What will this election result mean for our cities and for questions of inequality, social division and fairness? What will urban political life be like under a now fully Conservative-led government, without a coalition and a likely fractious relationship with the constituent parts of the UK? Will a housing crisis, migration, segregation, crime, health and education form key areas of social policy that continue to have dramatic spatial consequences? Here are some thoughts:
Urban Policy – What urban policy? We have seen very little in the way of concerted spatial planning and policies to adjust regional and neighbourhood inequalities. Is there prospect to see more action in this direction? This seems doubtful and that local social and physical conditions in the most deprived neighbourhoods will remain off the radar and worsen. A callous politics of disregard for social need is unlikely to change under a bolstered mandate for the Conservatives. Promises of a northern powerhouse economy will perhaps be renewed, if only to take some of the heat and pressure out of the south-east while offering a real chance of improving national economic prospects. Without more concerted action to act at the level of the neighbourhood conditions will deteriorate but this is not a government born of form in this area of policy, with those on the ground left to pick up the pieces.
Housing – Will we see increased house building and a move to address the problem of intergenerational shifts in homeownership? This may be unlikely, for both practical and political reasons but there is an increasing danger of indebted middle-class entrants to the labour market finding cold comfort from this area of policymaking. The new government will have to balance being the representative of existing owners keen to maintain or build their own equity (not least to help their children have any chance of entering ownership) and representing the needs of renters desperate to escape a shoddy and predatory rental sector run for the benefit of landlords who are, in many cases, themselves homeowners. Can this continue? Unfortunately yes. Alongside this an almost stationary public housing programme and the now haunting refrain of a promise to look at a right to buy for housing association tenants will focus the attention of housing professionals and anyone interested in how to deal with housing need. NIMBYs will continue to scupper new developments, whatever their tenure, under the localism agenda. None of this bodes well and could form the focal point of a more explosive social politics in cities like London where housing stress is an all-encompassing concern, even for those on very high incomes.
Spatial divisions and inequality – The previous coalition played hard to a crowd who masochistically believed that austerity was the necessary goal of government, while privileging those who were already immune from the impact of the global financial crisis. It never seemed that there were enough, and clear enough, voices saying why this was wrong in principle and in practice. This is a rich country and in many of the ‘leafy’ constituencies that have been buoyed-up by those espousing a story of necessary pain there has been very little pain for they themselves. This kind of politics is unlikely to be tolerated without anger or protest by those who felt that Labour wasn’t strong enough in its proposals to redress inequalities and those who felt that politics (rather than political action and debate) was unlikely to do anything to change what seemed a very broken society. The spatial consequences of likely policies around tax, contracting-out, health, education, policing and crime and housing will fall heaviest on those least likely to be cared about by a newly confident administration. The traction of popular understandings of inequality, austerity and class-based revenge will however likely increase and we can expect a real anger and energy to debates about the way that the poor, precarious and vulnerable have been ignored. The longer-term emergence of a new group of precarious, damaged, stressed, futureless and the angry (and risks for a renewed rise in crime) will seem unlikely to puncture the bubble of ongoing affluence. For those in the middle, despite worries about their children’s prospects, life under the stewardship of those looking out for them will likely continue to feel like a rather cosy John Lewis advert – saccharine but also filled with nostalgia for a safer and homelier world.