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Opinion

Gentrification pleases the investor but does nothing for the people

A visit to his old neighbourhood of Notting Hill has John Bird despairing. It shows why we have to think to the future, he says.

Last week I went back to Notting Hill where I was born and whose slum streets have been transformed through gentrification into a kind of gracious place of wealth. Showing a colleague around, they could not believe that these splendid streets were once in one of the worst places in Great Britain – as it was then referred to – to raise a child.

What a reversal. One of the most extreme forms of gentrification and social improvement imaginable. The school that I once attended, a small, almost village school, is a house now probably worth £20m. Fortunately the church building next door is still in the hands of the church and has not been converted to luxury flats. But I can imagine, if the church decides there are not enough attendees and it becomes ‘prime real estate’, that some smart alec property chap will find a hundred tenants to reside there in some redeveloped form.

It was depressing to return and I was gripped with a sense of unhappiness. I have decided that I cannot return to Notting Hill except under duress for the foreseeable future, because it makes the world look increasingly sick and incurable.

How do you cure the tenacious increase of land values as expressed through property? The modern Notting Hill is a sign of not just the times, but of what goes wrong when there is no government responsible enough to take care of the future of our cities. Driven always by the spurious thing called ‘market forces’, land and buildings – and therefore cities – can be transformed and gutted, emptied of certain people and filled up with others, and the government and its local authorities cannot do a blind thing about it.

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Alas we have progressed so far down this road that cities and communities can be bought and sold. That community and people matter least. That it need not have been like this is obvious: if there had been safeguards, and a sense that people had the right to live in the communities that protected them from financial expulsion, then we might have a healthier terrain.

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And if governments had actually legislated for better education for all, and increased the skill base of the working classes at school before they left for their labours in the marketplace, then we might have had a chance to skill people away from poverty.

But the UK has, as I have said on other occasions, always done much of its money-making around property because of a timidness on the part of investors to invest in new businesses and new industries. With many so-called ‘star’ business people hiding in their property portfolios because that’s where you make the big bucks in the UK.

I was in Notting Hill to make a short film about my Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords. Imagine if some decades back we had had a government which understood that future generations needed to be protected from the evils of the current property market. What a different world we would be living in. Or if someone was thinking of the evils thrown up by the internal combustion engine and the effects it has on the quality of air in our urban areas.

Or someone asked the question in government about the effects on nature and the countryside of cutting down biodiversity and of mass pesticide use.

You see now, if you sit in either Houses of Parliament, how we are always playing ‘catch-up’ and trying desperately to ameliorate the damage done by the former, unguarded modernisation of cities and countryside in the interest of profit over social content.

The pandemic should put a big question mark over how we act in the future.

So imagine what you could do with a Bill such as the one I have going through the Lords, and then hopefully on to the Commons: set up a government of the future now, and not simply pootle into the future as if it can be more of the same, and then have to spend most of our time mending the damage wreaked by the past on the present world.

Of course now we have the economy-stopping effects of the pandemic, and that is a bad wind that has hit us and the world hard. Except of course for those that can ride it out, mostly property owners and internet sales conglomerates.

The pandemic should put a big question mark over how we act in the future. And how we stop the short term and the erosion of our freedom to exist in communities because they are soon to be marketed differently, and the value thus increased.

I went into a Notting Hill house a few years ago and was astonished to be returning to a house that I used to deliver wooden boxes to from the Portobello fruit and veg market nearby. An old lady I brought a box to lived in two rooms on the ground floor. The house was alive with very poor people who occupied all the rooms. But when I went back 50 years later the house had been manicured into a single dwelling.

There is something going seriously wrong when we don’t address the big changes which, over decades, operate to please the investor but do nothing for the people.

Sorry, Notting Hill makes me want to pull it all down and start again.

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue

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