.

Critics of London’s "Social Cleansing" have fixed on the changes to the law regarding Housing Benefits and the Olympics, but failed to notice that working class Londoners have been being forced out of the nation’s capital for some time now – thanks to the ceaseless rise in house prices.

On the London Programme in 2003, I said that without opening up more land to building in the green belt house prices would spiral out of control, pricing ordinary Londoners out of the capital. That outcome was quite predictable. The then Mayor Ken Livingstone slapped me down saying that he would never sanction building on the Green Belt around London.

clickThe Future of London 03.10.2003

James Heartfield on The London Programme

James Heartfield featured on The London Programme of 3 October 2003. Presented by Phil Gayle for London Weekend Television, the programme discussed Visions for the future.

Eva WisemanEva Wiseman, a commissioning editor on the upmarket broadsheet The Observer, says that she cannot now afford to rent in London’s once poorest borough, Tower Hamlets, let alone buy a house. She cites Shelter’s estimate that you would need an income of £67,669 to rent there, when the average income is £26,244. Wiseman noted that '... my generation have always suspected we wouldn't be able to buy a home of our own, but now we're realising we might not be able to rent one either'. While she sensibly asks herself and her readers '... what happens now?' she provides no real political or economic answer to the housing question.

'What happens to a generation living with the quiet and dreadful realisation that we might only be capable of buying a flat if our parents or grandparents die? A generation holding its breath when they see their fathers slip on ice, sliding more fried toast on to their mothers' breakfast plate. The awful coming-to as they adjust their grandma's three-bar fire. Will we be here hunched over our computers in 20 years' time, addicted to the property porn that we'll never be able to afford? These sites, their picture galleries of rubber-poured and parquet floors, of lightboxes for coffee tables, breakfast bars and double-height windows, inspiring in us a bleak sort of creative envy, and the growing acceptance that a home of our own may always be just out of our reach. (1)

The widely asked housing question deserves a better answer. It is not hard to understand why prices are so steep. Housebuilding in the UK has failed to keep pace with demand. New housing starts are slightly up after the crash, but overall they are woefully short of actual need. The reason is that Britain has among the most stringent laws on what can be built where - the "planning laws" - which are used to stop building on the ever-growing Green Belts that surround our cities. Elected politicians like Livingstone and Johnson derive their planning powers from those laws.

Given that the working class are the Labour Party’s natural constituency, you might have thought that its years in government from 1997 to 2010 would have seen more homes built for working people. But Labour turned its back on the working classes a long time ago, while keeping its neurotic interest in regulating the economy. The outcome was a superficially re-vamped planning system that put the brakes on home building. This was done in the name of the environment, not to protect the Tory Shires from "bungaloid growth" or "sprawl", as it was originally intended to do in 1947. The most recent reform of the planning system under this Coalition has reinforced the eco-obsession with "sustainable development", which always suggests it is better not to build. As a consequence housebuilding in Britain is well below the bare minimum of 250,000 you would need just to replace the increasingly dilapidated stock at a rate of 1% a year. That is without building additional homes for new household growth. The annual rate of housebuilding has never been so low for the industrial population that needs to be housed.

'Total new house and flat completions for all tenures last year were 106,050 for England, 16,220 for Scotland, and 5,510 for Wales. That is 127,780 for Britain. Only 97,030 of those were for the private housing market, and now under the headline 100,000. This is lower than the house building figures after the First World War, when reliable industrial records began.' (2)

When David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition came to power in 2010, his Communities Minister Eric Pickles and Housing Minister Grant Shapps had promised a large scale liberalisation of the planning laws - and even blamed their predecessors for doing more damage than the Luftwaffe to Britain’s housing stock. But the fine print on Shapps’ new planning law proved as prohibitive as what went before. Even those champions of the Green Belt at The Guardian were moved to editorialise that ‘... these convoluted and qualified planning laws will become another aid to the big-money lawyers’. (3)

The Conservative government’s commitment to liberalisation is like its Labour predecessor’s commitment to the working class; theoretical. Home building remains stalled, and prices have not seriously fallen despite the shortage of credit. Governments of all stripes are most committed to orderly regulation of change, and dread the unsupervised activity of their citizens - a prejudice which has only led to chaos.

