YUPPIES OUT! Living on the front line of gentrification in Brixton

On Monday hard-hatted bailiffs evicted 70 squatters from six Victorian mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road: my road. Is this really the price that must be paid for low crime rates and organic bread?

It was a Monday morning. It started not with a knock but with a battering ram: the crash of the bailiffs claiming their prizes.

There were crowds of them, hard-hatted, here to evict more than 70 squatters from six Victorian mansion blocks along Rushcroft Road: my road. Some had been living in the buildings for decades - quietly, their windows shrouded with sheets. We barely knew they were there.

The local authority, Lambeth Council, has plans to sell the buildings to developers for an estimated £5.5m - half of them earmarked for affordable housing - and for that, it needs them empty.

But the forced evictions became a flashpoint in a community that has changed almost beyond recognition in the last five years. Locals gathered in the street, catcalling as the first of the residents were bundled through the doors. Bins were set alight, windows broken, walls spraypainted. "YUPPIES OUT," they spelled out, one letter at a time. Then "BURN THE BAILIFFS".

It was a startling scene in an area now more commonly noted for its independent shops, the covered market, an art deco lido. There are pop-up restaurants and a Zaha Hadid-designed academy school, and it is regularly described in the property press as 'up and coming' or 'on the way up' or with other terms of bouyancy.

It is a poster-child for urban regeneration, much transformed - on the surface at least - since the troubled times of the eighties, when an alienated populace rioted in the streets and the nineties, when the name "Brixton" became synonymous with drug and gun crime. Certainly it is almost unrecognisable from the Brixton of even five years ago.

When I first moved here I was permanently penniless, a part-time photocopier with ink-stained hands. I found a room in the loft of a grand old house on Brixton Hill, sharing the kitchen with a friend and three invisible bachelors who kept to themselves. It was fun, lively, but best of all cheap.

Nightclubs were accessed through chicken shops, evangelists thronged the streets with their loudspeakers, the church yard functioned as an all-night social club for the down and out or simply insomniac. Once a man in a HMP Brixton jumpsuit politely requested that he accompany me to the nearest cashpoint ("What?" I asked, confused. Then when I realised I was being mugged, very gently: "Oh, no, thank you." He did not press the issue).

Since then Brixton's rise has been gathering momentum, overtaking me even as I clamber up my own career ladder. Take out shops closed, to be replaced by organic bread shops and wine merchants. Around the corner, a vegan cupcake shop.

It has not been a comfortable transition. Many feel alienated in an area they have lived for decades as the community identity is drowned out by this new concept of what Brixton is and means.

Inevitably, prices have risen. The average Brixton property now sells for £430,000 - up 25 per cent in a year, according to estate agents. Locals are displaced by the professionals, the monied, the university educated - pushed further from the centre or forced to work longer hours to keep their homes.

Meanwhile, pawnbrokers are springing up almost as quickly as the cafes: Sell your gold! Instant cash! Loans in minutes! Lambeth Council's housing list is now so overstretched it has suggested it could rehome homeless families 75 miles away in Margate, quite literally bussing the poorest out of the borough.

Bubbling resentments such as these can build up. Pressure releases in unexpected ways. Earlier this month, a bailiff was shot and seriously injured while attempting to evict a former nightclub bouncer from his home.

When Foxtons, the estate agents, opened on the high street in March, it was targetted by vandals. "YUCK," they wrote across the plate glass facade. And "YUPPIES OUT" again, the most common refrain. It became a symbol of gentrification - the 'Hoxton-isation' of Brixton, as the local blogs call it - and was forced to hire in bouncers. Last night a police van was parked outside the office, just in case the anger spread from Rushcroft Road across the square and through the windows.

This community which was so proudly inclusive and multicultural now feels uncomfortably stitched together. And never more so than today, as heavy set men affix metal shutters across the windows of my neighbours on both sides.

Like it or not, I was one of the yuppies that moved in. Our own block was squatted until 2003 when it was sold to a private developer, my landlord. My flatmates and I are conflicted: we miss old Brixton. But didn't we help form new Brixton, spending our money in the new shops, drinking in the pop up bars. And isn't crime lower, isn't the coffee better?

In any case, I'm moving out. I spend the night of the evictions packing my belongings into a borrowed car, uncomfortably aware of the contrast of my shuttling up and down the stairs with my bags and books as on all sides the contents of the squats are dumped unceremoniously from the windows onto the street below.

It's late night by the time I finish. Outside it is still hot, humid - sultry as a Tennessee Williams novel - and the sky is streaked red and pink. Some would call it sunset; others, sunrise.

