All posts by elliotsnook

The City That Likes an Early Night

How the image of London as a 24 hour city is a lie, and is another reason that it increasingly offers little to the young that it desperately needs to hold on to if it is to thrive as a major world city.

 As will come as no surprise to anyone who either lives in London or knows people who do, people are abandoning the city in droves. Either for other urban spaces in the UK or for abroad, London just doesn’t have the staying-power it once did for the under 40s, now well-and-truly priced out of the housing market and without any end to this madness in sight, moving on is becoming the more favourable option for many. As this demographic change develops it is yet another crisis facing the city. If current trends continue, London faces becoming a place where people move to for university at 18, then stick around for a couple of years before realising they can live a life with less expense, a shorter commute, with a general better quality of life and avoid living in an endless house-share with strangers somewhere else. Even people born and raised in the city – of which I count myself one – are now leaving, without the expectation of ever being able to afford or the desire to return. Just a few years ago I imagined I would live in London forever, like generations of my family before me had, but now the idea holds no appeal whatsoever.

In the space of three or so generations we’ve gone from the tight-knit familial London units that Young & Willmott wrote about in their seminal 1958 work ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ where people would live their entire lives in the same areas, and consider moving a few stops along the underground system to be a huge upheaval akin to moving to a different continent, to a totally disconnected and transient group with such little security in housing and so few networks within and ties to our areas that it’s now an expectation to have to move home on a whim every couple of years. Contributing towards this has doubtless been decades of government policy, such as the continuing privatisation and eradication of social housing, the removal of lifetime tenancies which can be passed through generations, the promotion of home-ownership above all other forms of tenure, London housing being seen as a safer way to store money by the global elites than using banks in a time of such worldwide financial uncertainty and – as this post speculates – the erasure of the city’s once-famous nightlife. How can a capital city survive where no one under thirty, unless they are lucky enough to own property, lives? What is there to keep people in London now?

We’re often told that London is a 24-hour city, where there’s always something to do. However, it’s a fallacy that London is “The city that never sleeps”. If anything, London is the city that likes to get an early night. The introduction of 24-hour licensing laws for pubs in 2005 was criticised and lauded in equal measure, but in reality has made very little difference. In the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster, for instance, there are zero places with 24-hour licensing. We’ve not seen a massive increase in binge drinking, and nor have we seen the development of a more continental (which always seems to translate as “healthier”) attitude to socialising and drinking alcohol. If anything, in the capital we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in places for people to socialise beyond 6pm since 2005. It is still rare for a pub in London to open beyond midnight, and deserted twilight walks around London’s landmarks are still possible. Despite how pleasurable these can be, they do not suggest a place with an exactly booming nightlife.

The weekend Night Tube which was finally introduced last year to much fanfare and celebration now appears to be more of an attempt to make the city appear as a vibrant non-stop area of entertainment to tourists, for many years befuddled as to why our elderly underground system shuts down at night while in other major cities they run constantly, rather than actually servicing a desperate need to transfer masses of people during the small hours. It’s now becoming clear that just beyond midnight there’s actually very little reason to be outside. Although it remains to be seen if she will actually be able to accomplish anything in her new role, the appointment by Sadiq Khan of Amy Lamé as Night Czar seems a bit like the establishment of a ceremonial position in the same way of the much-derided elected Police Crime Commissioners. It’s all very well having a job at City Hall created to sort out these glaring problems, but essentially pointless if councils and landowners are simply disinterested in changing the current situation, because a nightclub or anything open beyond normal working hours on their doorstep is about as welcome as a fracking plant.

