For all of us. Everyone knows there’s a catastrophe, that few can afford to live in their own city. It was not always so.


‘The big difference from the American system is that in Britain what we call council housing is publicly owned and provides general-need housing.’ Eileen Short is chair of Defend Council Housing. ‘It’s not welfare housing, it’s housing as a right, and this was the model that was used to clear the slums and provide the housing in the crisis years after the first and the second world wars, so that across London [...] good quality spacious housing of its day was built, which now means that lower-paid and average-paid workers and the elderly and parents and so on can live in some of the most expensive areas of London.’ All those streets with both many-coloured Christmas lights and white. ‘[I]n Britain even 30 years ago, 30 percent of the population lived in council housing. And it has a proud and treasured part to play in life for ordinary people.’


But that stock has been depleted for years. Houses taken from the pool were left unreplaced, at rates accelerating fast under Thatcher’s right-to-buy schemes from the 1980s. New Labour did nothing to reverse this. The shortage is severe. Rents are rocketing, house-prices, stagnating gently or not, are utterly prohibitive. Everyone knows this. Now the government is capping housing benefits, and the Chartered Institute of Housing warns that 800,000 households across the country are likely to be priced out of their own communities as a result. Rough sleeping is up.

The trends are obvious, the results predictable. ‘What we think is likely to happen,’ says Bharat Mehta, Chief Executive of Trust for London, whose job is to investigate London poverty, ‘is that there’ll be a movement of people from inner to outer London’.

There is a new turn. This is not neglect. Westminster Council, one of London’s richest, moots a ‘Civil Contract’. An obligation to the unemployed in its public housing to perform unpaid community work – to call it ‘voluntary’ in this context would be Orwellian. ‘[I]t is a legitimate question,’ says Councillor Colin Barrow at the London Policy Conference, ‘who will be given the privilege of being able to move into Westminster because they would like to live there at the expense of the taxpayer who has to live in Hornchurch’ – a considerably less chichi northeastern suburb. No longer a right, public housing is to be a privilege, policed by gatekeepers.


In Paris, cheap housing is pushed out of sight of the boulevards, to the banlieues, the impoverished, underserved, tense suburbs. With its history of public housing, London has always been far more of a medley, incomes jostling together. Now the poor are to be pushed centrifugally, faster and faster. The banlieuefication of London is underway.

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