Delicious but deadly? The upmarket end of Brixton market - Brixton Village. Photograph: Getty Images.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at www.calflyn.com and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

Show Hide image

Young voters lost the referendum but they still deserve a future

It's time to stop sneering at "crap towns" and turn them into places young people want to stay. 

What a horror show. A land-slide 75 per cent of young people voted in favour of Europe. The greater numbers of the over 65s met that force with 61 per cent against. Possibly the greatest divide in our country turned out to be not gender, not race, not even party politics, but age. The old and the young faced off about how to run our country, and the young lost. 
 
What have we done to our future? Well, whatever happens now, leadership is required. We can’t afford to have the terms of the debate dictated by Brexiters who looked as shocked at the mess they have made as Stronger-Inners are distraught. We can’t afford to wallow either. Young people across this country today are feeling worried and let down – failed by all of us - because when their future was on the line, we were unable to secure it. We – those who believe we achieve more by our common endeavour - all feel that deep worry, and all share in that shame.

How we should all rue the choice not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. And quickly re-ignite the campaign for votes at 16.

But young people don’t need our worry or our pity or our shame. They need a better chance and we need to give them one. I believe passionately that the future for this country was as a leader in Europe, but that does not mean we give up on our future now. For Labour, the challenge now is to work out how we can build a better future for all our people and communities. The sky has not fallen. The UK is still a rich country.

Beat recession with better housing

Let’s start with housing and development. It is no longer good enough to simply set targets with no possibility of meeting them. The housing crunch has killed off the chance of owning a home for many young people, and left thousands at the mercy of cripplingly expensive rent.  The housing market is broken and we need to build much faster in high growth areas like London and Manchester at the same time investing in restoring low quality housing in our northern towns, in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland. 

In policy terms, we should be asking the Local Government Association, the Infrastructure Commission, and the construction industry itself, to collaborate on a counter-Brexit house building plan with a focus on areas where there is a clear market failure. We could get a champion of industry and construction such as my old Network Rail boss, Sir John Armitt, to be in charge, and lead a national mission to build and rebuild homes.

In the last parliament, Osborne first tried the "tighten our belts" approach to speeding up growth. He failed, and then tried plan B: investment for growth. Now we have the possibility of another recession on the cards and may well need to use investment to stop our economy grinding to a halt. Now - or possibly sooner - would be an excellent time for a national building project like this housing plan.

Stop sneering at "crap towns"

On economic development, it is clear that Labour needs a strategy for giving our northern towns an economic future and linking them up with the modern economy. When cities grow, and towns fall behind, those towns are a breeding ground for frustration. This is not just about cuts, it is about the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was centred around areas that justifiably feel they have lost from the last decades. We need to make sure they win from the years ahead.

For far too long, there has been a sneering "crap towns" attitude. These places can offer good housing, community, and a decent life. But the problem there is work. In many of our towns, there is too little to do that can offer a young person a career tomorrow as well as a shift today.

Because, as it happens, the biggest driver of low pay tends to be skill level, not immigration. 

Teach the skills we need

Of course we should stop exploitation of migrant workers who undercut others. Let's tell firms that use exploitative agencies they can't work for the Government. But you can’t raise wages without changing the structure of the labour market. It’s not just about replacing one set of workers with another - you have to raise the level of wages that those workers can command. Because the truth about work in too many places is that most of the jobs available are either those with the low status of care work (though it may be highly-skilled work), or industries with a high volume of low-skilled work such as retail and hospitality. But from there, there’s nothing to move on to. The brain drain to cities has consequences.

Leaving Europe will shut off economic opportunity across the country to many young people.  Frankly, we owe it to them to work like demons to offer them something better closer to home.

We need a social partnership for skills and work. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress working together to deliver an urgent plan for training and career progression in the towns with stagnant labour markets and low skills. We need to find a way to stop the brain drain that sucks the talent out of the places that need it the most, using the experience of programmes like Teach First. When the best people feel they have no reason to return to where they grow up, it is both a sign of a deep problem and also demoralising evidence of decline for those left behind.

And our new metro-mayors must pay as much attention to the towns in their region as well as the city centre. No one left out, no one’s local shops lying empty whilst a city down the road flourishes. And no schools failing, either.

It is undeniable that people voted for change in the referendum. The problem is that the change they voted for will do little to solve the problems they face. Labour’s role is not just to point this out, but to offer a vision of real meaningful change. 

Not easy, perhaps. But one thing is for certain, mouthing platitudes about "hearing concerns"and offering only symbolic gestures has been tested to destruction. People deserve better and we need to offer it to them.

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.