Don’t blame hipsters for gentrification: blame neoliberalism

Gentrification in Streatham. Image: Getty.

Here are some things you should know about me: I am a 28 year old freelance writer who lives in Hackney. I am precariously yet creatively employed, work in a co-working space, and have spent the better part of my twenties living in flat-shares where the freezer hasn’t been defrosted since the mid-nineties.

For this dubious privilege, I pay far more than 50 percent of my income in rent each month which is, according to recent data, three times more on housing than my grandparents spent.

This is all to say: I am a gentrifying hipster. And while I know my demographic is a much-maligned harbinger of change, sometimes I start to feel like it’s the agent of change. Indeed, the canon of internet hot takes stating that “hipsters ruined such-and-such” is rich and varied – and usually written by property-owning individuals who have plenty of extra in their Sub-Zero freezers. When I report on the issue, the outraged internet commentariat writes comments like “Pretentious, expensive nonsense. RIP our inner city communities.”

Others beseech me to be a “responsible gentrifier,” taking care to spend just enough money to support the local economy, but not too much to attract unscrupulous developers. Even Vice, the simultaneous arbiter and enabler of hipster culture, informs me that daring to visit a chicken shop in a neighbourhood that I haven’t lived in my entire life is verging on cultural appropriation.

I’ve always known that a fixation on blaming the aesthetic indicators of gentrification – millennial pink coffee shops, vegan bakeries, art students in chicken shops – was a massive misdiagnosis of the problem. But when it came to countering that argument, I’ve always felt I was grasping. It was only after reading Anna Minton’s book, Big Captial: Who is London For? that I began to see that this misdiagnosis is not just intellectually amiss: it also helps further the aims of a government that has willfully created the conditions for our current crisis of displacement and housing shortage to arise.

The narrative that hipsters cause gentrification tends to come from two sources. One is the established communities who quite rightly assume that the “regeneration” projects that ruthlessly sprout up in their neighbourhoods are not intended for them. (Though I should say, in my own reporting I’ve found the viewpoints of established communities to be far more nuanced than the media generally gives them credit for.) The other is the pundits and editors who – whether it’s intellectual laziness or a thirst for clicks, I don’t know – know that headlines with “hipster” in them traffic well. But, no matter the source, these charges ignore both the structural underpinning and socioeconomic context of neighbourhood change.

So what does cause gentrification and, by extension, the housing crisis that affects nearly everyone in the capital? At least according to Minton, the process is multi-pronged. An intentional dismantling of the social housing through mechanisms like right-to-buy and buy-to-let since Thatcher has meant that the social housing sector is now dominated by private tenants receiving housing benefit – rather than people simply being housed in purpose-built social housing, which hasn’t been built meaningfully for years.


This drastically reduces the amount of affordable homes available for the middle class. This market-led social housing practice also contributes to inflationary pressures on everyone’s monthly rent payment.

At the same time, an influx of wealth from high net worth individuals at the very top of London’s property ladder – those “safety deposit boxes in the sky,” as Minton calls them – creates ripple effects throughout the market and links our country’s housing market to global capital flows. Meanwhile, the “we are building more housing!” cries from the Tories are essentially empty when market conditions push developers towards erecting gleaming luxury developments in place of dilapidated “sink estates”. Defining “affordable housing” as up to 80 per cent of market rent – or the Conservatives starter homes, worth up to £450,000 – means that these new builds might as well not exist for most normal people who actually need housing.

The process unleashed by this is not gentrification as it was originally defined, but a “state-led hyper gentrification” that is not just allowed, but abetted by government policies. In 1964, when sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe the phenomenon of middle class families moving into and renovating working class cottages in Islington, the rate of change, for better or worse, was organic and the pocket books of those individuals served as a kind of upper limit. But now, as Minton write, “the speed of capital flows into places between the 1960s and 200s bears no comparison to what is happening today. It is these rates of return on property” – boosted by the policy of the government and councils – “that are driving the reconfiguration of London.”

Let’s be clear: those Dubai-like towers sprouting up in Dalston Square and Woodberry Down are not populated by hipsters, most of which live in dastardly flat-shares like the one I’m all too familiar with. They are largely populated by the investors, bankers, and overseas buyers who can afford to throw down half a million on a studio. As Minton notes in the book, during Stage 1 of sales for Elephant Park, a new development that replaced Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle with roughly 2,700 luxury flats (a mere 82 are for social housing), 100 per cent were sold to foreign investors.

So if hipsters aren’t the ones actually selling or buying the luxury flats that are replacing long-time communities, but are rather opting to move to the only neighbourhoods where they can afford to rent a room and perhaps start a small business, why are we getting all the shade? Minton told me part of the reason is councils who, bereft of funds thanks to austerity, are keen to capitalise on the “up and coming” reputation that hipsters bring with their avocado toasts and street art. She told me:

“Hackney is in the throes of this kind of slower gentrification and state-led hyper gentrification. It hasn’t been done as brutally as what’s happened in Southwark and is planned for parts of Lambeth but the direction of travel is clear.

“Apparently a Hackney councilman was overheard saying ‘I think it’s great you can find artisan bakeries where you can find sourdough that’s £5 a loaf.’ There is no doubt the council is actively encouraging that kind of environment.”

Indeed it’s rare that you hear someone state the obvious: places that are in the throes of change with a diverse range of people living cheek by jowl are, in fact, quite exciting. “But that tends to drop off quickly,” Minton hastens to add, when the government does nothing to prevent complete and total displacement.

What doesn’t drop off quickly is the lack of “ontological security” that everyone from housing benefit claimants to millennial hipsters feel when their housing situation is insecure. Studies quoted in Minton’s book found that “prolonged periods in temporary housing” and “spending more than 30 per cent of income on housing” are associated with reduced mental health.

In short, blaming hipsters – or hipster culture or hipster food trends or hipster art – for the crisis of displacement and substandard, expensive housing ravaging our capital is a red herring. It amounts to the age-old “kids these days” critique of youth culture, without any recognition of the neoliberal market forces at play – and lets a government that has systematically neglected social housing for a couple decades conveniently off the hook. It also makes developers rich. 

“Whether you’re a hipster in a shared house in Hackney or a banker who’s just bought a luxury new build, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that established communities get displaced – it’s the structural underpinning that’s at fault,” Minton told me. “We’re all operating within this property economy and the putting it on the individual is just part of the individualistic neoliberal approach that’s got us to where we are with the housing market.”

Rosie Spinks is on Twitter as @rojospinks.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.