Author Archives: rowlandatkinson2014

About rowlandatkinson2014

Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield, focusing on questions of urban life, exclusions, inclusions, social change, segregation, wealth and poverty, among related matters...

Necrotecture: The Political Economy of London’s Super-Elite High Rise Landscape

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This is a much longer version of a piece published in the Le Monde Diplomatique which can be accessed here.

More than 400 high-rise developments are now in progress or have received planning permission in London (New London Architecture, 2016). Almost none of the dwellings these towers yield will be affordable. Close to zero are what we might loosely term public housing, reserved for those on no or low incomes. In the stories now told of London’s massive inequalities (Cunningham and Savage, 2017) and housing problems (Minton, 2017) the towers in place and those to come signal the city’s social extremes and the inability of state or market to resolve social need. Despite the intention that these high quality pads are for the globe’s elite the feeling on seeing these new spaces is rather of a somewhat disposable environment that fits their need, in many cases, to rest money. The community in mono imagined by ‘starchitects’ and estate agents on billboards and in brochures are sales pitches to a floating class of the rich and investors. Whatever drugs the architects of the gold apartment block at Battersea power station were smoking it seems their inspiration was pound signs rather than the giant floating pig pictured on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover. As in many other parts of London construction here is undertaken solely in the pursuit of money rather than people (Watt, 2016). Much of the development along the Thames appears to offer a parody of place and a mirage-idea of communal life. These are essentially dead spaces and dwellings, their lifelessness important in maintaining clean conditions to allow the realization of maximum exchange value, rather than being valued for use as places to reside. The question of who benefits from such development is an ongoing irritant to the city’s managers and politicians that will not go away.

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London’s position as a shining beacon for the globe’s super wealthy has not been good news for the wider population of the city. When the good times were rolling they were marked by an aggressive expansion of gentrification, private tenant evictions, the demolition of dozens of public estates, welfare reforms and household displacement. Some have suggested that these forms of investment and destruction are related (Atkinson, Parker and Burrows 2017) but, with the advent of Brexit deliberations, the potentially negative role of international investment has been glossed over by the city’s elite who have had to recognise their addiction to international capital. Despite this the rich themselves appear more as a sign of the slow death of the city than one of vitality as in many cities around the world who now appear to be suffering under the vertical weight of the wealthy (Graham, 2017).

Dead vertical

One possible ghost guide to the new follies and ruins generated by investors and developers might be Erich Fromm who, in his later life had become exercised by the focus in our culture on things rather people. Having rather being. There remains something powerful in his idea that our desire for lifeless things suggested we inhabit a kind of necrophiliac culture, a society fixed on the denial of death and the pursuit of shiny objects. Can we not read the pursuit of apartments and empty homes as the peak expression of such desires and drives by the wealthy (Sudjic, 2006), the towers themselves as a form of necrotecture? Can we think of London’s inflated skyscape as the result of an urban political economy harnessed to the death-drive of capital and the unchecked global accumulation strategies of the wealthy?

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In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Fromm had identified necrophilia as a form of attraction to anything dead, a mechanical form of interest that evaded notions of the social or human connectivity. This love of dead things appears to offer an apposite framing of the love of dead things expressed by the world’s super wealthy. Properties are snapped-up as signs of personal progress and status while remaining wholly or partially uninhabited. Marketing materials for many of the new developments offer images of empty chrome and velvet interiors looking-out over the city. Prospective buyers are able to project their presence as the city’s triumphant captains without seeing signs of community life or troublesome social difference. The psyche of affluence is thus able to insulate itself from any sense of connection or social reciprocity while inhabiting myths of personal success driven by ambition and hard work. This might not matter if dead things and spaces were not so corrosive to the social life of the city more broadly. Massive injections of international capital have fed the logic of building for the needs of the wealthy and international buyers (Ho and Atkinson, 2017). Such investment also damages the apparent legitimacy and vital role of public housing (Marcuse and Madden, 2016) as it has come to be framed as a form of lavish public expenditure while higher bidders wait in the wings. Here the wider sociality of the city is afflicted by a creeping necrosis as other parts of the urban body are starved of a vital supply of people and social circulation generated by absent owners and their investment vehicles – overseen by a political system that has misunderstood city standing to be indexed by the presence of wealth, rather than its creation and wider distribution (Engelen et al, 2016).

The lifeless interiors of the architecture that has emerged from a confluence of capital investment and status-seeking by the wealthy seems to speak of the real endpoint of urbanism (Minton, 2012) and any ability to enable citizens assurances of livelihood and home by urban political economy (Aalbers and Christophers, 2014). The housing crisis is produced by a system in which money rather than people is the primary index of success. Political and economic forces have combined to produce lifeless spaces that are dynamically linked to global chaos, low intensity warfare and globalized criminality elsewhere (Transparency International, 2017) and upon which London’s economy now depends and of which few questions are asked.

