© Martin O'Neill

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Back in 2010, the council in the north London borough of Islington, set up a Fairness Commission. This was a consultation exercise to explore ways in which the quality of life in the borough might be improved by making it a “fairer” place to live and work. Central to that task, the commission declared, was tackling inequality, particularly of income and wealth.

One of the papers published by the commission enumerated in extravagant detail the scale of deprivation and inequality in Islington. Measured by the government’s index of multiple deprivation, for example, the borough was the 11th most deprived area in England. (According to more recent figures, it is now 26th.)

Yet, “rather perplexingly”, the authors of the report noted drily, “despite being one of the most deprived local authorities in the country, Islington ranks highly nationally on a prosperity index too”. Among owner-occupiers with a mortgage, for instance, the average household income was nearly £100,000. In fact, the authors observed, “it has become rather clichéd to say that Islington is a place where rich and poor live cheek by jowl”.

A cliché, perhaps, but it is a picture that many inhabitants of the capital, not just those who live in Islington, would recognise today — formerly dilapidated and insalubrious residential streets made pristine by private capital abutting frequently run-down public housing inhabited mostly by those on low incomes.

This collision of private affluence and public neglect was brought home with horrible vividness in June by the fire at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington which killed at least 80 people. As David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, put it, the tragedy at Grenfell, the blackened shell of which is visible from the immaculate Georgian terraces of Notting Hill and Holland Park, shone an unforgiving light on some deep social divisions. “Like the US and Hurricane Katrina,” he said, “this country suddenly got a window into the lives of one group of the population that relies absolutely on the state for where they live, the conditions in which they live, and safety and security.”

Trust for London, a charitable foundation, and the New Policy Institute, a think-tank, have analysed deprivation in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. They found higher than average levels of poverty and reliance on out-of-work benefits in the north of the borough, where Grenfell is located. Mean household income across the borough, on the other hand, was £116,000 a year, the highest in London. Earlier research by the same organisations found that Kensington and Chelsea was the capital’s most polarised borough, with more than half of benefit recipients living in the most deprived quarter of neighbourhoods.

These statistics are certainly arresting and cement the impression of wealth and deprivation jostling “cheek by jowl” in inner London. But they are not the whole story as far as inequality in the capital is concerned.

Historically, inner London has had higher poverty rates than the periphery. Think, for example, of the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty drawn up in the late 19th century by the industrialist and social reformer Charles Booth, which ranked neighbourhoods from the “vicious [and] semi-criminal” to the “well-to-do” and wealthy. Or, 60 years or so after Booth’s endeavours, the novelist Colin MacInnes’s chronicles of life in the slums of Notting Dale, subsequently razed to make way for housing estates such as the one on which Grenfell Tower was built.

However, as Tony Travers, a professor in the department of government at the London School of Economics (LSE), said in a report on housing and inequality in London published last year, over the past decade or so the “poverty map” has been turned inside out. Rising housing costs have made inner London increasingly unaffordable for people on lower incomes, leading to a rise in poverty rates and in the numbers working in low-paid occupations in peripheral boroughs.

This shift in what sociologists call the “spatialisation” of inequality has been under way since the turn of the millennium, but it accelerated in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. Between 2008 and 2013, the share of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods found in outer London grew significantly.

The principal factor driving this redistribution of poverty and inequality is London’s housing crisis, notably housing costs that swallow ever larger chunks of discretionary incomes and a contraction of the social rented sector. The proportion of households living in public housing fell in the 10 years to 2012, with a concomitant rise in numbers renting privately. The latter change was especially pronounced in outer boroughs.

There is a compelling case for the Greater London Authority and the boroughs to build more housing more quickly. But, as the Grenfell disaster showed, London’s housing crisis is one of quality as well as quantity.

Not only was the refurbishment of the tower catastrophically botched, with deadly consequences, it was carried out with scant consultation between residents and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which ran the block. Residents complained of being ignored and, worse, of being treated with “contempt”. One local campaigning organisation, the Grenfell action group, charges KCTMO with having run “roughshod” over tenants’ interests for years, and for resisting accountability and scrutiny, even after the fire.

The pattern is being repeated across London as other boroughs investigate the safety of their own tower blocks, and residents find that their voices count for little. In August, for example, the ripple effects of Grenfell were felt in Peckham, south-east London, when residents on the Ledbury Estate were told to leave their homes after checks revealed that four 13-storey blocks were unsafe.

Southwark council, which owns the blocks, announced that it would have to “temporarily decant” them (ask residents to leave, in other words) to carry out remedial work.

Richard Lee, who lives a mile or so from the estate and belongs to a community group called Friends of Old Kent Road, says residents are fearful of what is in store. “Tenants are quite suspicious of what’s happening at Ledbury. This is where voice and participation come in. It’s very clear from Grenfell that the local residents felt completely powerless.”

Lee’s misgivings are echoed by Fabien Cante, a PhD student in urban studies at the LSE who, until recently, lived next to door to the Ledbury on the Friary Estate. He describes Southwark’s consultation with residents over its action plan for the redevelopment and regeneration of the area along Old Kent Road as “entirely deficient”.

Like many critics of the regeneration projects that are taking place all over London, and that often involve the populations of large estates being “decanted” for the duration (often outside their home boroughs), Cante worries that they are part of a “longer-term trend in which social housing is no longer considered to be positive but a liability”. Indeed, private developers involved in regeneration often seek to reduce the amount of “affordable” housing they offer when costs rise. But others, including Travers, argue that in straitened times, councils often have little choice but to try to capture benefits from such projects.

The intractable quality to these debates arguably reflects the sense that anxieties about fairness and inequality in large cities like London with highly mobile populations will always be with us. Which is not to say that government, national and local, should not seek to mitigate them where it can. It can start by listening to Londoners. “This is an acute moment,” Lee says. “What does estate regeneration mean? What is the voice for council tenants?”

In 1931, nearly 80 years before the Islington Fairness Commission was convened, Hugh Green, the town clerk of Finsbury (which was absorbed into Islington in 1965), set out what he saw as the main tasks of those responsible for the administration of the capital: “To preserve and foster [London’s] influence [and] to redeem its faults and ennoble its reputation amongst the peoples of the world.” The “faults” and shortcomings Green identified may have changed, but the challenge he described has not.

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