Posts Tagged ‘united kingdom’
Our Democracy hosts an essay by one George Context arguing that the increasing unaffordability of housing makes London increasingly inaccessible for artists and other creative types. This argument, I note, is applicable to other world cities.
The question of how to mitigate, let alone solve, the problem of London’s cost-of-breathing crisis, sorry, cost-of-living crisis seems inescapable, like a perverse and all too real Millennium Prize Problem. It appears as though we have bound so far down an economic cul-de-sac, justified on the quasi-religious neo-classical truths of supply and demand and global competition, that advertising a £450,000 one bedroom flat as ‘ideal for first time buyers or as a pied-à-terre’ is apparently perfectly acceptable. The problems this plight presents are real and well discussed – homelessness, families evicted by unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords (who are perhaps second only to investment bankers in the UKs Most Despised Persons list), and overcrowding. What estate agents gleefully herald as ‘gentrification’, the newly elected Labour leader evocatively decries as ‘ethnic cleansing’. However, I want to consider this housing crisis from an alternative perspective, one informed as much by my career as a musician as it is by my academic desire to understand the operation, and consequences of, contemporary creative markets in urban contexts. I want to question the cultural ramifications of this housing crisis; the artistic implications of a farcical situation whereby, for example, Help to Buy is required by magic-circle lawyers – as per a great friend of mine recently. In short, what does the housing crisis mean for art, and for the future of London as a creative city?
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election as leader of the Labour Party has, for the first time for many young voters, made the ideological distinctions between the two leading parties in Britain reassuringly apparent. When one strips away the policy detail and the White Papers and the Select Committee’s and the noise of political detail, the most salient opposition lies in conflicting perspectives about the dreaded, Marx-tainted ‘C’ word; capitalism. Osborne’s neo-liberal belief that markets, supply and demand and competition, are corrective, self-rectifying and have a morality of their own – don’t worry about the subjugation of the cost of labour globally, lets remove tax credits under the auspices of ‘if you don’t earn enough money, get another job’ – versus Corbyn and McDonnell’s interventionism. Nowhere is this ideology more apparent than in the sphere of housing. Labour’s pre-election ‘solutions’ involved ‘use it or lost it’ powers being given to councils, ensuring new homes would be advertised to UK citizens first, and rent controls in the private sector, and whilst Corbyn has not outlined his policy suggestions as yet, his commitment to council house building is well-known. The flagship Conservative policy however was not to challenge a failing marketplace, but to invest ever greater faith in that marketplace by selling off council housing stock under their ‘Right to Buy’ scheme; a perverse, free-marketeers Escherian Penrose stairs whereby the marketplace engenders a crisis, and simultaneously the solution. Friedman himself would applaud. The bottom line is, faith in the market is great for business; Foxton’s share price opened over 10% up the day after the general election buoyed by a confidence that prices would continue to rise. In this context however, as house prices in London continue their dizzying spiral, what will happen as those who struggle to earn large salaries become priced out of the city?
The rich don’t create culture. Grayson Perry nailed it. And people will, at some point say, ‘you know what, it’s not worth me breaking my neck to pay 2/3’s of my meagre salary to live in a dystopian, industrial wilderness 45 minutes from London’ and just leave. The question is, what will remain from this nihilistic apathy amongst artists, whether they be the graduate Pips who have left their parochial forges to follow a costly dream, or the native Londoners giving up on living in their home town, both of whom are having their ambition undermined by an inability to scale an insurmountable financial mountain? We will be left with some neo-Parisian fiscal apartheid with a door policy to make Mahiki look like Woodstock. As I drive down City road between Angel and Old Street and see these Manhattan-style glass-fronted cathedrals to international capital, with ‘One beds starting at £800,000’, my thoughts are often ‘I don’t want to be neighbours with anyone who can pay that’. If urban spaces cease to be creative spaces, with the time and freedom to be expressive, and to both build and pull-apart culture, then what do they become?
Some may say ‘so what’ if artists are priced out? The logic of the supply and demand of housing is almost beautiful in its simplicity – demand is high as everyone wants to live in London, and supply is low. Simples. Besides, the economic use-value of some bloke splattering paint on a wall in Shoreditch, or rapping about Norwich from a flat in Hammersmith (humble plug there), is at best negligible and at worst unquantifiable. However, this entire attitude is, I think, the crux of this current problem.
We live in an age where cultural expression is an economic inconvenience; a use-value-free indulgence. The UK Film Council doesn’t even exist anymore. This utilitarian idea that everything needs to be ‘useful’ is utterly tiresome. University is an exemplary contemporary illustration of this. I spent nine years at University and I never spent a single day there thinking about a ‘job’ or how I could ‘use’ a degree. But maybe this was a generational fortuity – the year I went was the year before ‘top-up’ fees were introduced, and so while I paid nothing, the next-year people paid over £3,000. And of course now, sickeningly, £9,000. For this money, students expect ‘something’. I don’t blame the students one bit. I’ve deviated, but the two parts of this argument are aligned. Use-value, and money, and supply and demand are all well and good, but the market distorts, and almost everyone in the UK implicitly acknowledges this. After all, we say ‘there’s no place for the market in the NHS’ – we don’t really know why we think this, but we know this to be true. Yet, when it comes to housing in London, the market appears to be being trusted by the Tories, the ring masters of a circus propped up by an aging electorate; a teacher I once knew quite casually told me ‘I’d vote for Hitler if it meant house prices would continue to rise’.