The social cleansing of London — and other capital crimes

Rowan Moore deplores the investment-only monoculture reflected in the city’s new building boom, but doesn’t know what to do about it

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century Rowan Moore

Picador, pp.488, £20, ISBN: 9781447270188

You have to get nearly halfway through this book before it starts to show some life. Until that point, as Rowan Moore ambles in his wry manner through pages of familiar description of the capital’s built and social history, you find yourself wondering what it is all for. After all, if you choose to write a book about the architecture of London you are putting yourself in some pretty distinguished company.

Ian Nairn, say, whose magnificently off-kilter, beer-goggled 1966 hymn to the city, Nairn’s London, has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic to universal acclaim. Or Peter Ackroyd, whose colossal 2001 London: The Biography is drizzled with lazy assumptions but is an eloquent advocate of the city as living organism. Or psycho-geographer-in-chief Iain Sinclair, walking the city to awake its memories. And then there is the author who Moore quotes so often that his estate might dream of retrospective royalties: the Danish academic Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose London: The Unique City of 1934 (first published in English in 1937) is a key work for architects, if little known by the public. Compile your own reading list on London, it will be a long and distinguished one. But to sup at this high table you have to bring something with originality and purpose to it. I can’t find quite enough of either in Moore’s book.

He is an excellent writer and critic for the Observer — a proper, engaged critic, not one of your preening narcissists. But as so often with us journalists, used to writing concise articles, he struggles to present a coherent narrative across an entire volume of nearly 500 pages. He divides his book into sections covering trade, public works, housing, planning, and (massive) population, each containing a number of sub-narratives. There is the sense of a loosely assembled collection of pieces strung together, of slightly forced links, of the lack of tight editing. He starts by describing London Zoo, and quickly you feel an analogy coming on, which duly arrives: ‘It is good for a city to acknowledge the beast in its nature and the possibilities of chaos over which its superstructures of enlightenment are built.’ Right now, he thinks that the acknowledged beast is too much in the ascendant. Let’s call this beast unbridled capitalism.

Vile buy-to-leave apartment towers snapped up by overseas investors? (Moore has a splendid phrase for these: ‘Lumps of speculation cast down from the computer of a time-starved architect’.) Our masters welcome them. Megalomaniac mega-basements for property wide boys and absentee oligarchs? Be our guest. Supposedly ‘public’ space which turns out to be security-guarded private domains where you cannot take a photo, let alone hold a demonstration? Look around you: these places are everywhere. Canary Wharf. Broadgate. Paternoster Square. Paddington Waterside.

All this has been dealt with in various earlier books by others — most notably Anna Minton’s Ground Control of 2009, which Moore acknowledges. But this is the point where his book finally gets a bit of fire in its belly, since Moore — a somewhat patrician type who, unlike his brother Charles of this parish, leans left rather than right — feels very keenly not just the shrivelling of the real public realm, but also the injustice of the social cleansing going on across the capital today.

He is right to. Much of the city is now unaffordable for normal Londoners, whether to buy or rent. Council estates within reach of the centre have been handed over to private developers who turf out tenants and right-to-buy leaseholders alike, weeping crocodile tears if they bother to weep at all. In their place come the usual ‘stunning’ developments of overpriced, undersized apartments which those evicted tenants and leaseholders cannot possibly afford. As Moore angrily points out, some of the most egregious examples, such as Southwark’s filleted Heygate Estate, where a long-established community was destroyed, are held up by politicans of both left and right as shining examples of ‘regeneration’. He sorrowfully observes: ‘The value of property skews human values.’ Of course London has been ruled and built by capital since forever, but it has also been a very variegated place. Now it threatens to become an investment-only monoculture, just as its population soars past its previous peak and is increasingly forced out to the very edges.

