Published: 12th Mar 2020

The story of gentrification in the UK has run parallel with racial tensions and migrant displacement, writes Raoul Walawalker, features writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of OISC accredited immigration lawyers.

While scrutiny has understandably focused on the impact of the government’s recent bid to show its commitment to toughness on immigration – introducing major restrictions on migrants seeking lower-skilled work – gentrification remains an ongoing, less public cause of displacement of migrant communities.

While not regarded as a government strategy, there has nonetheless been an awareness of the process since long before overt displacement plans such as Theresa May’s Hostile Environment policy. Tacitly, it has contributed to displacement over a much longer time.

The Notting Hill story

The term ‘gentrification’ was first coined in 1964 by the sociologist Ruth Glass, at a time when Britain was still recovering from World War II. Inner cities were still blighted by the extremes of slum poverty as well as bombing damages to buildings, mostly in poorer, industrial city districts. There were chronic, widespread needs for renovation and new social housing plans. Notting Hill was among the most blighted areas.

In 1960, Glass completed her book ‘Newcomers: The West Indians in London,’ exploring discrimination being faced by Caribbean migrants who had settled in the UK. The book was published two years after the notorious race riots in Notting Hill that occurred after white gangs attacked Caribbean migrants newly resident in the area.

While authorities at the time attempted to limit blame for the violence to youth hooliganism; in truth, the area’s rampant crime, poverty, slum landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, and acute housing shortages along with widespread (“no Blacks, no Irish, no animals,”) housing discrimination were all major incendiary components.

A year later in 1959, an unforeseen recompense for the racial attacks emerged in what would become the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the UK’s biggest annual symbols of celebration of cultural diversity in defiance of racism, all the more significant as Notting Hill was simultaneously becoming the headquarters for nearly all of Britain’s Fascist and far right parties, including the White Defence League, the National Socialist Movement, and later the BNP.

With racial tensions simmering, it was a few years later, in her book ‘London: Aspects of Change’ (1964), that Glass coined the word ‘gentrification’ to describe how working-class areas of London (including Notting Hill) were being “invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower,” leading to the “displacement” of the original working-class occupiers and “changing the whole social character of the district.”

Priced out

Glass’ term of ‘gentrification’ is pointedly suggestive of both class conflict and exploitation, reflecting how numerous white, middle-class and ‘trendy’ people in the 1960s – not altogether dissimilar from today’s well-heeled ‘hipsters’ – were able to buy into London’s cheap and neglected, traditionally working-class areas.

Through having the means to afford costly renovations, they have gradually turned London’s poor inner-city areas into today’s successful financial investment portfolios, with the working-classes permanently priced out of their areas of birth.

Less implicit in the term though, is gentrification’s almost immediate effects on the housing, living costs and small businesses of migrant populations. This particularly impacts asylum seekers housed in gentrified areas who find themselves faced not only with the possibility of deportation from the UK, but also with the likelihood of internal displacements while in the UK – all while experiencing hostility from locals which at times mirrors Notting Hill’s strained past.

Today’s Notting Hill is held up by differing parties as a case study of not just gentrification but ‘super gentrification’ due to its Cinderella-like transformation into what is now one of London’s most affluent and fashionable neighbourhoods; home principally to celebrities, city bankers and traders, and, until not long ago, the ‘Notting Hill Set’ of Conservative grandees formerly running the country (Cameron, Osbourne, Gove).

With the last of Notting Hill’s slums occupied by the working class demolished by the 1970s, the 1980s saw a relentless onward march of gentrification, with house buying and renovation driven by wealthy newcomers who were attracted to the favourable location and the popularity of its affordable, spacious houses. This, combined with a growing perception of the area as trendy and cosmopolitan, saw house prices rocket.

Modern times

By the 2000s, the loss of independently owned high street businesses and their replacement by corporate chains had ironically become the most common complaint of trendy residents. Yet the area’s complete change in character disproportionately hurt BAME and migrant communities; in a 2011 census, it was revealed that the number of Black British residents in the area had plummeted by as much as 46% over the preceding ten years.

The connection between gentrification and such marked declines in BAME communities isn’t unique to Britain. Buzzfeed recently drew up revealing maps of neighbourhoods across the US cities of New York, Atlanta, Oakland, Baltimore and Washington DC, showing the sharply zigzagging trends of Black and Latino populations moving out and white ones moving in as a consequence of gentrification.

In the UK, the story of such neighbourhoods and Notting Hill finds parallels in numerous areas that show cycles of ethnic communities being initially met with tensions, seeking to exist entrepreneurially through ranges of locally popular cultural offerings of food, markets, music, clubs, shops and restaurants in poor areas, only to then be existentially threatened over time by being forced or priced out of property markets.

Among affected areas we can find the process happening currently in neighbourhoods in Brixton, Battersea, Kensington, Southwark, Tower Hamlets. Through a court ruling last year, North London’s migrant Latin American community represented by the Latin Village in Tottenham’s Seven Sisters now faces displacement, and areas of Manchester and Cardiff, to name a few.

Solutions are regularly discussed by councils. Community Land Trusts, which would see communities acquiring land and offering affordable leases, seems one of the more promising buffers for affected areas.

However, essentially, little could be expected to deter the fundamentally opportunistic, money-driven nature of capitalism and property development that gentrification represents, short of concrete schemes to value communities enough to protect them from the otherwise implacable nature of market forces.

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