Words like “gentrification” and “regeneration” are no longer fit for purpose. We should stop using them

The Heygate, Elephant & Castle: one of London's more controversial estate regeneration schemes. Image: Getty.

Say the word “gentrification” these days, and you’re likely to receive a grumpy response. It’s a popular bệte noire – but it’s become too easy a target, a word that’s used to mean too many different things.

So here’s a thought: we should stop using it.

Gentrification used to mean a relatively slow process of professionals and creative types, without vast pots of money, moving into a neglected neighbourhood and doing up their homes. It used to mean gentle waves of improved housing stock, independent shops and cafes, and gradually rising prices.

This type of gentrification isn’t to be sneered at. It brings better performing schools, lower crime, and communities where people of different income levels, class and community live side by side.

That, though, is not what’s happening now: now we have gentrification on steroids. Forget gentle waves; flats in my own corner of south east London doubled in price over four years in the mid 2000s, and have likely doubled again since.

That’s not gentrification. It’s not teachers, social workers and artists who are gradually displacing the grandchildren of people who’ve lived on my street since the 1950s. That’s a housing bubble.

That bubble understandably creates resentment in communities, which has had its own curious side effect: the “hipster” backlash, of which the most infamous example is the attack on Shoreditch’s Cereal Cafe. We can probably all agree that beating up on some beardy business owners selling sugary treats is not the most effective way of protesting market-driven eviction of almost an entire social class.

But the Cereal Cafe attack didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s farcical how predictable the wave of new business openings in a super-gentrifying area can be. The local pub gets a refit with mismatched furniture and starts selling craft beer, with a related price hike. The established sandwich shop gets replaced by a deli selling artisan cheeses. It’s suddenly hard to find a coffee that costs less than two quid.

In short, it’s not just the increase in house prices that carves out a gap where the middle used to be: it’s all the changes to local businesses that come with it. Are we surprised kids eat fried chicken on the way home from school if that’s the only option in their price range?

A few months ago, some graffiti appeared on hoardings surrounding a new development in Lewisham, south east London. “Fuck your Yuppie bullshit” it declared.

The odd thing was, that development is actually emergency housing for people on the council waiting list: it just doesn’t look anything like the usual image of social housing. It’s bright, colourful and has been given a trendy name, PLACE/Ladywell. There have been artists in residence, and toy-making workshops.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of middle class, bunting-covered “community engagement” projects we’re supposed to approve of. What was once “nice” is now seen as the enemy.

The degeneration of language

There’s another word that’s due for the bonfire. The “regeneration” of a deprived area should be a good thing. In Tottenham, north London, there’s a large post-riots redevelopment scheme under way. Millions are being spent refurbishing leisure centres, libraries and green spaces. Up to 7,000 new homes are being built in a city that desperately needs them.

You can sense there’s a “but” coming, can’t you? The artists’ plans for Tottenham give it that familiar bland sheen. Characterless towers, patches of greenery, the odd outdoor sculpture – it could be anywhere from Nine Elms in London, to Holbeck in Leeds, to Ouseburn in Newcastle. The shops depicted are major chains and could be from any high street in any town. There’s a campaign group fighting rent hikes on behalf of 60 local traders, many from the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American communities, who fear that their pitches at Wards Corner market may soon be out of their price range.

Residents have seen how regeneration has gone down in other areas, and don’t expect Tottenham to be different. Whether it’s national chains or independent “posh” shops coming in and displacing existing businesses, or skyrocketing rents and house prices, the effect on the longstanding community is the same. They feel rapidly encircled and pushed out. That’s not gentrification as we used to know it, or regeneration in the positive sense that councils like to imply: it’s too quick, too brutal.

The idea of “regeneration” has been poisoned by its association with council estate projects, too. Improving long-neglected housing should be a good thing. All too often, however, “regeneration” involves demolition and decanting of the community, imposed from above. No wonder such projects are despised, if the expectation is that communities will be thrown or priced out of their homes.

These words are contaminated. They mean too many things, and so don’t mean anything. There are many other words that might do as alternatives: blandification, community destruction, replacement, demolition, even super-gentrification.

The words we used to describe our policies really matter. The UK, particularly London, faces a severe housing shortage. Many plans to build new homes come under the banner of “regeneration”. They need community support if they are to go ahead, and not get bogged down in protests and planning fights. And while communities’ instant reaction is all too often to dismiss any attempt at development as “gentrification” – and to mean it as an insult – it doesn’t help anyone.

Some of these schemes are bloody awful, of course, but they should be fought based on their specific problems. Protests against “gentrification” are easy to dismiss because the word can mean so many different things. Instead, we should name the problems: a housing bubble, reliance on a broken market to ease supply, the reduction of genuinely affordable housing.

These are issues that can be addressed. The all-compassing bogeyman that “gentrification” has become cannot. We should throw it out and start again.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.