I often hear that too many Westminster policies only benefit London. This part is technically true. London is not only the financial capital of the UK but the financial capital of the world—a fact reflected in how disproportionately powerful and wealthy it is compared to the rest of the UK. The country’s government and national media are both based in London which invariably means that the issues discussed will tend to be skewed towards the area (something I only realised when I moved away). But for all the ways you could describe the city’s privileged position—even if your personal choice of adjective is less than favourable (crowded, impersonal, selfish… etc.)—try to bear in mind what exactly you’re describing. Is it the City of London or the citizens of London? Because the distinction between them represents two profoundly different worlds, divided by wealth, housing and opportunity. This is a divide that deepens every year at an alarming rate.
The London Poverty Profile 2015 is a new report on the state of inequality in London—the fifth such publication on how London is recovering (or not) from the recession. The findings show that almost a third of Londoners are in poverty, a shocking reality in itself, but it’s the nature of this poverty that is most striking. The fact is that unemployment is at its lowest since 2008, a statistic proudly brandished by the current government, but the catch here is that this reduced unemployment has carried with it increased poverty, poverty that now rises within working families. So poverty has not decreased but transformed. It now afflicts a different subset of our society. This shows us in very clear terms that employment is not the miracle cure for destitution. It is simply a quick fix, a play on numbers. It does not address the fundamental problems underlying poverty, problems that the new tax credit cuts will only exacerbate and the slow introduction of the National Living Wage, too weak to counter.
..employment is not the miracle cure for destitution
This shift of poverty, from the unemployed to the employed, is a UK-wide problem. But what is worrying about London specifically is that there is a higher proportion of people in poverty. This, as the report finds, is inextricably linked to the escalating housing crisis—echoed in the fact that a majority of those now in poverty live in the private rented sector (10 years ago, those in private renting were least likely to be in poverty). When we hear people’s worries about affordable housing in London, they aren’t saying that they can’t afford to buy a home; they are saying that they can’t afford to rent one. And even if they can now, there is no guarantee that they’ll be able to do so in the future as rents continue to soar. So when David Cameron and Boris Johnson say that in making home-ownership more affordable they’re going to help the situation, they are not only missing the point but driving nails into its coffin. Making home-ownership affordable for those already privileged enough to be able to save for a mortgage, will only cause the private rental sector to expand and when it does, so too will rent, and the cycle of poverty will continue to perpetuate.
There is another aspect of this that is equally pernicious. Poverty seems to have shifted in location. On the one hand, it has decreased in certain London boroughs that used to be badly affected. This might be considered a good thing until you see that outer London boroughs, such as Enfield, Ealing and Brent, are now the worst affected. Poverty is moving further and further out of London which means people who have rented properties for years within central London are being forced to move further afield—the so-called “social cleansing” of London.
Will there ever be an end to this perpetual motion machine of poverty, or is the dissolution of London communities inevitable?
The issue of affordable housing in London is clearly not one of home-ownership and the measures enforced by the Conservative government are only changing the nature of poverty, not mitigating it. Whatever form poverty takes it is still poverty and it still pervades London with the vicious fervour it always has, you just need to know where to look. So while Boris Johnson might welcome the rising house prices, what he either doesn’t know, or chooses to ignore, is that this is only good news to the home-owners. But for the working families who are now in poverty, those who his party claims to support, this is yet another cause for trepidation in their lives, while their tax credits are getting slashed and their wages stagnate. Will there ever be an end to this perpetual motion machine of poverty, or is the dissolution of London communities inevitable? I wish I were optimistic about the answer.