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Affordable housing and the future of London as a creative city

What happens to a city when all the artists leave?

Flickr/401(K) 2012.Some rights reserved.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’.

There’s a very strong argument to be made that certain musical genres, even though apparently rebelling against the state, in fact could only exist because the state inadvertently protected them from the trivialities of daily life acting as governmental patrons. Do you think much of the cultural expression from the 1960’s would have happened without full grants being given to go to art school, punk without the dole, or grime exist without social housing? The relationship between artists and the state is a complex and messy one, but the latter certainly feeds the former to an extent, be it BBC, Radio 1, Xtra supporting home-grown talent, or student loans providing a few years of time to be creative. As the apparatus of the state disintegrates- and homes in London become a privilege- how can aspiring creativity sustain itself? Berlin even recently introduced rent-caps predicated partly on a desire to maintain its status as an artistic and creative hub. London’s housing problem isn’t a London problem, it’s a cultural problem about what we value, and what type of country we want to live in and to show to the world.

Even if you don’t ascribe to this logic, consider this for a moment: My friend, a talented and ambitious young man, who grew up in Dulwich, said to me a few weeks ago; ‘What is the point in me saving for a house? I will never, ever get there. The only way I’ll ever get a home in the city I grew up in is if I inherit one’. There is no more poignant statement to epitomise the way in which London is killing the very dynamism which propels it; the goose laying a Golden egg only to crush it in its own talons. Still, the hill continues to steepen, and talk of housing bubbles or the parable of ‘The Tokyo Phenomenon’ sound like campfire ghost stories, shrugged off in the face of the inexorable and even more terrifying spiral.

We should perhaps re-evaluate our apparent faith in the corrective nature of markets, of competition, and of supply and demand, the modern epitome of which is perhaps the cost of housing in London, and Tory party policy towards housing, given its deleterious potential impact on art and expression. The road down which we are currently treading ends in a culturally vacuous, copy and paste, sanitised nightmare toward which we have already taken some pretty large strides. Indeed, the idea that embourgeoisement might be a cultural death sentence can be seen from Saint Germain-des-Pres and Greenwich Village to Notting Hill. Not everything needs to be ‘useful’. Supply and demand isn’t always the solution. The commodification of citizenship rolls on. Now, let me put an ambitious £350,000 in RightMove, draw a map around London, and then cry myself to sleep.

About the author

George is a Senior Lecturer and researcher based in the world-leading Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster. Performing as Context, he is signed to EMI/Sony/ATV, has been called 'Middle England's Poet Laureate' by BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ MistaJam, and counts Ed Sheeran, Mike Skinner, Plan B and Ellie Goulding amongst his fans.


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