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Slumming it

The Grenfell Tower tragedy throws into sharp relief London’s housing problems. Angela Cobbinah talks to Anna Minton, whose new book exposes a few home truths

27 July, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah

The burnt-out remains of Grenfell Tower

TWO weeks after Anna Minton’s latest book was published in June Grenfell Tower went up in flames, illuminating in stark relief her damning analysis of London’s housing crisis.

“It is really shocking that such a catastrophe should happen in one of the richest parts of London. You would expect this sort of thing in the slums of Rio. But it has changed things forever by removing a shroud on the malpractices that have been going on.”

Chief among these are lack of democratic accountability that meant that Grenfell residents were ignored even as they predicted such a disaster, and the ideological obsession with getting rid of red tape.

“We have now seen where deregulation gets you,” she adds ruefully.

Even without Grenfell’s charred presence on its pages, Big Capital grimly exposes how London’s housing sector has been left to the mercies of a market in which only the wealthy count, fuelling a social divide that will have repercussions for generations to come.

It can be seen most obviously in the balconied apartment blocks aimed at foreign investors that now litter London and the bonkers policy of demolishing public housing to make way for yet more luxury homes, all in the name of regeneration.

This is not regeneration, insists Anna, but the wholesale reconfiguration of London in which the poor and those on average incomes are displaced, leaving a hollowed-out city in its wake.

Although the Tory-run borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell was located, has been accused of social cleansing, it is Labour councils that are responsible for the most controversial manifestations of this, with Southwark Council’s razing of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle in association with Aussie-based developers Lend Lease being the most egregious example to date.

“It is the clearest example yet of what these estate demolition schemes do,” says Anna. “Three thousand people once lived on Heygate. Out of the 2,700 luxury apartments that have replaced it, only 82 are for social rent. It is scandalous and has absolutely changed the complexion of the area.”

Anna Minton

Now Haringey has become the latest council to jump into bed with the developers with its plan to privatise £2bn of its assets, including the vast Broadwater Farm estate.

Anna, a journalist and academic, first came to public prominence with her 2009 book Ground Control, which examined the gestation of the crisis, from Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy that has seen two million council homes disappear to the property boom of the Blair years that came off the back of financial deregulation.

“The big difference today is the huge influx of money into the property market that some say has turned London into a tax haven to rival Monaco,” she says, pointing out how houses prices have increased by 480 per cent in the last five years.

“We are now living in a property-based economy where housing is seen as a financial asset rather than a basic right. Rising property prices is the best way of making money because the rate of return on capital is greater than economic growth and wages.”

It is a complicated picture, and housebuilders taking advantage of a dysfunctional planning system that has inflated the price of land, and private landlords, unfettered by rent controls, being allowed to profit from the desperate lack of public housing are a huge part of the problem. Greed hangs heavily in the air, as does the disdain of those less fortunate than ourselves from those on high.

Anna skilfully manages to pull all the strands together and make sense of it all in just 200 pages in prose that is clear and concise though brimming with barely suppressed anger. “It is quite gobsmacking when you understand what is going on,” she declares.

In the course of her travels, she talks to those at the sharp end like Abigail, a single mum of two who has been moved to a mould-infested estate in Welwyn Garden City by Waltham Forest Council, far away from family and friends. Thousands of homeless people have been sent out of London in the same way, putting pressure on what little housing exists further afield in a ripple affect.

Not all the victims are poor. Jackie earns £40,000 a year and has a husband who works but still cannot afford a place to call her home and is packing her bags once again. Then there are the “beds in sheds” and even the bed spaces rented on a sublet basis, a phenomenon Jack London described happening in Whitechapel in 1903 in People of the Abyss.

There is light at the end of the tunnel though and Anna believes that the horror of Grenfell has created a sea change. “If anything positive has come of this is that there has been a shift in the political culture.”

But whether Jeremy Corbyn can deliver on his manifesto promise to get out us out of this mess once and for all should Labour gain power remains to be seen, she tells me.

“For a start, I would ask him what is your policy on estate demolitions? The Labour Party manifesto did not mention this at all so I really hope he stands up to those Labour councils promoting such contentious schemes. It is a real litmus test.”

Big Capital: Who is London For? By Anna Minton, Penguin, £8.99.

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