Big Capital: Who is London for? by Anna Minton book review

“Can you tell me where Emery Wharf is please?” asked the young Chinese woman with an air of despair. “Google Maps works in Hong Kong but not here!”

She showed me the map pin representing Emery Wharf on the screen of her iPhone. It was not somewhere I had ever heard of.

“Ah! It’s London Dock,” I said. “Up Vaughan Way past Waitrose on the other side, can’t miss it.”

It was not until later that I realised why someone should have come all the way from Hong Kong to buy a flat in Wapping E1W in a housing development I had no knowledge of.

I knew that the Chinese woman’s property quest and the fact that I had spent the last year sleeping rough in a local park were connected.

It was not until I read Big Capital that I really understood exactly how they were connected.

Anna Minton’s Big Capital: Who is London for? is a slim 161 page volume that has an importance far in excess of its size.

The author is a housing writer and journalist and Reader in Architecture at the University of East London and also the author of Ground Control (2009).

The ability to take the numerous strands of a complex issue such as London’s housing crisis and weave them into a story that compels the reader to turn the page is a skill rare among even professional writers.

Minton explains in a calm and reasoned manner how a variety of factors have combined to turn London housing into a currency as real as the coins in our pockets.

Trouble being of course that houses are for living in and many ordinary Londoners will never have enough coins in their pockets to buy one. Or even rent one.

Ultimately Big Capital is about people and the universal need for shelter which is now being denied them.

When a small one-bed ex-Council house in Wapping E1W sells for £450,000 (or rented for £1,500 a month) and local estate agents organise tours from mainland China for potential buyers there is little room for people who just want somewhere to live.

“Everyone wants a piece of London’s! ????????

Search on Twitter for “Emery Wharf” and almost all the resulting tweets originate from China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

I would seem that South Asia was far more aware of what and where Emery Wharf was than any Wapping residents.

“Everyone wants a piece of London’s! – Advert in Singapore from property in Emery Wharf.

Velle Yee Chou Mooi (@VelleYeeCM) , a Realtor with Huttons International & Asias Pte Ltd in Singapore tweets that “Everyone wants a piece of London’s! ???????? Don’t miss this chance to own one! Emery Wharf, London Dock” (see image left).

Minton deftly explains how big (often dubious) capital has forced local communities out with the breakdown of postwar housing policy and the demolition of London’s social housing estates. That’s what you would expect.

But then the author really starts switching the lights on as she describes how these issues have combined with systemic problems with planning and housing benefit and the political dogma of all recent governments.

Result? Many communities pushed to the brink – and beyond.

Big Capital is not solely about social housing, it considers the housing crisis as a whole. Some of the most disturbing passages are of private renters being forced to accept accommodation in slums.

Slum dwellers

Yep. London 2017. People living in slums.

But please do not assume that because people live in slums they fit preconceived notions of what ‘slum dwellers’ should look like. One might be working at the next desk.

In the final chapter of Big Capital – Who is London for? Anna Minton provides some alternatives to the hollowing out of London which threatens, in this reviewers opinion, the very social fabric and stability of our city.

There is no ‘quick fix’ to the housing issues so deftly explored in this book. There may not even be an very slow fixes. More likely, in the wake of the Grenfell fire, there will be the usual British hodgepodge of bluff and bluster that ensure we as a society move from one crisis to the next.

Our own work investigating electoral wrongdoing in Tower Hamlets has shown how corruption is endemic in our society and will remain so unless exposed.

The London housing market is the very model of how corruption spreads and destroys.

Fond memories

Minton’s descriptions of the urban cleansing that has taken place in south London estates such as the Heygate and Aylesbury brought back not entirely fond memories of my time working there (and Lambeth’s North Peckham) in the mid–1980s. Her descriptions of them may be slightly rose-tinted but, if that is a fault, it is one to be ignored.

Big Capital is, and please excuse the cliche, essential reading for anyone who lives in London and who wants to understand the contradiction of why the homeless remain on the streets as new blocks of flats shoot up around them.

Elected representatives and council officers who are responsible for housing in our local authorities have to read this book if they wish to consider themselves informed and so capable of fulfilling their duties.

Big Capital: Who is London for? is published by Penguin.