If you want to see these processes of accumulation and emptiness in the flesh it is instructive to wander past One Hyde Park or the many empty mansions lining The Bishops Avenue and others in North London. One of the reasons that so many people are exercised about the cost and lack of housing in the city is that in it they witness their own and other’s competition for these resources juxtaposed with a landscape of empty shells that should be homes. While many and sometimes most blocks are almost never occupied many households on local authority waiting lists are exported outside their borough or to the regions (Greenwood, 2017) and a third of a million households languish on waiting lists for public housing in London alone (DCLG, 2016). While taking a walk along the Thames near Nine Elms one can see many new towers, apparently suspended by an invisible line along the river’s corridor. Rather like dead mackerels these luxury high-rise developments shine but they also stink, the odour generated by corrupt planning agreements and a housing system out of sync with the needs of ordinary folk in the city (Scanlon et al, 2017).

 A city for money or its citizens?

The sense of outright winners and vulnerable losers raises big questions about who the city is for (Minton, 2017). If we could buy the argument that the wider economy and population somehow benefit from such investment the new skyscape might have some grain of defensibility. Yet such arguments appear threadbare. Those with economic and political power nevertheless identify an economy of property and finance as the magical machine driving living standards and reputation. London’s new mayor has moved in a slightly different direction, launching an enquiry into the number of homes bought by offshore investors and which appear to be more or less unoccupied (Wallace, Rhodes and Webber, 2017). Some sense of the scale of these problems can be identified with even the discreet presence of the rich leaving traces. One recent study examined utility records to locate homes with abnormally low electricity use which generated the estimate that around 21,000 homes are long-term empty (Transparency International, 2017). In fact around five percent of homes in Central and Western London lie in such empty conditions according the to the government’s statistics agency (Gask and Williams, 2015).

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Non-partisan groups have highlighted significant flows of criminal and anonymous purchasing of thousands of homes that appear to be decidedly non-trivial. The head of the National Crime Agency has suggested that criminal money has driven-up property prices and that hundreds of millions of pounds of property purchases are the subject of criminal investigation as suspected proceeds of corruption, yet these figures only represent a fraction of the total amount. Transparency International (2015) has already revealed that around 10% of properties in Kensington and Chelsea were owned through a “secrecy jurisdiction” and tied to around £122bn of offshore money. The question of who cares is left hanging, with many cases not pursued by resource-starved tax agencies.

One of the most glaring injustices is that while essential workers and even those on respectable incomes struggle to access decent housing the city is producing thousands of apartments for people who may never use them. If you countenance that this is the sign of a functioning housing market you might like to reset your market principles – who does it benefit that housing lies unused by its buyers? How broken is a planning system that leaves unchallenged the construction of blocks of hundreds of flats sold north of £600,000 for a studio but in which the idea of a handful of affordable homes is seen as a threat to its market viability? Mounting evidence shows that developers and planning consultants work hard to circumvent their duty to offer either affordable housing or cash contributions to the local authority (here it is worth consulting the work published at http://www.ourcity.london). Criticism of this system has been growing for some years now but the rising intensity of anger is palpable, even if effective resistance remains elusive.

Urban growth and decline

In 1951 the population of Greater London, its 32 constituent boroughs and the square mile of the City, was 8,164,416. Like many other British cities the mid-century census recorded what was, for another 60 years, its peak. It now seems difficult to remember that Britain’s inner cities were places of economic stagnation, social decline and out-migration. The term inner city was used to invoke a social imaginary marked by these features as much as any sense of real geographical place. By 1981 the nascent Thatcher government occupied a London whose population had fallen to 6,608,513. The most recent survey of the city’s population now shows an all-time high of 8,173,900. This apparent demographic health belies massive shifts in the structure of the city’s economy and new rounds of casualties in housing markets. Alongside changes in the city economy that saw it move to become a nodal point in the world financial global economy massive changes have reworked many neighbourhoods thought untouchable as gentrification opportunities decades before (Jackson and Benson, 2014).

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Today the city again faces an uncertain future. Economic pre-eminence in a global system of urban command centres appears to be giving way to anxieties about London’s future and this includes the possibility that financial institutions may start to move away. Trying to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if they did little for the city’s working class, is even more emphatically the name of the game under the Brexit threat. Such worries appear only to add vigour to the grab for land and sky by capital with projections for the numbers of the super-rich in the city set to grow significantly in coming years (Knight Frank, 2017). Meanwhile those criticising construction aimed solely at international investors are cast as out of touch with the realities of seeking custom in a global market[1]. Yet even the trade in premium real estate sales appears fragile in the context of Brexit and the possibility that key financial institutions may be lured away to competitor cities as the crisis talks continue with sales in the top ‘prime’ markets showing dramatic reductions in volume. Despite this questions of social inequality and exclusion have been pushed to the side by a government scrambling to attract buyers and institutions to keep the national books balanced.

