The solution to loneliness in London? Rent controls and social housing

Petticoat Lane Market in 1971 and now. Pic: Rick Weston and Geograph

As Hackney and Tower Hamlets’ house prices soar, saying goodbye to family and friends is becoming the norm. In day one of our series, Is London Lonely?, we explore how gentrification breaks social connections

Lynsey Eames, 32, grew up in Hackney; she has a “deep love” for the area. “Despite its reputation for being crime-ridden, I had a very nice, although very poor childhood. The area was diverse in terms of race and religion. People were united by the common cause of being working class and not so well off, so they lived side by side in a big melting pot.” 

But not anymore: “The area has changed drastically and each time I return, it feels less and less like home.” 

From the age of 21, Eames was gradually forced further and further afield, out towards Leyton and Walthamstow; subsequently, for the last four years she has lived in Abu Dhabi. Although she plans to return to England in 2021, it will be to Chelmsford in Essex. Most of her childhood friends have also been forced out. 

Thanks to the citywide exponential rise in house prices in the past 25 years – caused by poor government policies and the capitalisation and exploitation of land value – the ELL boroughs, in particular Hackney and Tower Hamlets, are increasingly unaffordable places to live. The areas’ strong working-class communities are being priced out and left feeling cut-off from the place and people they once knew.

House prices in Eastlondonlines boroughs 1995-2020, source: Land Registry. Pic: Gina Gambetta

So what has this got to do with loneliness?

David Madden, professor of sociology at LSE and co-director of the university’s Cities Programme, explains how being pushed out of the area a person grew up in can lead to a great loss of identity and sense of place in the world. These imposed movements “cause massive disruption in terms of social networks and social infrastructure. Being displaced breaks up crucial social bonds that people really rely on.” 

Eames fears exactly this: “I do worry about moving to Essex, and I do feel sad that despite moving abroad and saving for so many years I still can’t afford to buy my dream home in Hackney – that I won’t be living near my mother and brother, I won’t be able to go to my church, or my dentist that I have had for 15 years. I do also worry that I might feel out of place elsewhere as I am mixed race and Essex is a predominantly white area. I recently married a Moroccan man, who is Muslim – I worry he will struggle in a not-so-diverse area, that maybe it will be hard for us to find halal food.”

Going further, a King’s Fund report concluded the loss of these networks would be as “powerful predictors of mortality as common lifestyle and clinical risks”  like smoking, excessive drinking, obesity, high cholesterol, and blood pressure.

Madden believes: “No one’s being displaced into better places to live. They’re being pushed into worse circumstances for the most part. And so, the process of displacement is almost always a process of dispossession as well.”

Additionally, it’s not just those who are being priced out of the boroughs who are feeling the consequences of this increasingly disconnected urban landscape. Those who remain no longer feel connected with their community; this can also lead to feelings of loneliness.

What were once working men’s clubs, family-owned businesses, and community centres are now “overpriced coffee shops and artisan cafes” according to Eames. “All of this is a façade, aside from pushing locals out, there has been no attempt to help the working class people in Hackney. There are still gang problems and violence and these things don’t go away just because we build expensive gated luxury flats or have a quaint little street market every Sunday on Chatsworth Road. On that same street two years ago my friend’s brother was killed by a gang in broad daylight.”

Madden explains: “A household or a community can be displaced without moving if a neighbourhood changes around them, and no longer serves their needs.”

Indeed, in a 2016 Residents Survey, it was highlighted longstanding members of the community felt “excluded” and “left behind” by these changes to the borough. Similarly, a survey by Vivo, which involved people rating the community spirit in their boroughs out of 100, left Hackney in the lowest 10/32 boroughs. This is despite Victoria Park, which lies on the border between the borough and Tower Hamlets (which also did not rank highly), being named by The Sunday Times as the best place in the capital to live, because of its “tight-knight community and (almost) affordable houses.”

However, Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor, a sociologist at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Urban and Community Research, emphasises: “There are still some wonderful places in the city, like street markets, for example Ridley Road Market in Tower Hamlets.” These spaces are crucial for increasing people’s social capital (their connections and networks) and combating loneliness – Rhys-Taylor describes it as “rubbing shoulders” with each other.

What concerns him is that these places, like the community clubs, are not very profitable and are increasingly battling with councils to halt their land being sold off.

So, what needs to change if we are to preserve the communities and spaces that protect Londoners against loneliness?

Madden concludes there needs to be greater rent controls, as well as more social housing, and greater attention needs to be given to community groups who are promoting cohousing projects. 

Rhys-Taylor also suggests that “assets of community value” schemes, which give communities a mechanism to try and protect important spaces, need “better legal teeth and investment.” They should also be open to applications from a wide range of places, including chicken shops, “which are maligned by councils but are really important for sociability, particularly for those on low incomes.”

However, councils’ budgets have been increasingly stretched due to cuts upon cuts from central government, so their ability to achieve even one of these aims is undermined.

“There is a danger of losing our heritage. I don’t want Hackney to become an area of exclusive gated highrises. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve an area, I just think it needs to be done with the inclusion of the residents, not at their expense,” says Eames.

This is day one in our #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here

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