This has been stated often enough, but Moore gives some interesting chapter and verse: pity the hapless London borough of Southwark. Pity, too, Joanna Lumley’s and designer Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge project, justly excoriated here. And his (reported) descriptions of the city’s sex-club culture, including the leather-bar preferences of the out-and-proud former City of London chief planner Peter Rees, are reliably entertaining. But in the end, I still found myself wondering: what is the purpose of this book? It concludes with a manifesto which is really a wish list: more homes affordable to more people, simpler planning rules, fewer dumb towers, better planning departments. Apart from Moore’s opinion that parts of the green belt could actually benefit from being built on (a view now shared by many on both right and left), there is little to argue about here. He wants London to return to being a ‘slow burn city’ that renews itself through steady, planned change rather than being devastated as it currently is by rapid, ad-hoc growth. How to achieve this? The book concludes in a swirl of vagueness.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17. Tel: 08430 600033. Hugh Pearman edits the RIBA Journal and has written several books on architecture.

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Show comments
  • Kasperlos

    His observations re: monoculture is applicable to major cities worldwide. Globalisation has wreaked havoc upon our planet’s societies; it is literally sucking out the enrichment of life in favour of just rich. London at street level in many areas has about as much feeling as petrified wood. Perhaps a fitting symbol would be to replace the BT Tower with a statue of Baal, a clarion for all that ails London and elsewhere.

    • Prattly Ponsarello

      I’d never heard the term “social cleansing” before reading this article. It’s certainly something to think about. It seems to be happening all over the place. I’m posting from Canada where the two major cities, Toronto and Vancouver, seem to be experiencing the same phenomena.

      • Ozzy Guy

        Read up on how the E.U.’s Kalergi Plan aims to eliminate whiteness in Europe. The balderdash about the benefits of multiculturalism (and humanitarianism towards refugees) is just a diversion for the sheeples.

        Far fetched? Merkel won the 2010 Kalergi Prize…

        Nick Griffin blasts EU over European genocide:

  • Migru Ghee

    Two observations:
    1- the headline is misleading, it is the softcore form of ‘ethnic’ cleansing the peeps of London are experiencing.
    2- absentee oligarchs are best observed in good old NY, NY, the city that never sleeps (pah, ridiculous), where high rise residential is high yet the streets are devoid of said oligarchs or any other people for that matter, nowadays even in and around Times Square. Will anyone ever blame the gamblers and money parkers?

  • catnap007

    if you examine all the properties in the london area you will find only a small percentage in inner london satisfies the criteria for this article. A lot of london is still streets, houses and shops, and what is social cleansing? what rubbish, the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous British has been going on for decades. less than 50% are now indigenous British and social housing and housing benefit accounts for much higher numbers of people originating from africa, the middle east and the indian sub continent and don’t forget the massive number of illegals (over a million) living in garden sheds or some other squalor like rooms in “businesses” such as kebab houses !!!!!

    • OmnipotentWizard

      “British has been going on for decades. less than 50% are now indigenous British…” There is a tenancy on here for people to publish wild “facts” and when you ask for evidence they go very quiet.

      Do you have any evidence to backup this assertion?

      • ossettian

        According to the 2011 census 44.9% of the population of London was “white British”.

        • OmnipotentWizard

          So what about the non-White indigenous – what percentage are they?

          • ossettian

            A total of 5%were mixed, but that includes people -a small minority, clearly – whose white ancestry wasn’t British, and others with no indigenous ancestry..

            So less than 50% of people WHO COMPLETED THE FORMS -illegals clearly wouldn’t, and recent legal immigrants would be less likely to be willing or capable – had any indigenous ancestry, and nearly 5 years have elapsed.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            “In London in 2011, 45% (3.7 million) out of 8.2 million usual residents
            were White British. The number of mixed people went over 1m for the
            first time, too.” (ONS Website)

            I guess Maths is not your strong point.