London’s patrician class appear to have recognised which side their bread is buttered on some time ago. What was once our establishment might now be better characterised as ushers to capital and the discrete vendors of prized assets and products (Shaxson, 2011). The international rich come for the city’s financial services, generate construction and jobs for decorators and nannies and are prepared to pay fees and taxes on property sales (or work hard to avoid them). Property professionals and financial wizards continue to offer portentous and authoritative assessments of how tariffs, taxes or regulatory moves would kill flows of capital investment. This may be true now but it wasn’t even just two years ago when selling £10m flats before they were built was possible. What is true now is that the systemic threats being revealed today will injure the city’s poor and working-classes much more deeply than it will the wealthy. If in the last decade we had hung on to the coat tails or Masseratti exhaust pipes of the super-rich our grip must tighten if we are to catch any crumbs that might be dropped our way in the future (Koh, Wissink and Forrest, 2016).

The City’s own strength is simultaneously the wider city’s Achilles heel. While the economic role of the City is well understood, its asymmetrical dominance in the structure of the urban economy presents risks (Christensen, Shaxson and Wigan, 2016). For the price of a cup of coffee any economic geographer will tell you that a key danger for any single-industry town is that it is more likely to die or be filleted as changing fortunes become apparent over time due to competition from rivals. Where in the past such change wrought devastation on the likes of Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and the rest of a long list, it may yet be that London’s fate is to see many of its core services lost to the Dublins, Paris’ or Frankfurts of this world. Analysts are now pondering the question of how many individual bankers or institutions will leave after an exit from the EU. The likely answers appear to be thousands and, well who knows! Even if banks are not as mobile as the currencies and services they deal in an orderly or partial evacuation over years remains a real possibility.

When the good times rolled prior to the Brexit vote (please bear with me here if you were on a waiting list, crammed two to a room or saving for that elusive deposit to get on the housing ladder) we were told not to touch the market, maintain a low tax environment to enable overseas monies to flow and benefit the wider city. With the risks to the city’s economy from Brexit this logic asserts itself more emphatically, leaving a city with an apparently very large neon ‘for sale’ sign above it. Many of its most prized assets are now the property of foreign wealth funds or individuals (Harrods, The Shard, Harvey Nicholls). Much of the commercial property on the street on which the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s was born is now owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. These changes are emblematic of concurrent shifts in class and taste and reflect a move from gentry and landed wealth (Webber and Burrows, 2016) to the arrival of an expanding cadre of those who have benefited immeasurably from globalization, the lucky control of state assets or associations with international criminal activity. Their brashness and raw money power is perhaps only matched by the vitriol cast on them by the last vestiges of wealthy long-term residents in the city’s inner West who appear not to realise that it is others in their class that put up the ‘for sale’ sign in the first place.

It’s the money stupid…

The most obvious answer to any question we might wish to ask about London’s problems today is money. Money is why our political interests turn a blind eye to offshore and criminal purchasing of real estate, no matter how shady the source. Money is the reason that public housing is being demolished in the name of ‘affordable’ housing. Money is why gentrification is a good thing and poor residents might be better placed elsewhere. Money lies at the heart of keeping taxes low and regulations slack. Money is the reason for the new dead spaces along much of the Thames and beyond. The city shaped by this dominating rationality is like a negative doughnut, wealth and high-rise housing in its core that falls away to suburbs increasingly marked by slow physical decay and an enlarged presence of the city’s poor. Our claim to world standing is to play host to the most ultra-high net-worth individuals of any city globally – 4,750 living within its boundaries and around 80 billionaires (Knight Frank, 2017). Such boasts appear poor slogans for a city that has become a sorting machine for opportunity and fortune – the rich in one door, the poor out of others, necessary casualties of a city dominated by a prime real estate and finance economy.

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London’s dead homes are the offspring of demands for the unfettering of markets and ambitious urban remaking. Yet we also need to recognise that for many others the city’s new architecture indicates that we are moving in the right direction. Here the notorious assessment of the new director of Zaha Hadid architects, Patrick Schumacher, was a frank disclosure of the values circulating among some practices – pave over Hyde Park, remove public housing, let the market really rip and dictate who gets to live here. Surely, he suggested, everyone knows we benefit from dinner parties in the homes of the rich? Misjudging the views of the wider audience of these comments (the new mayor, for one, slammed his ideas) such ideas remain dominant among those whose bread is buttered by capital. Meanwhile protecting municipal housing, alleviating real poverty in a rich city, wider regional inequalities or caring for the elderly and disabled are seen as unfortunate by-products of a system damaged by the legacy of a previous government. The prospects for challenging the overall direction of the city and its politics appear miserable (Atkinson et al 2017).

Conclusion

Twenty years ago, before Meet the Russians Channel 4’s show, Big Train, offered a skit in which the jewel of London’s hotel establishment was sold to a wealthy oligarch. There would be few changes, the new owner briefed staff, but a small request – to change the name from the Ritz to the Titz. Such possibilities have become thinkable. The culture-shock and clash of capital against everyday life are features of a city that is barely working for its working population. Gross excess is now a mainstay of many reality TV programs on the super-rich, their tastes and demands gawped at by millions where the unnecessary is the very mark of success. More, bigger, shinier, emptier.

