Thursday, 27 November 2014

A very modern exodus - a local housing scandal

It took Hitler's Luftwaffe to provoke the last great exodus of people from London. First went the children, evacuated en masse to the care of strangers in the countryside, and then after the war whole families were relocated from the rubble of the Blitz to the post-modern New Towns of Britain's brave new world.

Fast-forward seventy years, and a new displacement is underway. But in 2014, people are being driven from their homes and communities not by bombs from the air but by the process of gentrification and the callous indifference of London's housing market.

Today's high-profile case is that of the New Era housing estate in Hoxton, which houses over 90 families at below-market rate rents. Earlier this year, the estate was bought by American property management company Westbrook Partners, who announced their intention to serve notice to the tenants, refurbish the flats and let them at market prices.

The Guardian contrasts the philanthropic spirit that conceived the New Era estate with the vulture capitalism that now threatens to tear it down:

Built by a charitable trust in the 1930s in order to offer working-class residents affordable private rented accommodation. Even when the blocks were sold this spring, residents say they were assured that the old tenets would apply. Within weeks, new owners told them that rents would rise to market values: spiralling from £600 a month for a two-bed flat to something closer to £2,400. That was meant to happen by summer 2016. After [Conservative MP Richard] Benyon’s firm pulled out of the deal last week, residents were told that Westbrook would accelerate the process.

But what seemed like a hopeless case of the little people versus corporate might has now started to attract attention, with a petition approaching 300,000 signatures in a matter of weeks, and Revolution author Russell Brand lending his support to the cause. Boris Johnson has also pledged to investigate, though it is difficult to see the Mayor of London making a significant intervention.

It must be acknowledged that the New Era residents have not always exerted themselves to enlist the support of the casual observer. Hyperbolic claims about being made "homeless by Christmas" ignore the alternative of moving out of the borough, and the suggestion that the Tower of London poppy display represented people who had given their lives for the sacred cause of socialised housing was opportunistic and crass. And in their indignation at the prospect of being forced to leave Hoxton, the campaigners also forget that there are many Britons who, by accident of birth, grew up outside London and never had the opportunity to enjoy subsidised housing in the heart of the world's greatest city in the first place.

But setting aside the human frailties exhibited in the New Era campaign, the remorseless and seemingly unstoppable process of gentrification and displacement raises difficult questions that now require urgent thought. Are we willing to accept the increasing homogenisation of inner London as a place for the one percent and the upper middle classes? How will we bear the social costs of an increasingly stratified city, where citizens are increasingly unlikely to work, rest, play - and so learn to empathise - with other people of differing financial circumstances? At what point is the marginal benefit of another luxury apartment building or soulless shopping precinct outweighed by the cost in human misery of uprooting entire communities from their homes?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Some purists would argue that the market must be left to function unmolested, the fate of the working poor be damned. Others, such as Russell Brand, would wave a magic wand every time the "American corporations" or other bogeymen of the left try to move in, always siding with the local residents but harming London's competitiveness in the process. Neither stance is helpful. And in the absence of a national or city-wide conversation on this thorny issue, the residents groups and development corporations go to battle alone.

This would seem to put the New Era residents at a distinct disadvantage, playing David to Westbrook Partners' Goliath. But people power has already achieved one important victory, forcing Westbrook’s collaborator Benyon Estates to withdraw from their involvement in the estate due to negative publicity. Westbrook themselves will prove a more difficult nut to crack – based in America, they have little cause to fear reputational or political damage inflicted thousands of miles away. But the New Era campaigners are gearing up for a fight nonetheless, seeking international solidarity by pointing out that Westbrook’s principle shareholders are the pension funds of low-paid public sector workers in America.

In truth, we all have a stake in this fight, whether we are homeowners or renters, urban dwellers or country folk. Every day, we bear witness to the immovable forces of globalisation and capitalism which are dramatically reshaping our world, and which our leaders frequently seem impotent to control. These forces may not be coming for our homes, our jobs, our own livelihoods – yet. But when they do, who will fight for us tomorrow if we fail to stand up for those like the New Era residents, who need our support today?

Samuel Hooper is a freelance journalist. He blogs at and can be found on Twitter @SamHooper.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Starbucks are at it again

The European Commission, the Brussels bit, have accused the government of the Netherlands and everybody's favourite multinational, tax-avoiding coffee chain - Starbucks, of cooking up some  cosy deal so the coffee shop pays  a very low rate of tax! This apparently is called a sweetheart deal.

So the Commission has launched an official investigation into the tax affairs of Starbucks, Apple and the car people Fiat.

These huge corporations are utterly shameless - they devote so much energy to dreaming up schemes that allow them to pay the smallest amount of tax they can possibly get away with, without the accounts department landing up in jail.

And then  they are so blasé about the whole bloody thing, I suppose it's just a disgraceful mindset they all pick up at accountancy college.

Now no one likes paying tax  but we all do: income tax, VAT, National Insurance, fuel tax, council tax.

So imagine you rang up HMRC (the taxman) one day and said: "I'd like to renegotiate how much tax I pay, this PAYE system is a bit harsh."

What do you think they would say?

That is exactly what corporations do - they NEGOTIATE with governments all over Europe over how much tax they are willing to pay. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tax thus: n. 1 a compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on personal income and business profits  or added to the cost of some goods, services, and transactions. Now what's wrong with that? I think the key word there is compulsory.

There are other countries that the European Commission are interested in investigating; Cyprus, Ireland, Gibraltar, Luxembourg and Malta.