Roughly half of the boroughs 40,000 dwellings have been sold since the policy of

RTB took effect. In many ways the RTB is dependent upon a positive response by its

target population, renters from the council, and the use of discounts is a critical means

of determining overall levels of take up. With regard to Wandsworth it appears to be a

common assumption, particularly in the press, that right to buy policy has had the

effect gentrifying areas and that an owner rather than a renter or council house dweller

will be more likely to be a conservative voter. The housing director was asked his

view on this proposition, while supporting the commonly held view he confirmed the

inadequacy of such a simplistic analysis;

“There is the assumption, that I have never understood in quite a lot of

politicians minds, that an owner occupier is necessarily a conservative voter.

There is no proof to establish that -1 don’t think these things are simple”

However, in the minds of the press, and the then parliamentary opposition, the

association between the privatisation of the housing stock and political change was

unequivocal. In a piece which discussed the prospects of two councillors in the local

elections of 1992;

“Both [Labour councillors] argue that gentrification has slowed and will

therefore load the dice against them less than it did in 1987. Cox [a Labour

councillor] believes that the Tories cannot count on the yuppie vote. Rising

unemployment and the moribund property market have left them ‘very, very

bitter'” In the event this was not borne out by the election which saw a Conservative

candidate returned in Battersea.

Certainly the political changes in Wandsworth appear to be chronologically, and

persistently, related to the social changes in the borough. However, it is not possible

to separate out the political desirability of increasing the “yuppie right-wing voters”

from the locational factors that would have attracted them to that area regardless of

any discretionary policies used by the borough (The borough has witnessed increases

by almost 80% of those aged 25-29 while those between 55 and 74 fell by over 25%).

It is almost certainly the case that previously traditional working class areas do seem

to have had their majorities undermined by the influx of professionals and by the new

home owner council tenants. Whether such owners found it in their interest to ‘thank’

the Conservatives for right to buy or were worried that a Labour administration would

shut down such sales are other possible rationales for such political behaviour.

 

Other apparent factors help to account for political changes which appeared to

accompany other housing policies in the borough. Working class voters at that time

were of the opinion that Labour would only put up taxes. There appeared to be a

certain amount of alienation in such communities due to Labours opposition to RTB

and support of gays and ethnic minorities. Battersea was turned into a Conservative

ward with a narrow majority in 1990 after 52 years in Labour hands. The borough as a

whole has been Conservative run now for eighteen years. It may well be that RTB

provided an element of security in areas like Tooting and Battersea which were seeing

a huge influx of immigrant professionals at the time.

From an academic point of view, to equate RTB policy and processes with

gentrification is to obfuscate the issue considerably. Gentrification in this context

occurs when tenants who have bought their council home resell to those who have a

higher social status. RTB could never have been used as an effective direct policy in

itself to bring about the gentrification of an area by simply ‘upgrading’ council

tenants. Rather, it appears that the expected political, rather than social, shifts

produced by RTB are the underlying reason for considering it to be gentrification, that

some form of political ‘upgrading’ has been achieved through the act of purchase and

thereby implies a voting hierarchy – certainly the deferential working class vote would

support this idea. This distinction is essential to an understanding of the political

sensitivity of the subject.

 

In the final analysis gentrification’s core lies in a transition of occupier rather than a

change of tenure. Gentrification has also become strongly associated with

gerrymandering since Westminster in 1994 and it may be difficult to shake this

distortion of its meaning into a purely engineered political phenomenon. It is possible

to argue that the availability of RTB in architecturally attractive and well located areas

is an effective tool for gentrification (see also the debate that surrounded the

availability of tenants right to buy of housing association property in rural areas) since

tenants who buy in these areas may later find it attractive to sell and make a gain.

While this may be seen as beneficial to the tenants the reduction in the supply of

housing for those in need can be seen as disbenefiting other local residents and as an

opportunity cost in the form of exclusion from the locality and from housing provision

where such need could be satisfied by the availability of council lets.