The ranks of towers on the banks of the Thames are born of a deep-seated market subjectivity which, in turn, moulds the thinking of those seeking to capture the desires of the hypermobile wealthy. If we build them, they might come, if we don’t, we are screwed. We can speculate on what will happen to a city that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The good times of high rollers and flagship buildings did little for the mere mortals of the city, yet the future holds the prospect that anxiety and economic insecurity will mean that the rich are welcomed with even more firmly open arms.

Authors note: This piece is dedicated to those that died in the Grenfell Tower disaster, a 24-storey public housing tower block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

 

References

Aalbers, M.B. and Christophers, B. (2014) Centring Housing in Political Economy, Housing, Theory and Society, 31, 4, pp. 373-394.

Atkinson, R., Parker, S., and Burrows, R. (2017, forthcoming) Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London, Theory, Culture and Society.

Atkinson, R., Burrows, R., Glucksberg, L., Ho, H.K., Knowles, C. and Rhodes, D. (2017) Minimum City? The Deeper Impacts of the ‘Super-Rich’ on Urban Life, Chapter in Cities and the Super-Rich, London: Palgrave, pp. 253-271.

Christensen, J., Shaxson, N. and Wigan, D. (2016) The finance curse: Britain and the world economy, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 18, 1, pp. 255-269.

Cunningham, N. and Savage, M. (2017) An intensifying and elite city: New geographies of social class and inequality in contemporary London, City, pp. 1-22. Online first available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2016.1263490

DCLG (2016) Households on Local Authority Waiting Lists, Live Table 600, London: Department of Communities and Local Government.

Engelen, E., Fround, J., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2016) How Cities Work: A Policy Agenda for the Grounded City, CRESC Work Paper 141, Manchester: CRESC. Available at: hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/cresc/workingpapers/wp141.pdf

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destruction, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gask, K. and Williams, S. (2015) Analysing Low Electricity Consumption Using DECC Data, London: Office for National Statistics.

Graham, S.  (2017) Vertical: The City from satellites to Bunkers, London: Verso.

Greenwood, G. (2017) Homeless Families Rehoused out of London ‘up five-fold’, BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-39386587 Accessed 16 June 2017.

Ho, H. K. and Atkinson, R. (2017) Looking for Big ‘Fry’: The Motives and Methods of Middle-Class International Property Investors, Urban Studies, pp. 1-17. Online first at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098017702826

Jackson, E. and Benson, M. (2014) Neither ‘Deepest, Darkest Peckham’nor ‘Run‐of‐the‐Mill’ East Dulwich: The Middle Classes and their ‘Others’ in an Inner‐London Neighbourhood, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38, 4, pp. 1195-1210.

Koh, S.Y., Wissink, B. and Forrest, R. (2016) Reconsidering the super-rich: variations, structural conditions and urban consequences, Chapter in: Hay, I. and Beaverstock, J. (Eds.), Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich, London: Edward Elgar, pp.18-40.

Knight Frank (2017) The Wealth Report: The Global Perspective on Prime Property and Investment, London: Knight Frank.

Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016) In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, London: Verso Books.

Minton, A. (2012) Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city, London: Penguin.

Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who is London For? London: Penguin.

New London Architecture (2016) Tall Buildings Survey, London: New London Architecture.

Scanlon, K., Whitehead, C., and Blanc, F. with Moreno-Tabarez, U. (2017) The Role of Overseas Investors in the London New-Build Residential Market, London: LSE/Homes for London.

Shaxson, N. (2011) Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, London: Bodley Head.

Sudjic, D. (2006) The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful, and Their Architects, Shape the World, London, Penguin.

Transparency International (2017) Faulty Towers: Understanding the Impact of Overseas Corruption on the London Property Market, London: Transparency International.

Wallace, A., Rhodes, D. and Webber, R. (2017) Overseas Investors in London’s New-Build Housing Market, York: Centre for Housing Policy, University of York.

Watt, P. (2016) A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with Focus E15. City20 (2), pp.297-320.

Webber, R. and Burrows, R., (2016) Life in an Alpha Territory: Discontinuity and conflict in an elite London ‘village’. Urban studies53 (15), pp. 3139-3154.