Increasingly boroughs are deciding that instead of nurturing their night-time economy they are cracking down on pub and club opening times, and introducing draconian licensing laws which make the experience of going clubbing as fun as a trip through airport security. For instance, there is the recently reopened Fabric, where the council, having failed in their initial skirmish to be shot of the place last year, have now taken measures to ensure that the place goes out of business by increasing searches, making carrying ID compulsory, (bizarrely) banning 18 year olds, having a constant undercover police presence and numerous other measures to send the message to potential patrons that they should just keep away because if they do decide to come they’ll regret it. In addition to this there is Dalston, which owes its regeneration from a place non-locals would be scared to enter to one of the most desired places in the city to live in within the space of just twenty years off the back of its largely organically-evolved nightlife, now rejecting applications from new venues which wish to stay open late, and introducing new strict terms for existing licensees. I don’t need to list all the venues which have shut down in that area over the past couple of years (it’s been done in-depth elsewhere), but a walk down Kingsland Road now compared with five years ago shows how successful the council has been in “tidying up”, or sanitising, the area of music venues and vibrancy.

The fact that I have been unable to even think of something to do in the city involving socialising in the evening that doesn’t involve alcohol as the central pillar of it operating is another problem. A cinema, while a great place to go (the BFI is the main thing I miss about living in London), is not a social occasion. As a non-drinker, it’s something which really puts me off from going out at night. Pubs do not want people like me there taking up space. Inevitably, the only non-alcoholic drinks they serve are Coca-Cola or other soft drinks, and bizarrely they’re frequently nearly as expensive as booze. There’s been an increasing trend in the sale of low or no-alcohol beers over the past few years, but drinking them is not an option for me. As a country we seem completely unable to separate socialising from drinking, but that’s for a different post on a different blog.
We’re consistently told that London should be a city that is always open, but it completely lags behind all other major cities. As this situation deepens, and more young people leave, it will be interesting to see just who is the average permanent London dweller in ten years time, and how the city can function with a massive gap in the age group from mid-twenties to middle age.

Beware the “Pop-Up”

How a temporary development in south London tells us all we need to know about how the housing crisis will develop as the decade rolls on

An article which appeared on The Guardian website (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/14/london-uk-housing-crisis-lewisham-pop-up-homes-ladywell-development) about a new “pop-up” development in Ladywell, south London, presented the idea that pre-fabricated homes resembling shipping containers could be the answer to the housing crisis and provide homes for the homeless. Excusing the fact that we have been here before with pre-fabs and they turned out to be a disaster then, there is nothing to suggest that this new plan, which is kind-of like making people live in the Boxpark shopping malls in Shoreditch and Croydon, or the artist studios in Hackney, will do anything to aid the housing crisis in London. If anything, this development is merely a placeholder while the council waits for Ladywell to become a more fashionable place to live among richer people. This post will explain why I feel this way about the new Ladywell flats, what I think the true motivations of this development are and why we should be wary of anything which is attempting to jump on the now very weather-beaten “pop-up” bandwagon.

The term “pop-up” has become deeply commercialised, cheapened and removed from its original use, and is now used by businesses to make themselves seem more identifiable, more current, more cool. Building a pop-up has now so jumped the shark if it hasn’t already been a task on The Apprentice it’s surely only a matter of time. The aforementioned pop-ups of the Boxparks are less shops that you can actually go to and purchase things from, and more living adverts for whichever brand is currently renting out one of the crates on offer. Anything which promotes itself as being a “pop-up” is now to be highly scrutinised and it wise to be deeply suspicious of the true motivations of whomever owns what is being “popped-up” upon. Where there may be good surface intentions, beneath them corporate interests undoubtedly lie. This refers to pop-up shops, pop-up galleries, pop-up museums (this is definitely to be covered in a future post) and, in this case, pop-up housing itself.

The first, and easiest myth to debunk about the Ladywell development is that it has anything to do with providing housing for the homeless. It doesn’t. Not “living on the street” homeless, anyway. I know all too well that sleeping rough is the tip of homelessness iceberg and insecure housing is the huge problem in the UK which more and more people are falling in to the trap of, and this is only set to increase as jobs become more precarious and keeping up with the rent becomes harder to manage. More of this in a future post also, no doubt. However, the way the Guardian makes the development sound it’s as though this is aimed at people living on the streets when it’s nothing of the sort. Monthly rent is just over £1,000. No-one sleeping rough or in a temporary accommodation bed and breakfast (http://elliotsnook.com/blog/index.php/2017/01/22/my-holiday-at-the-shit-end-of-londons-housing-crisis-by-elliot-snook-aged-30-14/) is getting a place here. Just over £1,000 a month. Not bad for the area, but still ridiculous and doing nothing to solve the housing crisis as the disingenuous headline suggests. For rent to be affordable for families in London, especially with the new and draconian benefits cap, it needs to be a lot lower than this.

