Is this what gentrification looks like?

I’m not really an opinion blogger; instead I prefer to tell stories based on my reporting and research. However, every now and then, I do like to let off steam. So below are a few of my scattered reflections on the riots in London this summer, which I reported on for the Washington Post here, here and here, and for the New Internationalist here, and Legal Action magazine here.

And if you want some meaningful polemic, go read what Gary Younge says about rioting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions

And Camila Batmanghelidjh here http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/camila-batmanghelidjh-caring-costs-ndash-but-so-do-riots-2333991.html

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I hate the word gentrification. It carries such unpleasant connotations. The dictionary definition of ‘to gentrify’ is to renovate or improve a house or district so that it is in keeping with middle class taste. There is nothing wrong with improvement as such, but it does depend on who it is for, how it’s done and why it is being done.

On the radio a few days ago, the area where I live in East London was described as the UK’s answer to the Silicon Valley. The comment referenced the number of tech/design start-ups in the area. More intriguing for me is the social effect of the contrast between a new, elite and flourishing industry, and increasing hardship for everyone else as the effects of the recession start to kick in.

I have never been to San Francisco; I wonder if it really is as divided as where I live. In nearly every street you can find plenty of middle-class hipsters lounging in charming, if overpriced, cafes with identikit Macbooks and single-speed bikes in tow. And in nearly every street, living cheek by jowl to the gated communities and posh bars, are communities of much less time-rich, and significantly less cash rich, families. Add to that a generous sprinkling of neglected, mentally ill people and many long-term unemployed men.

(A random example of such disparities is a hilarious restaurant review by Giles Coren, where he ventures all the way from West London to London Fields (east London) for dinner, and is alarmed by the presence of young boys wearing hooded jumpers riding low bikes and the proximity of people on low incomes. Maybe it was a joke. Except I think there are lots of people like Mr Coren that actually live in Hackney.)

I remember researching an article looking at the effects of the British government’s spending cuts on women; within a short a distance of the Town Hall I was able to find two mothers who would both be affected adversely, except one would be cushioned by the comforts of her class while the other, an Eastern European immigrant, foresaw only a future of despair.

It is not apartheid; there are plenty of people in the middle, people just getting by. There are good schools, people running up their own businesses, excellent social programmes and a ton of working class people doing just fine. So generally it all feels quite harmonious. Every Saturday the Socialist Worker party tries to radicalize everyone by selling their newspapers on the main high streets; most people happily wander past into Primark or McDonalds or one of the aforementioned cafes. Before the riots in August, I was oblivious to any serious tensions between East London’s wildly differing communities.

And yet when out reporting on the riots, what emerged was a mess of resentment and bewilderment at the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the area.

I got chatting to a young woman in London Fields, born and bred in East London; she expressed shock at the levels of violence, though was not surprise that the riots happened. Then she revealed her plans to leave Hackney and set up a fashion business. But surely the best place to run a fashion business would be Hackney? The East London borough is a stone’s throw from the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.  And it’s not just the next Facebook or Google that could spring from the area; artists, designers and fashion industry types all ply their various trades from the borough’s warehouses and cafes.

Yes, all that’s true, she agreed. There are all these new communities, but they are separate, “they all have degrees”. Degree-less, and from a different community, she feels unable to network or move in their circles. She was not complaining, simply stating the facts of her experience.

The inadvertent segregation that sometimes follows gentrification can breed unhealthy resentment or, as in the case above, an intangible sense of unease. This is not created not by residents living within that community, but by outside forces such as property developers, for example, creating expensive homes beyond even the dreams of those living on the estate across the road.

The media plays its role; I did not realize that the road I live on is part of a no go area till I read about it during the riots. Some of the journalists and columnists that opined and wrung their hands about this bit of London, probably live a stone’s throw away from the worst estates, but still have little clue as to what goes on there; so they imagine the worst. This bugged one teenage boy I spoke to:

“Wherever someone has been stabbed, they will now pinpoint that area and say it is a bad area and they will start bringing up articles and numbers of people stabbed in this area, and make [out] … that area is unsafe.

“But day in and day out, that area is actually good. It is not as bad as they are making out. They make it seem like it is happening everyday, which is making everyone else more scared. So it is corrupting them. If they are there to see it day in and out they will see that … it is not as bad as they are saying.”

This clash of identities in so-called “gentrified areas” was summed up best for me, when during the riots, a young man wearing rolled up skinny jeans, a fitted T-Shirt and a trilby, tried to cycle his one-speed through a crowd of rioters. The contrast between the teenage boys wearing their own uniform of hooded jumpers, baggy pants-on-display trousers, was striking.

This sharp disconnect between tribes was made more stark the day after the riots when a group of well meaning people organized a mass clean-up. An eager gaggle of people with brooms and grins descended on our street ready to sweep away the miserable mess of the riots. But the overturned rubbish bins, broken glass, remnants of the impromptu bonfires and even the blood red graffiti (Fuck Cameron, Fuck the Feds), had all been cleaned up already. By 7am, the poorly-paid cleaners had done what they do everyday; after that they duly melted into the background.