[1] Even the London mayor’s response to the reports commissioned by him to look into overseas investment recognised “international investment plays a vital role in providing developers with the certainty and finance they need to increase the supply of homes and infrastructure for Londoners” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/13/foreign-investors-snapping-up-london-homes-suitable-for-first-time-buyers

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Rotting Hill

This past weekend saw the annual passing of the Notting Hill Carnival in London’s West end. The carnival has taken place each year since 1966 but this is a special year. The carnival followed the disasterous fire at Grenfell Tower in the same London borough with the procession starting with a commemoration for those who died in that fire. Picking-up the FT at the weekend I always flick to the House and Homes section, this week the feature (Get the Party Started, FT, 26-27 August 2017) was on real estate in the area. Here a graphic informs us that £1m will buy us a 2-bed flat, that £10m will secure a 5-bed penthouse or that a more unfeasible £35m will deliver a grand 8-bed detached home with a car lift. It is worth remembering that the constituency in which these excesses are played-out in the housing market was the site of one of the major upsets of the 2017 general election. Called in a fit of hubris the election produced a reduced majority for the government, but also the first Labour member of parliament ever in the Kensington and Chelsea constituency. Change is afoot and not least because housing issues are at the bleeding-edge of experiences among those damaged by austerity policies and a city economy which delivers homes for investors or those who have already made money in the housing market while neglecting those facing overcrowding, stagnating incomes or the city’s poor.

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The terrible events at Grenfell Tower revealed an arrogant and largely dysfunctional local government that was incapable of looking after the safety of its tenants or dealing with the subsequent emergency, which was then placed in the hands of NGOs like the Red Cross. Long an area of wealth and poverty (this is the same area that Wyndham Lewis could describe as Rotting Hill in his novel of 1951, but also the romantic stamping ground of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the film of 1999) Notting Hill and its wider London borough of Kensington and Chelsea still has around a quarter of its residents in public housing (2011 census data), often living adjacent to wealthy streets and terraces that feature in global property supplements. The deeper point not to miss here is that property speculation and investment rides on the cultural heritage and diversity of the area, the community carnival seen as a timely reminder to consider what and where to buy that is exciting and with the prospect of capital gains. Yet such advice surely sits uneasily with the kind of social anger being widely expressed about the inadequacy of the central and local state’s response to the immediate tragedy of Grenfell, and the longer-run crisis in affordable housing provision in the capital. The job of property journalists reveals these faultlines amidst continued screening and scraping for new opportunities and places in which to invest. This logic has been catastrophic to the low-income communities of London and other cities in which capital and its intermediaries has forced the exit of thousands. The spectacle of the carnival, the crisis of Brexit and ongoing commitments to defund public facilities and services remain key events that are entwined with the working of property markets and speculators with the result that anger and division seem set only to widen further in the city.

 

 

Home as refuge from social change

How does the contemporary home offer a window on the social ruptures and anxieties of our time?

The idea of risk has become so embedded in our thinking that it forms a pervasive and taken-for-granted backdrop to our lives. Yet these lives take place in particular places, our impression of major social change, disruption, division, catastrophe and ecological damage are registered by us from within our homes – through windows, gates, doors and screens. Our interpretive frameworks are created not only by participation in social groups, networks and institutions, but also via the domestic space of the home and its place in shaping a sense of predictability and continuity. Without this sense of refuge from unsettling and accelerating social change becomes difficult to process and accommodate – social subjects are rendered more anxious and unsettled themselves. Yet the home itself is neither a place of stability or security. This is not simply because of pervasive and persistent problems of domestic violence. Diverse household forms change over time and do so in the context of housing systems that produce or withhold opportunities for stable, affordable, appropriate and safe houses. The cries of generation rent are for just such forms of stability and continuity. The anxieties of the middle-classes are split between a desire to maintain their own property rights and wealth and a concern for the ability of their own children to experience similar advantages. The horror of homelessness is of losing our place almost fully in social terms, to have this core site of our self-maintenance stripped-away.

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The homes of public housing tenants, long assured, have been sold-off or threatened increasingly by destruction in the name, of all things, of producing more affordable housing. Housing systems more generally are partially mediating or failing to mitigate the risks of our times – precarious labour conditions, changing technologies. Housing stress generated by the lack of available homes renders us insecure by failing to provide a stable territorial core from which private actors can become confident social participants. Home is the centre. Without a decent place to stay it is hard to be.

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It seems increasingly important to understand the housing crisis as a perpetual feature of of market-oriented housing systems. The home is a point of confluence in which social actors come into being and learn about the risks, dangers and shape of the social world around them. The rise of gated estates and fortress homes indexes social fear by those with the resource to seek an escape route and a means by which feelings of risk can be managed. In a social environment characterised by rising social divisions, political polarisation and the market resolution of social goods and risks the sense of the individual as risk-bearer is surely as never before. The home becomes a bastion outside which we understand life to be intensively competitive and increasingly unsupported.

If the home is a private refuge it is also a place of freedom and personal expression, a place in which ideas of social nurture are paramount. It seems increasingly evident that rising social inequality pushes us towards a recognition of the idea of home as a refuge when our public spaces and institutions are seen as places of disinvestment and danger. To recognise the need for good housing for all is to understand the need for homes that offer a place of security, located in a social universe outside the home characterised by stronger civic spaces and identities.

