Dr Richard Wellings, the Deputy Research Director of The Institute of Economic Affairs in London joins the program.
The first issue discussed is that of the housing crisis and the effect of this on the middle classes. Dr Wellings says: “What we are seeing is – if you like – a squeezed middle class which is finding it really difficult to afford an acceptable standard of housing in London, and that is primarily the result of very restrictive planning controls which mean that not enough housing is being built in the context of an overall rising population. So wealthy people can afford to live there and poorer people can as well because they are getting support from the welfare state; they are getting public housing and paying a subsidised rent. But people in the middle are being squeezed out. Often these are people who have lived in London for a very long time, often they are the traditional cockney working class type people who gave the city a lot of character. …A lot of trades’ people have moved out to places like Essex, you see them making very long commutes every day, which are expensive, so they then have to charge higher costs to their clients. Once again it goes back to the housing market and the lack of new build, to the fact that regulations have stopped the city expanding its footprint despite the rising population.”
There is a problem with changing the status of agricultural and industrial land to residential land. “One problem is that it is very expensive to decontaminate brown field land. I believe the bill for the Olympics site, which isn’t that large an area, maybe one square mile, was around £I billion, just cleaning the land. Often these brownfield sites aren’t in very nice locations either. They are often on flood plains, because that’s where the industry was built, along rivers and canals. It’s much cheaper to develop green field sites on the edge of the city and along rail routes for example, but this is prohibited by policy.”
There is, of course, a large green vote which is adamantly against developing the green belt [a circling strip of countryside around London]. Dr Wellings comments: “It’s a bit of a myth that all green belt land is in beautiful countryside; a lot of it is not very attractive scrubland, often semi-derelict on the edge of housing estates. So this type of all-encompassing green belt policy is doing as lot of damage to the supply of housing.”
London has always been a city of great contrasts. Host John Harrison says he remembers the slums in London when he was growing up there in the 1950s, at the same time as the abounding opulence of the houses of the very rich, and asks if the situation is very different now. Dr Wellings comments: “I think in some ways there are similarities. There are similar problems in any big city, but in some ways, London is fairly unique. It is similar to a place like New York in that it is one of the key global financial centres, and that brings with it particular extremes of wealth. The London rich do demand a particular kinds of services which are often provided by low wage labour, so that creates polarisation.”
The present dislocation of the middle class is creating a sense of anonymity, and the destruction of local communities: “that breeds crime and anti-social behaviour’ says Dr Wellings. “These are typical of many other cities of course, … also the rise in the rental section and the fall in home ownership, that has also had an effect on the destruction of communities because with the rental section you have people moving in and out of houses, they don’t put down the same roots in an area as people who buy properties do.”
Dr Wellings explains how the demographic shift taking place in London is changing the political face of London. “We see the changing demographics, with a rising share of London’s population being from black and minority ethnic groups, and these groups tend overwhelmingly to vote for the Labour Party in elections. It is becoming Increasingly difficult for the Conservative Party to control London, and it is gradually being pushed to the outer suburbs. This is a massive change and is likely to carry on for decades to come. …this is a very difficult dilemma for the Conservative Party. Do they risk moving towards the Labour Party and then risk losing their core vote in the Shires? …The bigger problem for the conservatives is the so-called ‘NIMBY’s’ the ‘not in my back yard brigade’ who dominate the areas just around London; they are really anti any new housing in their areas because that would devalue existing properties. They don’t particularly want their nice exclusive villages to be devalued with more houses or outsiders moving in.”
The Conservative Party, in this respect, can be accused of being interested primarily in keeping itself in power rather than in the long term future of the country. Dr Wellings comments: “I think that is fair comment, it is a change from the Thatcher era when the conservatives were deeply ideologically driven, in contrast with today or even from David Cameron’s time, when it has been much more pragmatic and really the majority of Tory MPs — you could probably describe as Blairites who don’t really believe in conservatism, they certainly don’t really believe in free markets either.”
Dr Wellings does say, nevertheless, that he enjoys living in London, sort of: “I enjoy the the opportunities for events and culture and so on, but at the same time the hassles do get me down, the long commutes, the congestion, it’s a nightmare to drive anywhere, but I think as long as you can get out of the city once a month, it’s tolerable.”
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