I wrote this for Guardian/Cif, where it went live on Tuesday and inspired a higher percentage of constructive comments than is usual. I've tried to open up some issues that seem increasingly relevant across London as a whole. See what you think.
Two week ago at my local blog, I linked to an article in Socialist Worker by Michael Rosen. In it, the distinguished children’s author and broadcaster resumed his long-running opposition to a major regeneration project in Dalston, east London, where he lives and which lies within walking distance from my home in another part of Hackney.
The scheme centres on the redevelopment of the old Dalston Junction railway station (closed in 1986) as part of the northern extension of the East London Line, but also includes the construction of new shops and homes, a library and a public square. Its backers – Hackney Council’s Labour leadership, former Labour mayor Ken Livingstone, Transport for London and the London Development Agency – say it will regenerate the centre of Dalston. So do the house builders Barratt, whose East London MD claims that the scheme “will finally lift Hackney into another league.”
For Michael Rosen, though, “regeneration” is a fig leaf word to cover something else. “What’s happened,” he writes, “is that the Labour Party has lubricated the wheels of big property developers and retail magnates in order to ‘regenerate’ an area. But it hasn’t been ‘regenerated’ for the people living and working there. They’ve been shoved out.”
I can’t speak for readers of Socialist Worker, but three of the most thoughtful and informed visitors to my little blog – fellow Hackney residents all – responded strongly to Michael’s argument, each in a different way.
The first to comment was Felix, whose local knowledge puts mine to shame. Citing Charles Booth’s famous map of late 19th century London poverty, he noted the affluence of the Dalston of that time and rather tartly, he made the point that if house prices in the street where Michael lives are anything to go by, it’s been “coming up” again for quite some time. Michael responded: Felix was missing his point, which was that public assets are financing a process whose “net effect...is to remove the poorest families.”
Next came Mark, who objected to Michael’s “purely negative” characterization of bankers and developers, adding that the far Left came nowhere in the London elections and observing that the demographics of inner cities have always been in a state of change. Then Glyn popped by. Though a Liberal Democrat, he expressed similar concerns to Michael’s about “long-established Dalston residents being pushed out.”
The exchanges continued, with Michael inviting Felix to imagine a walk through a future “regenerated” Dalston in November, “past the half-empty Starbucks, and boarded up “retail opportunities” and the empty flats because the yo-pros (young professionals) have gone home to mum and dad for the long weekend, because Dalston is so 'awful'”, Glyn insisted that he wasn’t opposed to “regeneration” as such, but wished it could be done with more consideration for people like him. He wrote that the rent he pays to a private landlord in Clapton has “risen by 12% this year,” and that with the Olympics on the way, “Soon, I will not be able to afford to live here any longer.” He won’t be able to afford a new Barratt apartment in the future Dalston Square either: most of those cost over £300,000.
Felix, though, had another take on this, remarking that he has “lots of working-class friends in Essex,” who feel they’ve been “chased out” of Hackney but really went of their own volition in search of houses with front drives, and wouldn’t come back even if they could afford it (the ethnic mix, the crime...). Mark’s final word was that he thought Michael’s attitude a form of prejudice, and asserted that, contrary to the latter’s complaint about “New” Labour loving privatization, the government had invested large sums in schools, policing and public sector wages, making the area better for all who live there and more attractive to those who don’t.
It wasn’t all rancour – Felix advised Glyn, a Welshman, of an “excellent supply of Welsh yoghurt in a Turkish supermarket in Stoke Newington High Street, just north of the Turkish fishmongers” – but it did provide a flavour of the strong feelings these issues arouse and the competing ideas about urban social management they represent. Before writing this, I invited Jules Pipe, the directly-elected Mayor of Hackney, to provide me with his take. Perhaps these lines best encapsulate his case:
“The greatest community cohesion challenge we face is ensuring our borough does not become a place accessible only to wealthy homeowners or those eligible for social housing...As well as more affordable homes we need to increase access to intermediate housing. It means stimulating the local economy and creating more jobs to lift people out of poverty. It means continuing the rapid improvements in educational attainment and aspiration so that every young person in Hackney has access to the opportunities that the capital has to offer.”
You can see the logic here: an awareness of London’s sharp polarisations between rich and poor and the need to bridge the gap between them through investment of various kinds, including – galling though it may be – by encouraging the more affluent locals and incomers to spend more of their money close to their homes instead of in the West End or Islington. But you can also see why others might find what’s happening in Dalston worrying.
To read Michael Rosen’s article and the comments it inspired in full look here, and to read the whole of Jules Pipe’s response look here. Then come back and let Cif readers know where your sympathies lie. And please – be constructive.
Also available here.