There’s also the fact that this development is tiny compared to what London actually needs. It holds 96 residents in 24 individual flats. This is a drop in the ocean compared to the waiting list for housing in London boroughs. We need to be building housing for thousands and thousands every year, not temporary accommodation for 96 people and slapping ourselves on the back and saying, “Job done!”

Which leads on to the main issue, which the article completely ignores. These buildings only have a lifespan of five years, after which the council is unsure what they will do with the land. With each temporary flat (24 of them) costing over £150,000 build, I would suggest that the plan is not to rebuild these twice a decade. Instead, I predict that the council is banking on the land value of Ladywell increasing drastically over the course of the next five years, not least helped by the presence of these lovely and easily-removable tenants in their socially-aware housing making the area a more desirable and fashionable place to live. Then, when the time is right, the land can be cleared of these container flats and replaced by permanent dwellings, either rented for almost whatever the market rate is by then (Gawd hep us) or sold privately. To put it simply: This development has nothing to do with solving the housing crisis, and is instead an example of state-led gentrification, a phenomenon which is becoming all the more common as local authorities struggle for money and look to their greatest asset, their remaining land, and try to get as much as they can from it, both from increased rent and sales, and from higher rates of council tax.

This development is an example of the state acting with Local Authorities and Housing Associations to increase the value of and build upon and profit from every square inch of London. The main thing to learn from this saga is this: If you’re being told a house-builder is acting in the interest of easing the housing crisis and offering something for less than they could get for it, they’re biding their time until they can really cash in. The term “pop-up” has become a byword for “placeholder for gentrification”. The Boxparks in Shoreditch and Croydon are both there to fill space that will be ultimately taken by skyscrapers of flats out of the price range of current local residents (yes, even in already very well-to-do Shoreditch), and anything art-related in Hackney is being priced out and replaced by corporate blandness.

The housing crisis continues. As does this blog.

“Even the laundrette makes doing laundry a less lonely experience.” – Twodios: The Introduction of 21st Century Tenements?

NOTE: I originally wrote this in November 2016, before I decided to begin a blog, and it’s sat on my laptop ever since. So if anything in it is out of date that’s probably the reason.

In early 2016 a flurry of articles appeared in national newspapers concerning The Collective, a new housing development located in Willesden in north-west London. Under normal circumstances the opening of a new-build in a city which seems to be in a constant state of construction would go un-noticed, apart from perhaps a few sideways glances of disbelief through estate agent windows at how much the cost of renting has risen. However, what made The Collective worthy of interest is its heavy promotion of communal living as an aspirational and desirable option for the newly professional graduate twenty-something living in the city. This demographic, that in previous generations would be moving on to stable careers, getting married and buying properties of their own, has effectively found itself stuck in a state of economic surplusness which has remained effectively completely unaddressed since the financial crisis of 2008.

Upon the launch of The Collective, articles in newspapers reacted in sneering horror and viewed this development as symptomatic of the deepening housing crisis in London and the failure of any measures to solve the growing housing shortage by the government. However, this article argues that rather than being merely a symptom of the housing crisis – although undoubtedly that is a real and increasing problem – in fact the advent of twodios represents a far more fundamental change in British life. This change encompasses the expectations of one now living within the UK, and has potentially wide-ranging implications on the changing nature of work, the future of the family unit, and the rise of a compartmentalised and isolated existence for many.

Isolation in the Modern City

It is something of an irony that in a city with a population of over eight million people, living in London for many can be an extremely isolating and lonely experience. In 2015 ACEVO identified a chronic problem of loneliness among 16-34 year olds, dubbing it “the loneliness capital of Europe”. Although isolation has long been considered a particular issue in the elderly, a survey in 2015 by Opinium showed that 83% of 18-34-year olds are ‘often, always or sometimes’ lonely.

