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Foreign investors aren’t to blame for London’s housing crisis

30 September 2016

12:45 PM

30 September 2016

12:45 PM

I hate gentrification; my area was so much cooler when there were people openly selling drugs on the high street, my neighbours’ house had a mattress outside and the nice restaurants needed bouncers so the diners weren’t constantly harassed by crack addicts. Now it’s all just nice coffee shops, other broadsheet readers and arthouse cinemas.

But don’t worry, for the Mayor of London is on the case, launching an inquiry into how much London land is being bought up by overseas investors and, as the Guardian reports, ‘the scale of gentrification and rising housing costs in the capital‘.

Sadiq Khan says there are ‘real concerns’ about the surge in the number of homes being bought by overseas investors, adding that the inquiry would map the scale of the problem for the first time. ‘It’s clear we need to better understand the different roles that overseas money plays in London’s housing market, the scale of what’s going on, and what action we can take to support development and help Londoners find a home,’ Khan told the Guardian.

I have to admit to never understanding why gentrification is seen as a dirty word – who wouldn’t want their area to have nicer shops, better maintained houses and more neighbours in work? Is it because anti-gentrification is seen as a symbol of coolness?

What I imagine people hate is not so much gentrification as expensification, but even non-gentrified parts of London are now unaffordable, so you can’t even live in those areas where people are openly selling drugs. It’s a mess, and a social catastrophe; middle-class people are forced out, working-class people are forced to go to Shelter, the homeless expansion around the Strand looks like Gotham City.

But what is the purpose of the Mayor’s inquiry, when most foreign-owned homes are being used and the number of empty properties is actually tiny (I used to believe that myth, too). This is surely just classic black hat-white hat thinking: poor immigrants good, rich foreign property owners bad. He’s addressing a tiny part of a problem while ignoring the bigger picture, because that contradicts the party’s guiding philosophy.

This is the same mayor who earlier this week called for London work permits so the capital doesn’t lose out on the best foreign talent. That’s great, but under Labour an extra 4 million people settled in this country, and pressure on social housing in London has become particularly acute. There are many factors driving housing costs, but mass migration is a considerable one; but it’s easier to blame those foreign investors.

Whenever I see a millennial’s lament about housing in London, I first type into the search box ‘immig’ to see if they have included a reference to anything to do with immigration in their article. Nine times out of ten, it will come up empty. Then I’ll click on their byline and find another article demanding free movement because all young people are citizens of the world.

Sure, we could build more homes on the green belt, although there are huge infrastructure costs involved and there is now considerable evidence that commuting puts huge downward pressure on people’s levels of happiness. So we’ll all be miserable commuting every morning from Zone 17 in Northamptonshire and, in the words of Victor Hugo: ‘Others shall have our fields, our paths and hiding places/our wood, my beloved, now belongs to strangers.’

Personally I favour densifying London, although this probably won’t come close to meeting our needs; probably the best option would be for planning to be totally devolved to a regional level, so that the capital could opt out of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and give Londoners more free rein to build up. In the meantime, so long as we have huge levels of migration into the capital, combined with our current planning laws, things are only going to get worse.

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