 

Borderlands of the Private Home and the Fortress Impulse

Can we speculate that there is a relationship between the massive changes in policy and political life since the financial crisis of more or less ten years ago and the look and feel of the streets and homes and in our towns and cities? It was not long after the crisis began that I made a journey by car through the semi-rural areas bordering Manchester and Chester and was surprised at the number of homes with new, large and electronic gates. Why would we find these kinds of features in leafy areas with presumably low crime rates? Why indeed would we expect to find now well over a thousand gated communities in a country like the UK that has traditionally not only enjoyed a relatively low crime rate but also a history of more or less open streetscapes and a celebration of public footpaths and byways? We know that the reasons for these changes are complex and lie in a mix of factors that include a search for badges of social standing as well as a fear of crime. Yet the reality in many streets today is of a proliferation not of large gated communities but the rise of what Sarah Blandy and I recently called domestic fortresses LINK. In many neighbourhoods it is possible to see shuttered and gated large homes side-by-side with those with little or no such visible protection. What explains these variations and what does it mean, if anything at all, for questions of policy today?

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Forting-up, London

One step-change in urban life appears to be a move from segregation at a neighbourhood level to sharper differences within local spaces. Much of these changes speaks also of changing community and social relations and the connections of social networks across space rather than the traditional pattern of, more often, knowing one’s neighbours and those in a geographical and proximate community. Life is different today along a series of rapid changes in many areas of daily life. It seems to have taken very little time for the assurances, and perhaps irritations, of community life and a sense of nation and state to be replaced by a deeper series of anxieties and losses within which the individual is both the celebrated author of their own social trajectory or fate. Sociologists have been banging-on about the loss of community and notions of risk for more than two decades but I was reminded of how far we had come while settling down to the gem of a book by Wolfgang Streek LINK who asks in his most recent book – When will capitalism end? For Streek the end will come not because of alternative plans and competing blueprints of a more equitable social and economic system, rather it is the massive contradictions of a system of based around the patronage of corporate life by governments, our wholesale surrender to markets at a global scale and the loss of x, to say nothing of climate change and the ecological limits of our condition, that present a kind of systemic over-reach that is much more likely to topple the principles by which we live rather than a unionized or revolutionary movement driven by mass social movements.

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Fortress USA, Detroit

How is all of this relevant to gated communities and fortress homes I hear you ask in some exasperation? We know that things aren’t good and look set to be pretty unsettled in a fragmenting Europe and an uncertain global context with contests and displays of power between charismatic oligarchs and politicians so where does the home come into this? Well, the home links into this enormously complex and unsettled environment in one very important sense at least. Home is where we live. It is the place that we look out at all of this disruption and the site to which we project an array of dreams and desires about who we will become and the households and families around us. It, or a variant of it, is where we formed out ideas about how social life works and who we can distrust or should not at any costs. And for this environment to fully sustain and settle us requires not only the safety of the home but a sense of assuredness about the world outside.

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Fortress, Australia

Much of the subjective life we inhabit, in our minds, also takes place inside the shell of the home and both, it seems, are under threat from myriad sources. Our lives are rules by short-term contracts, profit and enterprise orientations, selling our ‘selves’ through selfies and narcissistic displays, worried about crime or the threat of invasion (either in terms of the home or at the wider borders of the nation) and overseeing this is a diminished state that only seeks to usher or loosely regulate capital and companies. In such a fractured state who will we call if we have an emergency? If it is a public or private fire, police or ambulance service is increasingly open to new possibilities of contracting, sub-contracting, leases and other arrangements. Will the ambulance get to me in time to help if they cant navigate the gates? Who will help mitigate the risks generated by inequality and which include violent and other forms of criminal and harmful acts? Who will police those risks and help me if things go wrong? Of course all of these rhetorical questions point to the need for the role of a state with some capacity, capacities which are either voluntarily ceded by the central state or which are denuded by austerity [linkl to Crewe LRB piece] at the local level.

The fortress home is an expression of social escape from communities that no longer exist into a world of possibilities fed by an array of debt-financed consumer products, electricals, ICT and audio-visual systems. It is here that we are on our own but also triumphally placed by consumer advertising as the authors of our own emancipatory dreams and ambitions. We are also free to feel a gnawing sense of doubt, loneliness and anxiety rendered starkly in films like Cosmopolis or grotesquely but somehow presciently in depictions like Day of the Dead [check]. For the ultimate treatment of this condition we can more readily turn to the social science fiction of La Zona in which marginal social groups, desperate to make a living, invade a gated community to be viciously dealt with by an angry and fearful mob of armed homeowners in an unnamed, yet familiar, Latin American city. All of which points us to where I am going with all of this dystopian stuff – somewhere rather unpleasant, a place in which the hollowing of the state, social services, corporate excess and free license and gross wealth inequalities leaves us in fact disempowered yet dreaming of the possibility of escape from the Hobbesian conditions generated by the ideological tropes that we bought into, or were contracted-out on.