Speaking to some officers it emerged that the pattern of voting was geared to a

calculated assessment on two levels of who was wanted in the picture locally and at

Westminster. Locally the incentive of zero or very low local taxes was enough to

encourage conservative voting in a wider spectrum of voters but at a national level

residents in areas like Battersea were perceived to return to more left-wing roots. This

studied affiliation to different parties for differing contexts is an interesting

contradiction, though remains rational, based on perceived local and national interests.

In Bedford ward, a large private sector estate, the Hever estate, a shift had occurred

from controlled tenancies to owner occupation and in Queenstown ward there was

anecdotal evidence from officers that the resale of council properties sold under RTB

had been sold on leading to gentrification in the area. Such patterns echo Murie’s

work (1991) which has examined such re-sales and their potential for being dubbed

gentrification.

RTB has the potential to facilitate gentrification in two ways, first, through the resale

of such property to higher occupational groups’ and, second, via repossession and

subsequent auctioned resale (a phenomenon which has yet to be quantified or

commented upon in relation to gentrification). This latter process could be termed

displacement, but not from gentrification per se, although gentrification would be

likely to result if cheap properties were being auctioned in desirable areas of

Wands worth.

 

Estate Privatisation

 

The sale of estates to private property developers, who then sold the units on, largely

to professionals, while tenants were decanted to other properties appears at first to be

a blatant form of displacement resulting from privatisation and a misuse of public

resources. To what extent could these processes be explained in these terms?

This kind of activity had begun in the early eighties and was used to raise revenue

from estates which had to be decanted to make way for repairs and asbestos removal

but were sold rather than reoccupied by council tenants. When asked about any

resentment that this may have caused it was argued that the estates were to be emptied

anyway and that all tenants were re-housed. It is not possible to speculate on the

degree to which community and kinship networks were harmed in this way although

there is little evidence of resistance to the proposals at the time. The officer also

pointed out that such sales would not occur today given that the housing market is less

buoyant and there is limited demand from developers.

The sale of such assets has followed the diminution of the role of the public sector,

schools, hospitals and so on. A hospital development for professionals was currently

being proposed for example but such developments may be a drop in the ocean

compared to the wider influx of professionals into the borough during the eighties yet

they are of considerable size in themselves and create focused symbols of polarisation

and separation from the surrounding community (Body-Gendrot, 1995).

 

The Priority Group Sales Scheme

 

Priority Group Sales Scheme (PGSS) was considered by officers to be unique to the

borough and operated as an extension to the RTB policy as a means of opening up

dwellings for purchase by borough residents where they fall vacant. In principle this

means that if a family were living in a tower block and wanted to buy, not their own

flat but a house, they could do so by signing up to a waiting list to do so. These

‘natural vacancies’ are used in fifty percent of cases to sell to such applicants with a

discount. This policy had accounted for roughly forty percent of total sales of public

properties in the borough (approximately 8,000).

 

It would seem that estate sales have altered the socio-economic composition of the

borough and further hindered the availability of provision. Indeed, the reduction in the

size of the public sector may have affected its ability to cope with housing need that

was generated by such policies in the first place. When asked about the nature of

PGSS and RTB schemes on the ability to cater for those in need the Director of

Housing commented;

“I cannot deny that mathematically if you’ve got one less dwelling to let then

you’ve got one less dwelling to let, but the counter to that argument; over the

years the problem of homelessness has been no worse in this borough, in fact

quite the opposite. Many boroughs haven’t the PGSS schemes. There appears to

be no correlation between the problems of homelessness in inner London

boroughs and here. But you can argue it many ways”

Of course, perceived levels of homelessness may be due to an outflow of residents to

more ‘benevolent’ boroughs, but this is not open to verification here. The system of

PGSS and RTB, although transforming the tenure structure of the area, could not be

held to account for either direct gentrification due to a variety of mechanisms of

control over allocation nor were they to be seen as examples of disbenefiting the local

community. However, it is difficult to imagine that a smaller public housing stock will

help in the borough’s ability to overcome housing need which itself is a product of

tenure and social changes observed earlier.

