‘Social cleansing’ feared as London poor priced out

A London council has asked 500 of its poorest residents to uproot themselves to cheaper houses up to 160 miles away. With mayoral elections approaching, what does this say about the city?

Running between buzzing Soho and grand Trafalgar Square, London’s Charing Cross Road is one of the most expensive streets in the world. It is a land of hotels and high-end restaurants, where few would dream of living. Yet tucked away behind a theatre sits a row of council flats. For a rent as cheap as any you are likely to find in London, a relatively poor citizen can sleep just a stone’s throw from Nelson’s Column.

In many other cities this would be unthinkable. The landscapes of Paris and Washington DC, for instance, are starkly split between a wealthy centre and a ring of poor, troubled suburbs. London is different. A short stroll can take you from grimy, poverty-stricken terraces to some of Europe’s most luxurious neighbourhoods.

But the city is changing. Property prices have been rocketing for years, while previously neglected areas are developed into sleek modern apartments. Some feel that life in the capital is becoming the preserve of a wealthy elite.

Now a city council in an area with a shortage of affordable housing has started efforts to relocate five hundred of its poorest residents. Some families have been asked to move to new accommodation 160 miles away, in the northern city of Stoke-on-Trent.

Some blame the government for limiting housing benefits and making the struggle to find homes even harder. Labour leader Ed Miliband controversially labelled the measures ‘social cleansing.’ The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, responded just as forcefully, saying that Miliband’s comments were ‘deeply offensive.’ Even for a political row, the language was harsh.

The debate has surfaced with perfect timing: in ten days, Londoners will go to the polls to elect a new mayor. Affordable housing will be one of the hottest issues of the candidates’ campaigns.

In the last thirty years, London has become perhaps the world’s most powerful financial hub. This has brought wealth; but it has also forced up property prices. For many poorer Londoners, owning a home is now an ever more distant dream.

Homes under threat

Londoners threatened with relocation are angry and upset. Some of these people have lived here for generations, they say – the government must ensure that they are not turfed out to distant regions just because bankers or businessmen can pay more. The city is sacrificing its history, they say, on the altar of materialism and greed.

Nonsense, retort government ministers. Some of these people are unemployed; why should they be given money to help them stay in desirable areas while working families are denied the privilege? This is no crusade, they say – just fairness and common sense.

You Decide

  1. Are areas better when rich and poor people live side-by-side?
  2. Should the government give money to people who struggle to afford housing in their local area?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are being forced out of your home by rising prices. Write a letter to the government persuading them to lift the limit on benefits.
  2. Make a plan of your ideal city. Would it be orderly and segregated, or chaotic and mixed?

Some People Say...

“Unless you have a job, you have no right to be picky about where you live.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who gets this ‘housing benefit’ thing?
Any family whose savings and income are below a certain level. It’s not just for the unemployed: campaigners estimate that about 93% of families claiming housing benefit are in work. The new ‘cap’ is part of the government cuts, and means that thousands of families will receive less money – though not all.
Is this a problem outside London?
People across the country will lose money, although hopefully nobody will be made homeless. But London is unique in having both enormous property prices and large poor communities, so it is suffering most. And there is another element: the Olympics. The festival of sport has driven a wave of redevelopment and increased demand for property – that’s good in many ways, but it may also contribute to these social tensions.

Word Watch

Suburbs
Literally ‘below the city,’ suburbs are essentially the outskirts of any major urban area. In some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro or Istanbul, the suburbs are great sprawling slums housing millions of poor. In Britain and America the idea of ‘suburbia’ is more associated with spacious, leafy districts – they are often among the most expensive areas to live.
Housing benefits
The welfare system for housing in the UK is notoriously complicated – there is social housing, council housing, assisted housing and more, all with subtle differences. But housing benefit is simply a payment from the state to help people afford their rent.
Social cleansing
A provocative phrase usually used when a group of people considered ‘undesirable’ are murdered or forcibly evicted from an area. It darkly echoes the genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia, and of episodes in recent Latin American history when criminals and prostitutes were systematically killed. Of course, nothing like that is being suggested in London – politicians are simply exaggerating for effect.

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