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part I

Everyone thinks Europe is like heaven,” says Sharaf. “Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer. Since I left my country two years and three months ago. I didn’t sleep on the bed. I don’t think that I am in Europe.”

After leaving Darfur Sharaf bought a fake passport in Khartoum, from there he flew to Istanbul, and from there he made his way into Europe through Greece. “I didn’t know if I was in Europe or a dream. It was very hor­rible,” he says of Greece. He has since made his way to Calais in France, and from there he hopes to try his luck in England. The tall gen­tle-voiced Sudanese man tries to sound casu­al, but it is clear he is hopeful that Britain will turn out to be the Europe of his dreams.

By this stage of their long journey to Britain, many migrants are tired, bitter and desperate. Having struggled in at least one other European country, some began to cre­ate hallucinatory fantasies about the UK based on pure hope and speculation.

“England it is good,” insists an Eritrean man wolfing down his bread and soup at a Calais soup kitchen. “Until they reject you they give you basic necessities. Like food, water, house. Here they treat you as animal. If you [are] going to get the paper or not, you don’t know. Or if you going to die or you going to go mad, you don’t know. It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.”

A 14-year-old Afghani boy cut his finger so badly jumping over a fence that doctors were forced to cut it off. The boy and his 12-year-old brother had been trying to get over a fence to get on a truck bound for the UK. They plan to join their elder brother, a refugee living in Britain.

This makes Jacky Verhaegen, who runs Caritas in Calais, incredibly frustrated because their brother has no money or work to sup­port them. Yet they insist they must join him de­spite the avenues open to them in France.

“It is a heartache for me to see them on the streets all day doing nothing. They live in the jungle. It is terrible for a 12-year-old. When I was 12, I was at home, I was at school,” he says.

“I told them, you are 12, if you stay five years in a child centre in France, when you turn 18 you get a French passport. Not a residence per­mit. Then you can go wherever you want.”

It is not just a childish fantasy, at any one time around 200 grown men, and many hundreds more along the coast of northern France, Belgium and Holland, wait in Calais for an opportune mo­ment to smuggle themselves into Britain.

Yet in reality those seeking asylum have a better chance of getting a positive response in France, where the recognition rate is 40% compared to 27% in the UK. France also rare­ly deports people to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the UK regularly sends charter flights full of re­jected asylum seekers to those countries.

But though France has a sys­tem well-equipped to manage asylum fairly, the reality often falls short of expectations.

Matt Quinette, a field worker for Mé­dicins du Monde in Dunkirk, says: “When a Su­danese and Afghani come to Paris and see un­der the bridge his compatriot and say, ‘What do you do here … homeless?’ And when he calls his friend in UK and his friend says yes I arrived one month ago, I get appointment directly, I get money directly, and two months after I get my answer. It doesn’t seem so much to say, ‘I will spend sometime in the jungle and I will get a good place. England is better than here.’”

It is incredibly difficult for immigrants to distinguish fact from reality. Many lie about how well they are doing in Europe. Everyone knows someone who started a business in Lon­don, has a good job, drives a car and has a house. Jacky remembers one man taking pictures in front of the Caritas charity van pretending that it be­longed to him, to send his family at home. Smug­glers wanting to capitalise on the migrant’s optimism, will often embellish the opportunities in the UK.

“They are always controlled by smugglers and they don’t really know what the situation is like in the UK,” says Jean-François Roger from France terre d’asile, an NGO working with the UNHCR in Calais. “It is really difficult for them to get real information.

“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country … they say yes, OK, come we have found you a good job, we have found you accom­modation, we have the possibility to stay.

“They imagine Eldorado for the UK, they will arrive there and ask asylum, the UK will give them accommodation and a job to work. We know the reality and we say that, but nobody thinks we say the truth. When they travel all of their family says you will be alright in the UK and everything will be OK. Nobody believes us.”

The situation for migrants in Calais is dire, so it is unsurprising people do not want to stay. Calais is a small town with high unemployment of its own to deal with, so there are few jobs for migrants and those waiting on asylum decisions. And it is not just Calais, there are many refugees living in poverty in Paris as well.

The irregular migrants in Calais rely on one or two small charities for food, they have access to a nurse’s surgery where they can shower a few times a week and the rest they figure out for themselves.

Children: the deserving poor?

‘If there’s anything extra to buy such as a pair of boots for one of the children … me and the children goes without dinner.’ So says a working class woman from York interviewed for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s painstaking study of poverty in late nineteenth century Britain. When conducting his research between 1898 and 1901, Rowntree was alarmed at what he found:

This suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.

Yet, over a century later, 1.6 million British children live in severe poverty, defined as £134 a week for a lone parent with one child and £240 a week for a couple with two children, according to the charity Save the Children.