 

Area action and private sector urban renewal

 

The grant regime used to be linked more directly to the gentrification of property than

it is today. The crucial distinction in this sense is between pre-1990 and post-1990

systems because of the introduction of the means test at this time. Since to 1996

grants have been additionally restricted to the absolute poorest of households when

mandatory entitlement to grants was abolished (by reference to the fitness standard) in

an attempt to ensure that reduced resources could be spread further by discretionary

approval.

 

 

A key dimension of rehabilitation activity has been area programmes developed to

concentrate grant spending in key areas of structural and social poverty; General

Improvement Areas (GIA’s), Housing Action Areas (HAA’s) and, currently, Renewal

Areas (RA’s). Under the latest regime (post 1990) no RA’s have been declared and no

plans to do so were being considered (in fact only one London borough, Newham, has

any RA’s, three to date). Housing strategy statements indicate that earlier area action

alleviated poor property conditions to the extent that area action was neither required

nor possible through the current RA criteria.

It would appear that both grant and area activity had ceased to be prime factors in the

gentrification of property because of the means testing of grants, a break from

mandatory entitlement as a consequence of a revised fitness standard and the inability

to fulfil renewal area criteria. Prior to this, however, a different picture emerges. The

link between grants and gentrification has been noted (Hamnett, 1973, McCarthy,

1974) through an association with the movement of property into owner occupation

from renting and the displacement of tenants through the greater marketability of such

property after renovation. One could argue that one of the key questions regarding

urban renewal is how to avoid attracting gentrification or re-sale if projects are

successful.

The significance of area-based housing grant spending is in its ability to create what

Chambers has called “state facilitated tenure change” (Chambers, 1988) via a process

of tenure conversion, from renting to owning, and this was supported via the

examination of housing committee reports (see later). Clearly in such circumstances it

is unlikely that previous residents will be able to remain when this occurs suggesting

that displacement may result from area action and that this may in turn lead to

gentrification. It would therefore be inaccurate to suggest that gentrification causes

displacement in these cases and yet area action may act as a displacement motor prior

to gentrification as the opportunity to ‘upgrade’ becomes apparent.

Committee reports were examined relating to the assessment and closure of a number

of GIA’s and HAA’s in the borough and found that a regular outcome had been the;

 

 

“considerable evidence of a return of private sector investment in this area and

property prices are climbing markedly”

Although the increase in property prices might appear to demonstrate the success of

area action this will inevitably create a pressure in rented areas due to the greater

market returns that an improved environment brings. Indeed, landlord’s contributions,

since 1990, have been based on the increased rental return they will be able to obtain

after renovation is complete. It is more than likely that increased rents and the

decision to move will accompany such initiatives.

Over the period of 1981 to 1991 the number of professionals in the ward

encompassing the Shuttleworth Road GIA rose by 14.1 percentage points (i.e. the

second most ‘gentrified ward in Wandsworth). In the GIA owner occupation increased

doubled from 94 to 170 units while renting dropped by exactly the same number from

187 to 111 units. To suggest that displacement was not a corollary of this activity

would perhaps be untenable. By comparison on the completion of the Cloudesdale

and Penwith Road HAA’s tenure changes had lead to an increase in owner occupation

by 100 units (from 330 to 430) while renting dropped by 54 units (from 282 to 226)

housing association units went up by 51 (95-146).

In the context of the above one should remember that one of the stated aims of an

HAA was to ‘keep the community intact as far as possible’ i.e. to secure improvement

for the persons for the time being resident. In the Kimber Road HAA the then Chief

Environmental Services Officer wrote;

“What has been achieved is the reverse of the decline and a restoration of

confidence in the future of the area as is demonstrated by the increasing level of

owner occupation and the return of private sector investment. All of this has been

brought about without the destruction of the community and with the full

participation of local people”