For this reason one of the attractions of the kind of communal living offered by The Collective could be its attempt to counter the isolation and difficulty in building social networks that many younger people feel, particularly when they are new to the city. This can be seen in areas as varied from the precarity of modern work, where fresh graduates are no longer assured careers, with many opting to become freelance and operate from co-working spaces such as Google Campus in Old Street or take on self-employed jobs in the emerging “gig economy”, to the widespread use of dating and meeting apps such as Tinder.

The Collective promotes itself as enabling to combat this isolation, not just from offering its own co-working facilities, but also noting on its website that in a passage which sounds more like a promotion of a university freshers week than the brochure for a housing complex, “From networking events and talks to spur-of-the moment BBQ’s on a roof garden, there’s always something going on.” Further, The Collective promotional materials even attempt to make not having a personal washing machine an opportunity to network, stating, “Even the laundrette makes doing laundry a less lonely experience.” Despite that this must be the first time in decades where a new housing development has attempted to portray the lack of private laundry facilities as a positive, it highlights the isolation which now exists for many in major cities such as London.

The development itself is set across ten floors with space for over 500 residents living in dwellings ranging from self-contained flats, to twodios, which are essentially small two-bedroom ensuite apartments with shared kitchenette facilities. In many ways, The Collective has more in common with the high-end privately-owned student accommodation which have now become a widespread feature of many university towns, and could be preparing many of its residents for a lifetime of living in student-style accommodation, effectively 21st century tenements from which there is no escape in a society where social mobility is becoming more and more of an impossible dream. This group, which has been widely come to be referred to as “generation rent” or “the precariat”, now finds it impossible to get a mortgage in the capital and so are now living in house-shares later in life, staying with their parents or now, possibly, opting to continue the student living lifestyle beyond graduation by living in complexes such as The Collective.

In a further similarity with many of these new high-end student accommodations, The Collective comes equipped with features such as a gym, a spa, a cinema, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a games room, all features designed to increase opportunity for social interaction and create a community in world where such opportunities are continually limited. As with many of these new student accommodations, the décor is akin to a mid-range hotel, with integrated broadband and bi-weekly cleaning, but also offer such little storage space it is a wonder that someone could genuinely live in one for any length of time.

However, if there is one thing that The Collective is not, that is a budget option. At the time of writing, the only rooms still available to rent are ensuites with shared kitchenettes and communal living spaces – the “twodios” which lend this article its title – for £220 a week. For Willesden, hardly one of the most desirable areas of London and lacking a vital nearby Underground station, this price represents quite a premium. According to a search on Rightmove in November 2016, a newly-decorated one-bedroom flat near to The Collective would cost somewhere in the region of £250 per week. While more expensive than a twodio and not inclusive of bills, it would however feature the benefits of far more space and having a kitchen all to oneself, even if it would lack the networking events and spur-of-the-moment BBQ’s that The Collective literature promises.

A Neoliberal Repackaging of the Countercultural Communal Experience

With the construction of the The Collective, an almost direct timeline can be drawn back through the decades from the counter-cultural housing movements which have proliferated in cities such as London for decades. From the widespread squatting movement of the 1960s, through to the fashion for large amounts of people to live in converted communal warehouses in areas such as Manor House, Edmonton and Hackney Wick, all movements which were to eventually become illegal or priced far beyond the means of those they originally catered for. An important distinction between these forms of communal living identified by writers such as Cox (1981) is that they often stemmed from a rejection of the capitalist system and tended to go hand-in-hand with leftist or radical politics, while The Collective removes this element of the commune and repackages it as a stable, secure and safe form of living where residents are able to participate in capitalism in safety. Indeed, residents are assured that a concierge is on 24/7 duty.