          • Birtles

            And his/her original point still stands – in 2011, less than half of the population was ‘White British’. Rather than social cleansing, the bigger picture is ethnic cleansing, which, of course, includes an element of social cleansing. Neither is that development unique to London, with it also being the case in Leicester, Birmingham, Luton and Slough.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Poor attempt at a recovery Birtles. The fastest growing racial group in the UK is mixed race and the fast growing belief system is agnosticism – get over it.

            In a hundred years when a little boy (who is slightly darker skinned than you are) asks “I wonder if great-great granddad Birtles would have liked me?” What do you think the answer should be?

            The child will almost certainly be: agnostic, moral, law abiding and English speaking. He will be healthier & wealthier than us. He will be proud to be British. He will be part of you.

            Wizard Rule 5: It is better to be in favour of something that is inevitable as that way you will not be disappointed when it happens.

          • Ozzy Guy

            …and his name will be Mohamed…studying hard to be a Sharia lawyer.

          • Birtles

            I don’t have to ‘get over’ anything. Attempts at future predictions always go awry, even when masquerading as ‘scientific’ theory (i.e., Marxism). You have no idea what it will all look like in a 100 years time. Who predicted the full, genocidal, mass killing, horrors of the 20th Century in 1900? No one, neither Sorel, nor HG Wells, nor Lenin, nor Spengler. So, you are on very shaky ground when you write, ‘will almost certainly be’. Agnosticism is not, furthermore, a ‘belief system’. In fact, as you are aware the fastest growing ‘belief system’ in the UK, and particularly in England, is Islam. That is an issue, a serious issue for all of us. As for your statement about ‘mixed race’ being the fastest growing group in the country. Yes, that is true, however, ‘white’ people are the least likely to be in a ‘mixed’ relationship. This may well have a lot to do with the geographic spread of migrant groups, which, apart from Poles (and, earlier, Chinese) have a marked tendency to group in particular areas.
            You still haven’t acknowledged that the 2011 census showed that the ‘White British population in London was a minority population.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            “You have no idea what it will all look like in a 100 years time” The racial makeup is easy to predict. Even without more immigration the non-white people in this country will mate with the white people. Their offspring will be non-white and so the proportion of non-whites will increase with each generation. On top of that the World is manifestly becoming more global and so people are continuing to move around more.

            ” Agnosticism is not, furthermore, a ‘belief system’.” But it is an indication that belief systems are failing. There is a good correlation between wealth and falling religious adherence. And the World is getting richer with extreme poverty due to be conquered within 30 years.

            “A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades.” (Professor Hans Rosling)

            “In fact, as you are aware the fastest growing ‘belief system’ in the UK, and particularly in England, is Islam.” But way behind the growth is agnostics. Religion never survives in rich countries.

            “You still haven’t acknowledged that the 2011 census showed that the
            ‘White British population in London was a minority population.” Well it isn’t a problem it is just an inevitability.

            Welcome to the multiracial, peaceful and wealthy future.

          • Birtles

            You are wrong if you think the future is easy to predict, especially as far ahead as 100 years. Future predictions are dependent on existing, i.e., historical, patterns. The maintenance of trends depends on our old friend ceteris paribus. However, nothing is likely to remain equal. If, for example, one takes a few demographic case studies from the past, one can demonstrate this. Between 1780 and 1840, the Irish population rose from 3 million to 8 million, but, by 1926 it was only 3 million. Who predicted the combined impact of agricultural failure and political action (or, inaction)? Similarly, if we take the global population in 1900, the European world (including North America represented 36% of the world’s population. Countries like the UK had experienced tremendous population growth over the preceding century, while countries like India, although with a large population, were static in growth terms. So, it would have been a brave forecaster who would have said in 1900 that by 2000, the European origin population would only represent 15% of the world’s population. No one could have forseen the incredible advances in agri-science and medicine that the Western world achieved, leading the the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1950s-1970s, which enabled the explosion of the developing world’s population. I could go on, but, as you can see, predictive exercises on the basis of existing historical trends are pretty much a no go.

