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Cities under a Conservative government – Stress, Division and Dissent?

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.

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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.

When the need for social justice is belittled as politics

Academics working in the social sciences often wrestle with how they present their arguments and data on social problems. To draw attention to housing need, violence and victimisation, family stresses, indebtedness, food banks, mental health problems and many other social problems is also necessarily to state the need for action to address issues. This takes research into the realm of the political and it is important for us to try and distinguish between the desire and recommendation for action and intervention (focused on the strategic distribution and organisation of resources to deal with social and economic problems that we might describe as the very work of the political domain) from more overt and partisan calls.

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For some this often makes social research appear to be necessarily of the political left. Certainly it can and should be for an on the marginal, the dispossessed and the excluded (though there is plenty of reasons we should include the wealthy, forms of state and corporate crime and deviance in such work). These seem self-evident truths to those working in academic research, that such work should be used to change and improve the social world around us. Yet this point raises important questions about the identity of researchers and the deeper terrain of assumptions that lie under the current political landscape. At this time, to examine one such elephantine object, we are told that we can have any policies as long as they cost less and involve doing more with fewer resources. This default position has come to occupy the mainstay of almost all assumptions within the fields of our news media and daily politics. For many on the political left this fact alone renders social science a more marginalised and apparently critical or ‘radical’ area of investigation and social commentary. The normative assumption that we cannot afford forms of social insurance, healthcare, education and so on, have arguably been one of the most effective spectacles of mass deception and our increasing collusion in an immersive framing of public life that suggests it is both unsustainable and ineffective.

This ideological invasion of our collective subjective frameworks works so very well because there is so little effective opposition and galvanising ideas on the left where we might see counter-narratives, spaces and modes of organisation that offer alternative and more egalitarian promises that challenge the unprecedented inequalities we now see at a time of such social distress. This situation is changing. Further leaps toward commodification of municipal services, privatisation of space, invasive surveillance and policing, political and corporate corruption and the self-evident land and resources grabs of monolithic business entities without social responsibility appear to generate stronger pushes back against these attempts.

Social research requires us to think, respond and advance ideas, critical views and empirical research that speaks for marginal groups and social problems that should puncture the comfortable worldviews of many policymakers – ‘right’ thinking people and those who see little relationship between private affluence and increasing public squalor. When the need for social justice is belittled by claims that it is in some way partisan, biased or ‘political’ we should be quick to say who our work is for and why – it is for all of us and to suggest otherwise is itself a form of misdirection. At a time when the social sciences face further cuts the capacity to monitor and publicly inform on social problems becomes increasingly challenging, but surely that is the point. Or is that a political argument to make?

A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich By Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield

Originally on Critical Urbanists blog, 20th November.

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It has become hard to read the popular press without finding a newspaper article or accompanying opinion piece on the massive changes being wrought on London’s property market. There are two stories at play here. The first focuses on the many thousands of households living in housing stress – finding it hard to keep-up with their rents or mortgage payments – and those who are struggling even to get a home of their own – manifest as massive waiting lists for social housing, bidding wars for rental properties and house prices that exclude many. There are now more than 380,000 households, not people, just on waiting lists for social housing in London. This story has long been a feature of life in London, given the cost and scarcity of housing in the capital; but it is also related to a second story that is the focus here. At the same…

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