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Jung’s home, a castellated dream

As with many things the tell-tale advance of what we can think of as a process of micro-fortification around, if not armed in this country, homeowners says something of our consumption-led identities, the escape to the freedome of some brave and unbounded social self that is connected to a disintegrating public realm. We might then suggest that political commitments to market logics lead us not only to the sense of an increasingly unequal and insecure society but also one that is more visibly differentiated between those that have and do not have security. The deeper lie undergirding this is that panic rooms, gated communities can offer-up a widely experienced sense of human security. And yet fearful subjects are also compliant to notions of hard-work for financial reward since who wants to be cast into the kinds of material and social insecurity that are so pervasive today? Yet the security fixes that we see around us are also illusory because they belie the deeper fact of the ineffectiveness which is to say that for security to really work we would also hope to feel more secure and on this dimension research tells us it is clearly failing.

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So-called ‘Ha Ha’, Castle Howard, the illusion of an accessible rural idyll with earthworks inspired by war-time defensive systems.

All of this points the way for the need for an interest in social policy to connect closely to the politics of economic management and statecraft in which markets and international enterprise are heralded as all-powerful and universally benefitting. A concern with security, segregation, homeownership and gated communities combine in fact with a curiosity about who we as a society, and others like us, are becoming in a world that is cast by those in charge as being runaway and in need of riding, rather than taming. Streeck’s analysis appears enormously astute because it highlights the need for us to think and speak in different registers in ways that grasp the enormous and unsettling realities of global and national systems that give way to unchecked inequality and the subsequent impact of this insecurity on human life. To understand the rise of the domestic fortress we need to comprehend, like the best of sociologists, the multi-dimensional and reinforcing logics of a system that may yet kill itself but which, in the meantime, is likely to continue to do much damage yet.

This is a slightly extended version of my blog for the Policy and Politics journal blog.

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Pierre Koenig’s perched case study home, with unimpeded views across the city, Los Angeles

Is there still room at the top?

We’ve come quite some way from images of the young Joe Lampton jockeying to be top-dog in the social realist film of John Braine’s Room at the Top. The vision of ambition and social mobility in post-war Britain became a popular rendition of ideas about moving-up the social ladder and competition.

Today we can look back and reflect on a rather quaint portrayal of a pretty stable and increasingly affluent society of near-full employment and sense of entitlement and direction in the lives of the protagonists. In a series of startling facts and insights revealed by social scientists in recent years we have begun to understand the depth of radical changes to societies in which a sense of career fragmentation, rising social anxieties, material excess and want. In addition to these worrisome changes we can observe a growing sense of conflict and palpable anger over excessive inequalities. We are faced with the view of powerful billionaires commanding historically unprecedented fortunes, as well as political actors, the stressed conditions of declining and desperate post-industrial regions and the significant dismantling and defunding of many aspects of the public realm, hospitals, schools and universities among them. Perhaps not since the Edwardian era have the excesses of those thriving seemed so out of sync with the conditions and prospects of an increasingly anxious population – at least one key difference being the incredibly clear visibility we have of those conditions at the top.

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A number of facts and figures can be quickly marshalled to reveal the extent of the extraordinary gulf between those at the top of our society and the rest of us. We might, for example, capture a sense of this globally by considering the research by Oxfam which baldly states that 62 people have the same wealth as literally everyone else in the world combined. That is less than a bus load, not that you are likely to see them electing to get on your local 52 to the town centre any time soon. Alternatively we can consider the fortunes of the top 1%, a group whose fortunes, according to the French economist and sociologist Thomas Piketty, who have seen their wealth expand dramatically over in recent decades at a time when the income and wealth of the rest has stagnated or declined. Finally, we might turn to the work of those locating the homes of the world’s billionaires and ‘ultra high-net worth’ individuals of whom around 80 now live in London.

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What these figures reveal little of is the much larger imprint on our daily lives, culture and poltics that the rich now influence. Wealth and excess are now a significant aspect of our fascinating (perhaps also our disgust) with the lives of the rich and famous. Underlying the changes seen in London, a shiny façade of trophy towerblocks and fortress homes for the rich along the Thames, lies two kinds of anxiety. First, that without offering the best possible deal to offshore millionaire and billionaires the city will somehow buckle and shed its pre-eminent position to other global capitals vying for their attentions. Second, for the population at large, that the city has sold its soul, skyline and space to the wealthy with less than scant regard for the everyday citizen competing for housing in the city.

While we are fascinated with what life must be like at the ‘top’ much of this interest is driven less by admiration or envy and more by a sense of the socially and environmentally unsustainable position of those with so much in the face of yawning inequality and widespread social poverty. We know that their travel and homes are excessive and a drain on environmental resources, that they vie for political control, that they avoid or evade paying taxes (in many cases to the countries that house them) and that they are often narcissistic and remote from the concerns and indeed desperation of many living through government austerity measures and cuts. There is little to laud and everything still to understand about how the machineries of our economies, governments, societies and cities are linked-to the demands of the growing ranks of the wealthy. In a time of polarised and often angry and hate-filled political discussions a way forward that celebrates the social, forms of togetherness and moderation are needed in order to make society a place of greater social justice. There is an urgent need to deliberate on these thorny issues further while many dream of an island escape amidst the dog eat dog world of austerity, the gig economy and rising social anxiety about where we are going more broadly.