            I don’t know where your world view comes from – you could be a reborn Whig, a Marxist, or a Soros-like billionaire, but you are clearly utopian in your outlook. I would disagree with that position. Similarly, it might not be an issue for you that England’s capital has only a minority of English people in it, but it is for others. Nothing is ‘inevitable’.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            This is actually an interesting conversation now you’ve taken most of your closet racism out of the discussion Birtles. Maybe there is hope for you.

            In 1680 you could easily have predicted the next hundred years because things didn’t change much. And then the Industrial Revolution happened. Everything accelerated – population growth, scientific advancement, health, wealth, etc. This was pushed into a World which was largely still Governed by autocracies. Autocracies can’t survive as populations become more wealthy – China is finding this at the moment. So things exploded into almost constant and increasingly mechanised conflicts.

            Until 1945 the shear churn of all this meant things were unpredictable. But slowly out of the mess rose the Capitalist Democracy (and we did it here first) as the only system that could remain stable with a wealthy populace. All other forms of Government are now fading (there are only five Communist countries left and one of those isn’t really that communist).

            Things have slowed. Population for example:
            “The average number of viable children per woman is now about two globally. This means that all future population growth is now a result of increased longevity.” (Gapminder Foundation)

            Wealth & Health: They continue to improve in developed countries no not at the rapid rate of the past. However developing countries are catching up. We can see the middle tier (BRICS countries) are rapidly catching us. The next tier (MINT countries) are accelerating away from poverty. And as for the rest:
            “A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades. (Professor Hans Rosling)

            Now for the first time in two hundred years we can have a good crack at predicting the future.

            “I don’t know where your world view comes from -” You’ve tried to imply I am a Marxist several times which couldn’t be further from the truth. At least you haven’t mentioned the New World Order yet.

            The fact is that Regulated Capitalism within a Democracy is the only system that works. Global Capitalism ensures peace as “attacking your customers is bad for business”.

            Globalisation does and will require rules under which countries operate and so the UN, WTO, World Bank, etc are all necessary. Is that a World View – I’ve no idea. Is there a conspiracy by the NWO – humans can’t even organise a a trip for six people to meet in a pub for a drink without messing it up so don’t make me laugh.

            And remember:

            Wizard Rule 20: Any group of two or more people will be
            unable to keep a secret.

          • Ozzy Guy

            Sweden…Germany…Britain…the Kalergi Plan for the elimination of those pesky whites is humming along.

        • Ozzy Guy

          What’s a decade or two in the grand multicultural scheme of things…it’s downhill all the way from now on. Cor blimey chum…

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          That many?

  • Chris Bartelt

    There will be a Dr Bury moment…. and this thing will self implode. You can already see all the signs of a non sustainable growth… not self delusional upward pointing graphs, but real on the ground difficulties. This is going to be messy!

  • Ozzy Guy

    London…the ugliest city in Europe gets uglier.

  • Liberty

    Considering that only 45% of Londoners are now white Brits, then your angst seems overdone.

  • The Dybbuk

    And the focus on the ethnic mix of London invalidates the argument that few of any ethnicity can afford to live there? If the population were more white british it would in no way alter the fact that they would be being economically and socially cleansed rather than what you believe is the only one of note.

  • Ominous

    White middle class people are essentially paying for poor immigrants to live in London while they have to move out.

    • mickey667

      Explain that one?

  • Hugh Pearman

    Well, this interesting. I mentioned neither ethnicity nor immigration in my review.

  • mickey667

    I privately rent and have, over the past ten years, moved out zone by zone until i finally looked around and realised i wasn’t really in London anymore, was commuting an hour to work and really not enjoying things at all. So i;ve sodded off completely.

    I’d consider myself upper working class/lower middle class, paid a fairly average wage and simply cannot afford the place anymore.

    London has also become very bland. The centre has lost all its character and charm, stuffed with chains and over priced bland restaurants. Very sad