Wednesday, 29 April 2015

It's grim down south

Andrew Fisher tells Croydon's story

In yesterday's Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a typically excellent piece on how 'It's not just the UK left behind by 'booming London'. It's Londoners too'. He focused on his native Edmonton, on the northern edge of London, but what struck me was how familiar this tale sounded at its southernmost edge too - in my native Croydon.

According to Trust for London, Croydon offers the lowest pay rates of any borough south of the river. The light industry that used to exist along the Purley Way is now replaced by retail and warehouses in much the same way as Chakrabortty describes for Edmonton. The only economic plan for the borough is more retail - with a new Westfield promised on the site of an existing shopping centre.

The future of high street retail is by no means secure - retail price deflation continues, sales staff are being replaced by automated check-outs, and consumers are shifting to online retail. Alongside the shopping centre, there will be a housing development, but only 15% will be 'affordable'. On the plus side, the local Labour council is committed to becoming a living wage borough.

In the ward where I live child poverty (after housing costs) is 32.6%, compared to a national average of 25.1%. While in nearby Selhurst - home to the Premier League's booming Crystal Palace - the child poverty rate is 41.4% (full UK data here). Last year Croydon had among the highest number of children (77) living in temporary B&B accommodation.

Housing costs are a major driver of London's poverty. Data compiled by The Economist shows that in Croydon's three parliamentary constituencies house prices under this government have risen by 39.5% in Croydon North, 29.3% in Croydon Central and in Croydon South by 20.8%. Pay across the UK is up only 7.5% over the same period.

House prices are rising six times faster than wages - so that now the average London home costs £502,000, while the UK average is £272,000. For comparison the median inner London wage is £34,500 (in outer London it's £24,200) while the median UK wage is just £22,000. So house price to wage ratios in London are now around 14.5:1 (inner) or an eye-watering 20.5:1 (outer), meaning even a couple both earning the median wage could not feasibly get a mortgage - they are priced out.

The story is no better for the increasing number of tenants renting privately. Last year Croydon had the eighth highest rate of possession orders (when landlords are granted the right to evict tenants) of all English local authorities - and the 2nd highest by number of orders. Around 1 in 20 of all Croydon residents are on the council housing waiting list.

It is no surprise then that due to the government's benefit cap and bedroom tax policies, Croydon residents have been particularly hard hit: with 2,908 hit by the bedroom tax and 400-500 by the benefit cap, which was piloted in Croydon. In recent years, the council has deported its own citizens out of the borough to Essex, Wiltshire, East Sussex and Hampshire.

Despite boasts by the local Conservative candidates - something David Hencke has exposed - in Croydon Central, the unemployment rate (as opposed to the claimant count) has barely moved over the course of the last five years dropping only from 11.6% to 11.0% by the end of 2014 - higher than the London average of 7.0% and the average across the country of 6.2% (data via Nomisweb).

Croydon is by no means alone - even in many leafier central or west London boroughs there are enclaves of poverty - of people damaged by booming house prices, on zero hours contracts, working in low paying, non-unionised industries.

Chakrabortty is right: "London has been painted as a success story: a land of duckers and divers popping champagne whenever their houses go up by a grand a month". That maybe true of the city's voluble elite - championed by London's buffoonish Toff mayor - but for millions of ordinary Londoners their life experiences are closer to those in the rest of country than they are to the City's gilded few.

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