“You don’t get out much, do you”. Or, the poverty tour

The accusation of being an ivory tower academic is a painful one, yet ‘getting out’ can also mean we look like we are seeing the lives or places of the poor and excluded as somehow different, wrong, abnormal even. Doing research on poor Scottish housing estates the strong sense that I often came away with was how keen people were to present life as very ordinary, despite what the crime, education and health stpoverty-tourismatistics told me. Should I accept this insider’s view or impose some other designation – that the area had deep problems? If I didn’t use the language of exclusion or poverty how would those with power over resources know that these were areas and people that desperately needed the investment of public resource? Alternatively, were the people of these places going to be further stigmatised and included by precisely these labels? The moral bind seemed impossible to break through.

The last thing that any university sociologist can bear is the charge that they don’t know how ‘it’ is out there, that they are out of touch. Certainly the abstractions of statistical models, surveys and the promise of ‘big data’ continue to push us away from real-world experience. So how can we better see the world around us, understand how it works, who lives there and the problems it holds? To understand social problems, to really work in such a way that we might change the world for the better, we need to get into it, watch how people act in practice and talk to them. But doing this also presents a problem – whether we stay in our offices or get out into communities it is easy to see what social researchers do as a kind of voyeurism. The spectacle of poverty, if we might call it that, is something that generates huge interest from those not immersed in its hard reality. Similar things can be said of dangerous places where we see organised poverty tours alongside the forays of researchers, only for both to return to the safety of life in included or mainstream society.

Is this a fair assessment? What would happen if we voted with our feet and joined as activist neighbours in such communities? More provocatively – would we be helping or taking advantage of low-cost housing as middle-class gentrifiers? I have been on numerous tours of public housing across the world, often organised as part of a conference and as much as I felt enriched and educated by these experiences it was sometimes hard to shake the feeling that these visits presented places as human zoos where residents were unable to decline access in the way that professionals can via secretaries or closed doors. The question this raises is how are we to know the world and its problems in order to do something about them without exploiting or degrading those we are trying to help? We need to avoid the naïve position that if we can relay the voices of the excluded to the powerful we will improve the conditions or resources of the excluded. While things have got better to some extent over the past five decades since the Community Development Programme the problems of poverty and exclusion remain with us. The more I reflect on the nature of research the more I see that that its real promise is less about the potential for change and more about the need to present problems as an unpleasant intrusion in the conscience of the powerful. There is something to be said for all politicians having to visit the kind of places and talk to people that would rarely figure on their own social circuits. The trick for researchers, it seems to me, is in finding the ways and means by which their encounters can be made to show the contradictions of poverty in a nation of plenty so that it is seen as morally untenable. To do this we still need to get out and about, but we need to think carefully about how and why we do this.

This piece was part of an edited collection on engaged learning, Facing Outwards, edited by Brendan Stone at the University of Sheffield.

Pokemon no-go

There is a rare pokemon in my garden and it is luring the public into my personal, domestic space.

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This was the apparently unlikely complaint recently brought by Jeffrey Marder of West Orange, New Jersey. The prospect that benign hunters of rare Magnemites, Snorlaxs and Bulbasaurs might be better construed as criminal mass trespassers facilitated by Nintendo’s hit game raises interesting questions about the interaction of networked social/ game media and the boundaries of the private realm of the home.

From numerous media stories it has become clear that the search for the small monsters has become concerted – stories of kids lost in caves, dangerous drivers, the invasion of private buildings and other places becoming an almost daily event. The apparently random or selective placement of the monsters using algorhithms and socio-demographic data was perhaps always likely to generate boundary problems between public and private spaces populated with the monsters. Marder’s claim might generate some sympathy, though it is unclear what form the intrusion took and Niantic, the developer of the game, have already argued that users must ‘adhere to the rules of the human world’, including avoiding trespassing on private property. The future possibilities of augmented reality gaming may yet be dictated by the 200 or so cases likely to be brought against Niantic’s game in which players can see the monsters in the ‘human world’ via the screens on their smartphones (in case I need to tell you!).

What is also interesting about this case is the way in which private property rights are invoked as a means of challenging the architecture by which players throw their poke-balls at Squirtles in innumerable gardens across cities globally. Perhaps more worrying is the possibility is that the aggressive defence of the private domestic realm will not yield some human tragedy at the hands of an anxious or gun-toting homeowner given past such events. The pokemon stories being relayed also suggest that the domain of the private home is being eroded or renegotiated in previously unforeseen ways. Despite the sense of the home as an inviolable space the rise of Pokemon Go and future games like it raise the possibility of massed forms of trespass and surveillance by goal-directed users. Like dumpster hunters for personal details in confidential waste, or computer viruses and internet predators, the precise form of future threats to the domestic home from new technologies are hard to fathom until they arrive in the front garden.