Beyond the pale: York's urban rupture
Recently the BBC has been showing a series on The Secret History of London's streets, exploring the way in which the familiar and simple narrative of poverty to prosperity has shaped a city landscape. Here in York a similar narrative continues to colonise the city’s form, and all the while it burns holes in our social fabric.
The story of an ancient neighbourhood, York's Hungate area, is perhaps the most appropriate example. Situated just within the City's walls, with the Black Swan pub playing the part of pinfold, Hungate was (to put it bluntly) a slum. At the turn of the century (20th) along came a Mr Seebohm Rowntree - rich Quaker boy with an excellent eye for social analysis - who dissected the neighbourhood in his great Poverty. That study had a deep influence on later housing policy and sort-of-subsequently the people of Hungate were shepherded to Tang Hall, out-of-city council estate par excellence.
Fast-forward to 2012. We've had the post-war boom, Thatcher (boo), and a thirty year hegemony of market-based (with a little help from the State) development solutions. Hungate still has the Black Swan but it also boasts a rather swanky sounding building project. Dazzling blocks of flats are to be created, when they find the money, with a small percentage of 'affordable' housing which may or may not have to be dropped. Meanwhile, York is in the midst of a housing crisis that has been decried everywhere from the frappuccino-stained pages of The Guardian to the local Press. In particular, the York Welfare Campaign has been absolutely instrumental in giving precarious locals some kind of a voice on this issue.
Young people, young families, and the working class more generally are finding it impossible to get onto the housing ladder or indeed find a decent living space in the city. The past comes back to haunt here, as York's extraordinary heritage is commodified and living within the walls largely becomes the preserve of the wealthy, with those who help reproduce city life everyday unable to access property. The people Nick Clegg encapsulates in "alarm clock Britain" (people who get up in the dark and actually do real jobs, managing family life in-between the drudgery of toil) are increasingly being shafted from the cobbled communities.
This breakdown of city access is nationwide. In London we witness the Temporary Accommodation diaspora; vulnerable families made homeless by urban cleansing, a process allowed to happen because our social housing sector has been crippled, and moved out from their ancestral turf to the Midlands.
It's also worth noting that this is not the cleansing of lazy lumpenproles, being forced to stop scrounging, get on their bike and work, in the image of our dutiful Lords and Masters. The vast majority are in employment. They are us, they are the squeezed middle.
This grindingly depressive reality is backed up by a series of reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example this one, on the chaos of housing supply and the barriers to secure housing options for young people.
Through all of this we seemed to have disavowed the original purpose of public housing, that council housing was 'general needs' - a truly mixed community. That was the vision of Bevan and post-war Britain. Nowadays Plan B's satirical take on the word chav - council housed and violent - illustrates just how much the conflation of state-funded housing and anti-social behaviour has become rooted in the British mentality. A direct result of the carving up of social housing and the decline of general needs communities as first the Tories, and then all governments that followed, handed the market (again, with a little help from the State) a monopoly on aspiration.
We must not view the housing reforms of the 1940s and 50s through rose-tinted spectacles, in fact the seeds of its downfall were sown in the way that the slum clearances were carried out. People were shepherded en masse into council estates without a thought for the violence that was being done to community relationships, and without considering what sort of precedent this set for the dream of 'general needs' mixed communities.
Nevertheless, compared with the vacuous Big Society where all that is solid seems to melt into air, the audacity of these grand reforms was impressive. It was a huge hat-tip to public value over individual betterment within a minority class. What we need is something similar. A recognition of the right to the city and security of abode, that if you work long hours to reproduce urban life then you should have some kind of access to it, and a rejuvenation of general needs communities over gated neighbourhoods. Without radical urban reform and a more inclusive housing sector we might find that, in a few years time, Britain's working majority will be even further beyond the pale.