The south London neighbourhood is Britain in microcosmby Jay Elwes / April 27, 2015 / Leave a comment
On Saturday, around 1,000 people gathered in Windrush Square in Brixton town centre. Usually it is a place where drinkers and skaters hang out in the afternoons and where sometimes a local church choir will perform hymns for the passersby. But this Saturday, the assembled crowd was there to “Reclaim Brixton,” and to protest about changes that have been taking place in the neighbourhood in recent years.
The event began peacefully, but in the course of the afternoon the mood darkened and things turned nasty. The Foxton’s estate agent on the high street was attacked. A group of protestors broke into Lambeth town hall, which stands opposite Windrush Square, and another got into the police station—in response to which the police used tear gas.
Though a shocking outbreak of violence, for Brixton it counted as a minor disturbance. But what caused it? Among the social media noise, the online statements and the placards, two of the protestors’ complaints stood out: the first concerned housing, the second gentrification. On the first of these, the protesters have a point. On the second, they do not.
House prices in Brixton, as in the rest of the capital, are exorbitant and are in the process of becoming more so. After the financial crisis of 2007, house prices in the south London neighbourhood came to a sharp halt. After a weak period things picked up somewhat, and then prices began to rise sharply. Overall, since 2007, house prices have doubled in Brixton. Now even a modest single bedroom flat near the High Street costs several hundred thousand pounds. On Brixton Hill it is now possible to buy a flat that has not yet even been built (known as “buying off-plan”) for almost one million pounds.
Neighbourhoods that abut Brixton have experienced surges in price, but not to the same degree. In the past five years, Brixton’s bars, clubs, music venues, tube station, food market, and Victorian and Georgian homes have attracted people to the area in far greater numbers than other surrounding neighbourhoods, such as Herne Hill or Streatham.
But although it is exceptional in many ways, Brixton’s housing problem is not unique: as in the rest of London, and many other parts of Britain, there are simply not enough homes and prices have shot up. It is very easy to sympathise with Saturday’s protestors on that front—a central London neighbourhood that used to be affordable is no longer so, and people don’t like it. But smashing up estate agents will not help—the only solution to the problem is for Britain to build more houses, which successive governments have failed to do. The Conservative-led coalition government has plans to help more people buy homes, but unless this is accompanied by a huge construction effort, it will only further inflate prices. Labour has today announced plans to cap rents. But a cap will do nothing because the starting point for rents is already so high. Rents are already out of reach—what is the point in capping what is already unaffordable? The pledged reduction in stamp duty will also have a negligible effect. The housing question has been yet another question that politicans have ignored in the course of this election campaign. As Bronwen Maddox points out in her cover story in our current issue, in the run-up to this election, “The jumble of panicky promises that has emerged has left the parties in a muddle on important questions.” Housing is no exception.
Less worthy of sympathy is the protestors’ contention that Brixton is filling up with people who shouldn’t be there. When the window of Foxtons was smashed in, someone wrote across what remained of the glass “Yuppies out”. It is the second time that that slogan has appeared on the front window of Foxtons in 18 months. Websites such as The Brixton Blog and Urban 75 have been full of local voices, angered by what they see as undesirable changes in Brixton. As the “Reclaim Brixton” Facebook page put it: “Brixton is widely known for its vibrancy, which is another word for social & cultural diversity. But Brixton’s vibrancy now has a question mark on it.”
Whether Brixton is becoming less “vibrant” is entirely subjective. (I live in Brixton, and was born and raised in that part of south London, and even though I miss the days when there was a record shop inside the tube station, I do not agree that the area has lost any of its vibrancy.) But even if it had changed in character, is it reasonable to expect a neighbourhood like Brixton to remain in a fixed state? Considering the enormous change that has taken place in Brixton over the last 100 years, the answer is absolutely not. It is impossible. Societies cannot stand still no matter how beneficial it would be for them to do so. Take for example the fairly well-to-do middle class south London suburb which in the 1950s and 60s experienced huge ethnic and social change as Caribbean workers, themselves also middle class, moved in. These workers did not choose Brixton. They were not in search of a “vibrant” neighbourhood, but something much more straight-forward. On arriving from the Caribbean, families were initially housed in a former air raid shelter beneath Clapham North Tube station. The nearest Labour Exchange was in Brixton, which is where the new migrants went to look for work. In time, it became the centre of the Caribbean community in south London.
A district that undergoes such an enormous change—and which has undergone many other previous large-scale social adjustments—cannot suddenly come to a sociological halt. There cannot be a moment after which no further societal change is permitted. And bound up with the urge to stop social change in Brixton is the misconception that gentrification is causing higher house prices and rents. This is not the case. The price offered for a house is not affected by the status of the person selling it. How could it be—after all, buyer and seller never meet. Gentrification does not cause house prices to rise. It is the other way round.
Some of the Saturday marchers were complaining about other issues. Some demonstrators were protesting against businesses that, in their view, spoil the character of the place (a restaurant in Brixton’s undercover market called “Champagne et Fromage” has been a particular Anarchist target in recent months. The large McDonald’s on the junction with Acre Lane, however, remains untouched). Other protestors were there on behalf of a series of small businesses in the arches near the train station which are facing closure. The units are being sold off to developers and their disappearance will be a great loss to Atlantic Road.
Brixton is London in microcosm. It is almost unbelievably multi-cultural, it is full of big corporate outlets among which are interspersed small local companies, the food is great, the housing market is an over-inflated mess and there is resentment that the place is run for the benefit of the very few. But to complain about London—or about any single part of it—for undergoing change is to complain about one of the city’s core characteristics. London changes. That’s what it does, albeit not necessarily in ways that people like. The same goes for Brixton, which is in the process of re-gaining its original, early 20th century character. It is, in short, on its way to becoming a successful, energetic, normal neighbourhood, which is nothing less than what the Caribbean migrants of the 1950s and 60s—and many of its current citizens—have wanted all along.