 Housesharing Later in Life

Rising rental prices, people getting married less and the precariousness of employment are all contributing towards a tendency for people to house share later and later in life. Never before in history have we had such a well-educated, but under-utilised, class of people of working age. Indeed, unless one is now cohabiting or in a married couple the option of living in London is essentially an impossibility without either parental help, housesharing with others, or perhaps inevitably, in the future, with the assistance of businesses such as The Collective. For this reason, it can be considered that The Collective represents the start of a new type of living in the capital. While the title of this essay comparing twodios to the tenements of the 21st century may have been slightly alarmist, it would seem entirely possible that as the century continues we shall see more of this co-living becoming the norm.

My Holiday at the Shit End of London’s Housing Crisis by Elliot Snook (Aged 30 1/4)

DISCLAIMER: Besides some minor modifications, this was originally written as a Facebook status update in one sitting while in the shivering cold straight after checking out from the B&B in question. Any flaws with grammar, structure or it just generally not being very good are because of that, and nothing to do with my lack of talent as a writer. Honest.

Shortly after I moved to Newcastle to begin a PhD about the privatisation and gentrification of London’s social housing Ken Loach’s new film about the benefits system in modern Britain, I, Daniel Blake, was released. The irony of me moving from the security of a housing association flat to three hundred miles away to investigate the issues which were happening right on my old door-step was not lost on me. But the plot of I, Daniel Blake, where a former London resident is moved to Newcastle as that is the only place where social housing for them is available just hammered the point home. Of course, me being homeless is not why I moved to Newcastle, and I do not, any longer, live in social housing (more about this in a forthcoming post). I am fully aware of the lofty security and effective bubble from the harsh realities of modern Britain that many live within that I enjoy. But the fact that Loach had chosen the city as the location for his parable about the failing welfare state made clear to me the fundamental choice I’ve made in turning my back on the safety of my residency in London.

This weekend I needed to return to London in order to take photos of and re-orientate myself with the location of my field study of state-led gentrification. With this I experienced the ultimate irony, being that in my trip to take photos of former social-housing that will soon be sold for upwards of half a million pounds to the rich and speculative buy-to-letters, I inadvertently ended up staying in a bed and breakfast that was now making a booming trade housing those in need of temporary accommodation. So there I was, with my neighbours, in this unassuming house (nothing outside indicated that it was a B&B) being run as a bed and breakfast, surrounded by people who desperately needed the kind of housing that was now being robbed of them by the state’s policy of privatising social housing, formerly a fundamental part of what many would answer when asked, “What makes you proud to be British?”

I had not known the nature of this bed and breakfast when I booked a room at it for three nights. I’d chosen it because it was in a convenient location for my fieldwork, and because it was drastically cheaper than all other nightly accommodation in the area. The fact that the “breakfast” element of its title consisted of a fridge containing butter and jam with a loaf of bread on top of it did not set any alarm bells ringing. If anything, this seemed a lot more convenient than having to get up at 7am and sit in a dining room with all the other guests.

The first morning there was a commotion next door. A family were being evicted. They were begging the proprietor to let them stay another night, that they were homeless and had nowhere to go. That they had a baby and said it was illegal to throw them on the street. It was horrible to hear, but what could I do? Once they had been removed the B&B’s owner told us he’d been advised to not allow any guests with babies, because this is what they always say when their booking comes to an end.

On my final morning as I was packing up I used the bathroom one last time and was struck by the sight of the waste paper basket over-flowing with shit-smeared toilet paper. Clearly another resident was unfamiliar with UK plumbing and its capacity for handling items being flushed down it (no wet wipes though, please!). Having stayed in countries with less-robust plumbing I was not appalled by this, but it did make me think of the people for whom accommodation like this was now, for the foreseeable future, their reality. As I escape back up to Newcastle armed with photographs of 1950s buildings now so desired by the moneyed classes, I feel at a total loss of how to quantify and how to imagine what can be done to address this housing crisis. It’s a term we hear so much and are all apparently concerned about, but it’s getting bigger and more unimaginably difficult to address by the day.

Maybe eventually more people will be like me, except instead of accidentally booking due to cheapness on their part they will actively seek out a weekend in the life of the misery of the disenfranchised. There’s probably a lot of money to be made out of it.