A few months ago, the flat next door to mine got repossessed. Its owner was the former council tenant who had bought it under the right to buy, like so many along this particular street in London. It may have been a bargain at the time but somehow he had fallen into difficulty and now it was on the market for £300,000. That seemed an enormous sum for a tiny one bedroom flat but it sold quickly enough.
I bumped into the new owner the other day and he apologised in advance for the noise of the refurbishing works he was planning. Would he be actually living in it, I asked, mindful that so many flats in the street were now being rented out. No he said, it would be a “pied a terre”. He lived with his wife in the provinces and they would only be using the flat “de temps en temps”.
As we shook hands, it struck me that this little street had reached the point of no return in terms of gentrification. In the 1970s, the council bought up and refurbished much of the run down housing in the quest for more mixed communities. By the time I moved in more than a decade ago, many had been lost to the right to buy. But it remained true to its roots in the sense of being a friendly, close knit place to live, one where you could not tell who was a home owner and who was a tenant. It didn’t really matter.
It was this sense of neighbourliness that managed to finally rid the street of the drug addicts and dealers who liked the fact that it was off the beaten track but close to the Tube station. Once they were gone, former council homes began to be sold in quick succession at a huge profit and well healed professional types started moving in.
The fact that we have gone up in the world is inevitable really. The street is more or less in central London and comprises attractive period housing, the sort that were being carelessly knocked down in the sixties. It is a process that is happening all over the capital, demonstrating the success of Margaret Thatcher’s social engineering programme called the right to buy.
Between 1980 and 1996 alone, more than two million homes were lost in this way, all of them built or purchased with public money. In London it was the best of local authority stock that went first, that is houses with gardens and mansion flats. As the aim was to destroy council housing, local authorities were banned from replacing them, creating the massive housing crisis we see today with five million on the council waiting list nationally, greedy landlords cashing in with rip off rents, and an alarming property price bubble.
Lack of housing fuels the mean mindedness that guides government policy, scapegoating those on benefits and immigrants that haven’t even arrived in the country. Council housing is now known as social housing, a term with negative connotations. The obvious solution is to start building council/social housing again, but it is a kind of unmentionable. Instead the emphasis is on what is termed as affordable housing, but even that is being less and less talked about because it hardly exists. This week the front page of the London Evening Standard reported that only “a handful” of homes now sold for less than £100,000 in London, all of them one bed flats in the suburbs.
While the right to buy mostly represented a step up for those in the early take up of the policy because such generous discounts were offered, it has proved a disaster for the next generation. “If it wasn’t for Maggie I would never have been able to buy my council flat,” a former neighbour told me earnestly on the day of her funeral. She has since sold it to buy a bigger flat in the suburbs. “Yes and it’s thanks to her that your children will have to rent privately – that’s if they ever leave home,” I replied. That is the reality facing the majority of families today, whether home owners or not. It is true plenty of homes are being built, mostly of doubtful architectural merit, but everyone knows they are beyond the reach of ordinary people, and many will be bought for investment purposes only.
It should be remembered Margaret Thatcher didn’t bring in right to buy to help people but to introduce market forces into a basic human need – shelter. If you don’t have a nice place to live in, it is your fault. If you do have a nice place to live in but don’t work, you should n’t be there. Housing has been divorced from society and there is no longer any talk of building cohesive, stable communities, much less mixed communities. So my street is becoming more transient and I no longer know all of my neighbours. Well, I do know my new neighbour but he won’t be there most of the time.
Scandalously, my local authority, the same one that bought up the run down housing here all those years ago to provide decent homes for ordinary people, proposes to sell off a nearby community garden to make way for another of those luxury apartment blocks.