In Context - London defies policy meaures

Sarah Teather is incensed by the Coalition's £500-a-week benefit cap, due to kick in next April. As Lib Dem MP for Brent Central, elected in 2010 with a wafer-thin majority, coalition minister for children and families until David Cameron reshuffled her to the back benches in September, she should know.

Her north-west London constituency ranges from Victorian villas in leafy Dollis Hill to deprived areas like Harlesden, with packed terraces of privately-rented housing, and Stonebridge Park with its huge public estates. Typical London, you might say.

And with the typical problem presented by gentrification in London: rising rents that threaten to push out poorer Londoners. The last relevant census figures date from 2001. Then, nearly half the constituents were born abroad. More than half were non-white. Less than half owned their own homes; 30 per cent were in social housing. And 18 per cent privately rented. The 2011 figures may reveal even starker figures.

Interviewed two weeks ago, Teather dramatically claimed that the cap will force thousands of her constituents out of their homes, out of her constituency and even out of London. The most drastic impact would be on the children, uprooted from their neighbourhoods, their schools and their friends.

There's a strange echo here of a half-forgotten controversy from half a century ago. In 1957, Michael Young and Peter Willmott published Family and Kinship in East London, a sociological tome that became an unlikely bestseller. They argued that the planning orthodoxy of the day, stemming from Patrick Abercrombie's 1944 Greater London Plan - thin out working class districts like Bethnal Green, decant their inhabitants to new towns - was wrong. Instead, we should rehouse them in their own areas where they'd continue to enjoy rich networks of traditional family and neighbourhood contacts.

Ironically, when Young repeated his survey 40 years later, he found that Bethnal Green had indeed dispersed to Harlow and Basildon, while the remaining inhabitants were bitter about mass immigration from the Indian subcontinent. So shattered was he by the results, that his co-authors published them only after he died. But that was the reality of Bethnal Green 1997 - and Brent Central 2012. That, precisely, is London: eternally churning, eternally defying any easy policy prescription.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London.


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