The shortage of supply and rising house price dilemma is particularly intense in London. A metropolis of just under eight million people today, expected to grow to nine million by 2020, (4) creates a fierce competition for prime sites. Beyond the super-rich boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, where median residential property prices based on Land Registry data are £807,500, and where the top of the housing market is priced in tens of millions of pounds, the overall Inner London median is £375,000, and the Outer London median is £265,000. (5)

Besides being the most logical place for real estate speculation from around the world, London also has been in the grip of the planning system. It was in London that the Labour Mayor Livingstone took on architect Richard Rogers as an advisor, and committed the capital to a programme of building only on already developed brownfield land, "building up, not out". The result is not much building at all, except to pack more four and five storey blocks into what few pockets of green space can be grabbed. His successor Johnson has avoided challenging the Livingstone system, preferring a quiet life to any hint of controversy.

Rather than face the problem of the absolute shortfall in new homes, most critics have fixated on peripheral issues, such as the number of empty homes, which, despite the attention they receive, are, because of high prices, at an all-time low. Easy credit, too, has been blamed for high prices, which is true, but the shortage of credit has not led to a great fall in prices. The underlying problem was the absolute shortage of homes.

Others have argued that the British are too wedded to the idea that they should own their own homes, and could rent, like the Germans. But they fail to understand that the availability of homes to rent depends on new rental housing being built, and rents tend to move in the same direction as the prices of those available to buy, as Wiseman has discovered. The London Mayors have both dedicated much attention to schemes to build "affordable homes" - sometimes reserved for "key worker" occupations like teachers and firefighters - though these are too few in number to have much impact on prices overall. Funding for many such "affordable" housing schemes has mostly been extracted from planning deals made on approvals for a dwindling number of speculative developments.

Over time, this means working people are being priced out of central London. Tim Butler, Chris Hamnett, and Mark Ramsden’s analysis of London’s employment in the 2001 census shows that outer London and the South East is more working class than inner London. Inner London had more large employers, professionals and managers than outer London and the South East. Outer London had more routine, semi-routine and technical or lower supervisory workers. Inner London did have more unemployed than outer London, and outer London had more self-employed than inner London. This employment profile was new, following changes that took place after fifteen years of economic growth, say Butler and his colleagues, though many have noted the sharper contrasts between wealthy enclaves and impoverished housing estates dogged by underemployment. (6)

These social changes show inner London’s parallel embourgeoisment and deepening social poverty. Of course, those who live in the outer suburbs scoff at the protests from well-heeled social commentators about the prices in the middle of London as "Zone Six snobbery". Still the changes go some way to explaining why Ken Livingstone was unable to sustain the traditional City Hall machine he built consolidating constituencies among inner London’s poor immigrant and residual working class communities while Tory Boris Johnson has now twice won over the more working and middle class outer suburbs.

In his last term Livingstone concentrated on winning over London’s bloated financial service sector more than he did on popular support, but the City of London switched its allegiances to the Tory Johnson, who champions it as an engine of growth. Neither candidate has understood that the skew towards the overheated financial service sector creates a weakness in the London economy, with manufacturing having moved out to the surrounding South East and a growing lack of upwardly mobile jobs for all but the most skilled or privileged.

The Housing Benefit cap clearly is a problem for welfare-dependent families who are caught in the poverty trap and cannot earn enough to pay the rent. But the problem of the less well-off being priced out of London began long before the changes in Housing Benefit rules, or London’s winning the Olympic bid. The city the world will visit this summer increasingly resembles not the social democracy imagined after the Second World War, but increasingly a social bifurcated place, and increasingly resembling that of Victorian times.

James Heartfield 14.05.2012

This is a version of 'London's Social Cleansing', (7) first featured on:

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