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.
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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.