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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.