Tristan Bejawn
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A view from Brixton: how to bridge gentrification’s stark divides

A youth worker in the fast-changing London area on how to stop a community dividing.

One effect of gentrification in London is its creation of vast social disparities within tiny geographical areas. This phenomenon is the by-product of a capitalist logic: one that justifies urban regeneration by promising increased living standards for everyone. Yet in practice, it leads to the promotion of particular lifestyles at the expense of others, and the unnecessary separation of distinct social groups.

Graduates like myself, living in developing areas of the capital on account of their relative affordability and vibrancy, tend to lead parallel lives from the majority of people whose postcodes we share. We commute to and from different places to work, socialise in different bars and buy our food in different shops.

Consider Brixton, in south London, which at its centre has been transformed in recent years by new-build institutions like Pop Brixton. While self-identifying as a “community project” and doing well to host various Lambeth-based social enterprises in its Impact Hub, Pop still fails to attract crowds that reflect the diversity of the local area.

Meanwhile, spiralling rent in Brixton Village and the railway arches have led to cherished older businesses being usurped by more competitive, upmarket ventures – much to the protest of some.


All photos: Tristan Bejawn

Living in this heartland of the Caribbean diaspora is becoming less and less financially viable. Many families who have integrated and built intergenerational presences here – street parties, community organising and political protests – now find themselves overlooked by the influx of attention and new money pouring into the SW2 and SW9 postcodes.

When my friend and I moved into our flat in Loughborough Junction, on the northeast side of Brixton, in an attempt to combat the social division sketched above we started volunteering at Marcus Lipton Community Centre. Still shedding the skin of its former reputation, having been at the frontline of the violent gang beefs that plagued south London in the late-2000s (some of which sadly linger on today), the Centre serves a large footfall of local young people.

Its building rests in the shadows of Loughborough housing estate’s huge, white towers, whose lights are visible from our living room window at night.

On our first visit we were welcomed by Ira Campbell, the managing director, who warned that we would probably be suspected of being undercover policemen by the teenagers who spend their evenings at the centre. Sure enough, we received distrusting stares, kissed teeth and cold shoulders in response to attempts at conversation. But as weeks of consistent visits turned into months, we gradually became trusted additions to the community.


Ira, Rory and Ciaran outside the community centre.

In April 2016, we launched Hero’s Journey (using funding awarded by Brixton Pound), a weekly discussion group for teenage boys, which remains a formal slot in the Centre’s programme. In each session, we sit around a coffee table debating topics pertinent to the boys’ lives – like school, money and stereotypes.

Last summer, our group was invited on a tour of parliament, after which we took Ubers to Sloane Square for breakfast – chosen for being the part of London “where white people look down on us most”, as Shaq, one of the group’s most loyal members, articulated.

A month later, we hosted our MP, Helen Hayes, at the centre. She arrived alone, on foot, and patiently responded to the concerns voiced. After two hours the discussion had not moved beyond the topic of Lambeth police and stop-and-search procedures – reflecting its importance as the primary civic issue for the men, young and old, who frequent the centre.

In the crowds outside Brixton station, I have often recognised the faces of people who went to my school or university. Each time, it would remind me how small my middle-class world is. Now, I bump into young people from Marcus Lipton when I work out on the pull-up bars in Angell Town estate, or walk to the market to buy groceries – boys I know because they attend the odd Hero’s Journey session on a Friday night. I know which school they go to and which block they live in; whose brother is a footballing prodigy, or father is absent from their family home. I have found a close friend and mentor in Ira, who continues to educate me about the complex character and history of Brixton.

People moving into developing parts of London ought to reach out to learn from, and contribute towards, their local communities. There is no better way of doing this than supporting community centres, especially in the wake of budget cuts to these public services. The government is not the only agent responsible for remedying the divisive effects of urban regeneration. It is also down to us privileged few – who enjoy the socioeconomic freedom to move in and out of these areas as we please – to take responsibility.

Ciaran Thapar is a writer and youth worker in Brixton.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.