Like the Yorkshire housewife before her, Jacqueline Robinson, a mother of two from Wales, goes without food to get by. ‘There is always one week in every month when things are bad and I wonder how I will manage. I will go without when things are tight, sometimes going without food for a day to keep my children fed and properly dressed.’

It is not just parents who worry about being poor; children are acutely aware of their poverty. In recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ four children describe in their own words what it is like to be poor. ‘We’re like a kind of poor family, we’re different cause we can’t do that much in our house,’ says eight-year-old Courtney.

‘When people haven’t got nowt to do and they’re bored outside they can go in and do puzzles and colour … and we can’t do that. When we’re bored outside, we’ve got to go inside and watch TV.’

Twelve-year-old Sam gets bullied because of his second-hand clothes and is always hungry. He lives with his dad and older sister. His mum left the family when he was two. ‘I think I’m poor because we only get £420 a month. That goes on what we need and not what we want. We have to spend it on food and electric and gas.’

The last government made ending child poverty a key policy; yet in recent years the number of children living in relative income poverty, defined as a household with an equivalised income that is less than 60% of the median income, has reached an astounding 2.8 million (22%). Labour managed to cut rates from 26% to 21% by 2004/05, but despite spending £134bn over 10 years on child benefits and working tax credits, from then onwards child poverty worsened.

Can a new government turn this depressing trend around? Poverty campaigners have already attacked the Coalition’s three-year strategy, published in April, as ‘empty’ and below standard. The strategy forms part of a long-term plan to cut the rate of child poverty to less than 10% by 2020, a legal requirement under the Child Poverty Act 2010. Much of it is based on the recommendations made by Labour MP Frank Field who wants child poverty policy to focus on the first years of a child’s life. This is no bad thing. Mr Field argues that the government should prioritise things like improving parental education, quality nursery education and early childhood cognitive attainment.

This work has already begun in many Sure Start centres around the country, but is under threat because of the government’s refusal to ring fence funding for the centres. Councils under pressure to make savings are under no obligation to spend a set amount on Sure Start – as they were under the previous government. In Tower Hamlets, for example, where one in four children lives in severe poverty, the council has promised not to close any of its Sure Start centres, but budgets will be reduced. At one centre in a working class area of Bow, a member of staff said he and colleagues were seriously concerned about job losses.

The government insists that the Early Intervention Grant, funding diverted from several existing programmes including Sure Start, will provide ‘intervention and preventative services’ for young children. There is also £625m pupil premium fund for schools that provide extra help for poor children and annual increases in the child element of tax credits until 2013. However, the child poverty strategy contains few other concrete policies; instead, there are a lot of references to aspiration, worklessness and responsibility. In one section it says: ‘…we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty.’

This chimes with simplistic rhetoric used elsewhere – from both the government and the opposition – about encouraging a better work ethic among people dependent on welfare. It is a rhetoric that fails to take into account the miserable reality of living on benefits and the fact that 55% of children living in relative poverty – that’s 1.5 million children – come from households where at least one adult works.

The strategy also indicates that the government won’t rely on working tax credits and benefits to reduce poverty. Instead, it government expects the success of its reforms to public services to create the right circumstances for families to lift themselves out of poverty. The Big Society, reforms to housing allowance and welfare, changes to employment support allowance, enlisting the private sector to deliver public services and localism are all cited as policies that will help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and eventually end child poverty. There is little detail on how long this will take and how it will be measured. The report also ignores criticism from groups who argue that these same policies will deepen poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the coalition’s austerity measures will mean nearly 300,000 children more will be pushed into poverty over the next three years.

The decision to review the statutory duty on local authorities to address child poverty also seems at odds with the end goal of the Act. The report says government wants ‘to make sure… they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom … to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable’.

Another flaw in the strategy is the failure to properly address issues around existing poverty measurements. Many poverty campaigners argue that the current measures aren’t properly reflective and need reforming. The government’s strategy mentions the importance of measuring severe poverty and including life chance indicators, but fails to develop the idea.

Kristian Niemietz, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that policies shaped around the existing measurement, households with an equivalised income less than 60% of the median income, do not work. In a recession, for example, if average incomes fall, then poverty falls, even though living standards among the poor might have gotten worse.

Instead we should update Rowntree’s method and create a consensual poverty line based on necessities needed to subsist, pegged to the cost of purchasing these items. Niemietz argues that this would enable the government to use supply-side policies to stimulate competition in industries such as utilities creating cheaper, more affordable goods and services, in turn reducing material deprivation.

Of course it will take more than markets to reduce the number of poor children in Britain; better education, flexible employment opportunities and more skills-based jobs training are just some ways the state can stop poor children becoming poor adults.

The government would do well to take seriously its commitment to child poverty; children should not be condemned to penury in today’s Britain. Rowntree was right to conclude that, ‘however difficult the path of social progress may be, a way of advance will open out before patient and penetrating thought if inspired by a true human sympathy.’

This article first appeared on hackeryblog