Get your skunk here!

Observations on drugs

Just in front of Brixton Tube station in south London, not far from the police station, a number of informal drug shops have been set up at the bus stops. Men selling all sorts of drugs, but mainly the potent form of marijuana called skunk, advertise their wares only marginally more discreetly than market stallholders.

All day, every day, whether the street is full of mothers shopping with their children or teenagers on their way to school, the call is the same: "Skunk? . . . Weed? . . . Pills?" A shift system seems to operate, with younger boys holding the fort during the day and an older crowd taking over in the evening.

Are they trying to get arrested? I put the question to one of the dealers, who says his name is Walls. He beckons me into his "office", so I sit down on the bus-stop bench next to him. "It's not really about that," he tells me, thumbing an expensive phone. "Yeah, the police take us down and process us, but then you is straight back out again with any luck."

He peppers our conversation with foghorn-like cries of "Skunk! Skunk!", but though one elderly man gives a world-weary shake of his head, no one else seems to notice. So, I ask him, do you work in gangs? Do you get in fights with the men at the other bus stops? Is it all about "owning the street"? He looks at me as if I'm mad.

In the short time I have been here, three or four people have stopped to buy something, and, as Walls explains, this is what it's really all about. Not territory, not gang warfare, but money. And trade is booming at this commuter junction, where, by the look of them, nearly all the customers are middle class - commuters wanting a smoke after work, or students and young professionals on their way out clubbing or to a gig.

The middle classes can be two-faced when it comes to drugs. They like to consume them without restraint (cracking down on cocaine dinner parties figured recently on a Guardian list of "gaffes" committed by Sir Ian Blair) but affect to despise the dealers from whom they must buy.

And you can see that ambivalence on the street, the customer conspicuously drifting past several times until the vendor - who can smell the fear - subtly reels him in. The deal is negotiated, the cash changes hands, the goods are pulled from a bag under the bench, and the customer scuttles away as fast as he or she can.

The cash matters here. The customers may move on to jobs, families and better things, but the bus stop and its secondary purpose remain. Brixton is vibrant, fun, multi-ethnic and interesting, but it also has high unemployment, low educational achievement and a lot of crime. The skunk trade may be part of the problem, but it is still a trade.

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blogs plc

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.