Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The legacy of Shirley Porter

When Shirley Porter, the former leader of Westminster City council, appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1991, one of her choices was Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner. Given that she emigrated to Israel in 1993, to avoid the charges of gerrymandering that were eventually laid against her in 1996, she may have been indulging in sentimentality, but I like to think the feisty Tesco heiress was just taking the piss.

The news that London boroughs are seeking to export housing benefit claimants to Stoke and elsewhere has resulted in accusations of "social cleansing". This term is considered offensive not because it hints at discrimination by class and ethnicity, which is an objective fact, but because "cleansing" is associated with the communal violence that scarred the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. It was Boris Johnson who coined this emotive phrase in 2010, referring to his opposition to the government's plans for a housing benefit cap. He insisted that he would not allow London to go the way of Paris, with the poor moved to the outer suburbs, a process he disparagingly called "Kosovo-style social cleansing". Most Boris-watchers interpreted this as a coded message to the outer London Tory-voting boroughs that they would not be dumped on. His opposition to the benefit cap itself soon evaporated.

This week's news shows that the process of Paris-style relocation is well underway, but with ripples extending beyond the Greater London area. The benefit cap has inevitably bitten hardest in the centre of town, with many families gravitating to the outer boroughs. Newham's Stoke initiative is partly a reflection of the localised property boom caused by the Olympics, but it's also a consequence of increased demand caused by this intra-London migration. The speed with which this has happened also reflects the fact that the housing system was already under stress. This stems from the reduction in social housing stock, and the accompanying decanting of the poor from Central London, which has been going on since the Westminster homes for votes scandal in the late 80s.

The continuing robustness of the London property market, and the need of buy-to-let landlords to generate enough rent to cover their mortgage repayments, means that private rents in most of the capital will outstrip the benefit cap. The cap will not, as claimed by the government, force rents down in London, though it may achieve this at the margins elsewhere. So long as councils are unable or unwilling to build additional homes to meet demand, this will inevitably result in a continuation of the current process whereby the poor (both unemployed and working) are forced out of London. This is not an unfortunate and unintended consequence. It is quite clear from the combination of policies (e.g. pushing council rents up to 80% of the market rate) that this is deliberate. However, because this is being engineered through central government, the policy is not vulnerable to the charge of crude gerrymandering, though the electoral impact in London will undoubtedly benefit the Tories.

Residence in Central London will be dependent on a property/wealth qualification. It will be "a privilege, not a right", according to Westminster Council, where the spirit of Shirley Porter lives on. This will lead to exactly the sort of "doughnut" that Johnson claimed he would resist, though perhaps what he meant was that it would look more like the discarded flakes of a Cornish pasty (click '2016' for the full effect).

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