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Gentrification, class and social policy: A Housing Timebomb?

With even the professional classes struggling to get onto the property ladder these days, future generations may never be able to afford to leave the family home at all. But rising house prices are no joke, with a record 45,000 repossessions predicted this year. Many more of us are now being priced out of the ‘desirable’ locations where we grew up by the second-home market, or finding our areas gentrified by a plague of parasitic property developers. The unfolding housing situation is a further indication of our polarised nation, with a complete dearth of affordable housing now becoming the norm.

A housing crisis has been predicted for some time, with future demand set to outstrip supply. This has prompted a huge building programme, with even green belt areas becoming rapidly absorbed into the congested urban sprawl. Investment in building has concentrated (as might be expected) on the most profitable, en vogue corner of the market. Our city centres and urban dockland areas have borne witness to a huge upsurge in new-build, bland but expensive, ‘yuppie prisons’. The process of gentrification that inevitably follows, completely alters the complexion and character of local areas, as pricey wine-bars, restaurants and delis move in to service the refined tastes of the new influx of residents. But often barely a stones-throw away from these plush developments, exist boarded-up ghettos bearing all the hallmarks of urban decay and social deprivation.
Areas like the Lake District, Snowdonia, London, Devon and Cornwall have seen properties bought up as second homes by the wealthy. This in turn has led to skyrocketing house prices. With the second-home market having doubled in the past 6 years, the UK now hosts some 206,000 such properties, worth a cool £40 billion. But this has inevitably priced local people out of their areas of origin, and turned communities into out-of-season ghost towns.

Due to fluctuations in the housing market, and with a predicted downturn in the economy, trends point to a growing number defaulting on rents and mortgages and, as a result, becoming homeless. At the same time, we are seeing an alarming nosedive in the availability of affordable housing with much local authority housing stock being hived off under Private Finance Initiatives. PFIs are profit-driven and so have had a disastrous track record in the public sector. Even the National Audit Office concluded that claims of PFIs offering value for money are based on “errors, irrelevant or unrealistic analysis and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo”.

Suggestions that tenants of schemes will be contractually obliged to be actively seeking employment are also being widely muted by Government officials in a bid to seamlessly combine privatisation with social control.

The 2002 UK Homelessness Act does little to reassure those unfortunate enough to be faced with homelessness. It deems those households without dependent children as being not in priority need, and therefore not entitled to accommodation.

Whether we are crowded into sub-standard urban high-rise blocks or suburban overspill estates, our living environments are often starved of decent facilities and resources. Promoting healthy, strong communities seems to be beyond politicians and planners. Rather, meeting Government-led economic and commercial objectives has been of far more pressing importance.

At the other end of the social scale, we see the ultra-rich hiding themselves away in sumptuous mansions with vast estates patrolled by security guards and protected by a multitude of high-tech security devices. That many of us spend large chunks of our lives ensnared in mortgages or paying exorbitant rents to banks and landlords respectively (hence their mansions and second homes), pays further testimony to our enslavement by capitalism. A decent home should be a right not a luxury, but under capitalism a home is just another commodity to be bought and sold to create profit.

So just how did this state of affairs come about?

From pre-feudal times onwards, lands which were commonly-owned have been stolen from the people by a combination of the church, royals, landed gentry and their henchmen. Laws gave landowners exclusive rights to use this land as they saw fit. Despite the best efforts of groups like the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers in the 17th Century to restore equity, this state of affairs persisted into the industrial era. Even today, these iniquitous property relations continue essentially along the same lines, even if the mechanisms of urbanisation have obscured this somewhat. Some aristocrats still own huge tracts of land from which they exact enormous incomes. Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall is perhaps the best example. When the anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon declared in 1840 that “All property is theft”, he affirmed a view which reverberates throughout the revolutionary movement to this day; a view which is shared by indigenous peoples and urban proletarians the world over in their fight against the misappropriation of their homes and land.

The Fightback Continues

Opposition to this theft manifests itself in squatting, rent strikes, housing cooperatives and other forms of mass direct action. In Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement have been actively expropriating lands stolen from them. When these forms of community resistance are combined with workplace-based militancy, maximum impact is realised. Forging links internationally, and recognising common interests, gives us a fighting chance of achieving our goals.

Faced with a burgeoning homeless problem, and overpriced or sub-standard housing, the future may indeed appear bleak. But solidarity can be our saving grace. Building a strong grass roots community of resistance – autonomous of political parties – is vital to us resisting these attacks, building confidence and eventually realising the long-term changes to society needed to overturn the endemic injustice and uncertainty of today. It’s our world, let’s take it back.

secret millionaire

To make matters even worse, some of these areas have also been blighted with a particularly obnoxious breed of parasite, the ‘secret millionaire’. These incognito entrepreneurs move in for a while and, before returning to the high-powered world of the boardroom, deliver a few crumbs of their huge fortunes to a handful of carefully-selected ‘deserving’ causes. These hugely generous, charitable acts are then captured meticulously on celluloid for our collective enjoyment, to show us what nice, down-to earth people the rich really are.

Propaganda to normalise a system which exalts competition, greed and selfish fortune-building whilst at the same time grossly devaluing those who altruistically sacrifice themselves for their local communities? You decide!

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