The gentrification of Bristol has been much discussed in these pages of late, in everything from news articles to restaurant reviews. Its signs, according to popular wisdom, are easy to spot. If greasy spoons are being pushed out by pretentious cafés, lager by craft ale, corner shops by artisan bakeries and older residents by young families and men with ironic moustaches, a neighbourhood is being gentrified.
Any reference to gentrification must also strike a note of concern. The source of this angst is twofold. There’s the effect of the new businesses on the affordability of everyday essentials, and concern over the rising cost of property. If you’re a website or social media commenter, don’t forget to insert your rant about “hipsters pricing out working class people” or “social cleansing”.
While it’s true that small independent businesses tend to charge more than the big chains, the debate over gentrification massively oversimplifies this. People who buy organic food, the narrative goes, are always well off (It’s more expensive, see?) And, obviously, poorer communities need a supermarket. It’s outrageous to charge £4 for a craft beer – what working class communities really want is a Wetherspoons where punters can drink twice as much for the same price. According to the comments under a recent B24/7 article, a business owner who gets up at 6 am every morning to bake bread is a middle class gentrifier. The epitome of working class culture is the greasy spoon cafe, selling unhealthy food sourced at the lowest possible price. And so it goes on.
Within the narrow confines of this argument, it’s easy to forget that it’s independent shops which are the endangered species. Outside of success stories like Gloucester Road, high streets across the UK are withering away in the shadow of huge volume retailers, or quickly becoming identical parades of chain stores. But it’s become compulsory to punch downwards at aspirational small businesses (in London’s case, quite literally), without asking who’s really responsible for inner cities becoming less affordable places to live. The roles of developers, employers, money lenders, and landlords in maintaining poverty don’t get a mention in the gentrification debate – after all, they’re only servicing demand.
If young people start businesses in areas that are considered seedy or dangerous, it’s seldom because they want to be “edgy”. It’s a mix of opportunity and affordability. You need reasonably-priced premises, in a location which is accessible enough to make a go of things. It’s more than negotiating a cheap rent, picking your artfully distressed decor and watching the money roll in. Many new businesses face the additional challenge of creating something pleasant and welcoming in a sketchy location. I wonder how many of us would set up in the middle of the Bearpit, for example.
Even if you accept that not everyone parachutes into a run-down area with piles of cash to back them up, there’s still a tendency to see these start-ups as the useful idiots of developers and larger chains which come in their wake. But they’re just part of the same system as anyone who runs a business, or rents or buys a home. Property prices, both commercial and residential, are still climbing relentlessly, pushing start-up businesses and their clients out to less desirable areas. The incomers might be part of this process, but it’s ludicrous to suggest they create the conditions under which it happens.
Underpinning all of this is a bloated, stagnant property market. The UK population grows, more people of all backgrounds move into cities, but we have stopped creating housing options that match the range of incomes. Social housing has become “affordable housing” and the term “affordable” is now defined by the government as 80% of market rates, which makes owning an “affordable” house far beyond the reach of many ordinary people. In turn this pushes more people into the rental market, creating the conditions where mercenary letting agencies encourage landlords to charge ever higher rents. Developers and property investors are the ones making money from this, not independent businesses.
Many people have already bought in, and are hoping that property prices will keep increasing. The inflated property market subsidises future purchases, promises financial security in a time where pensions and savings are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and even props up our economy. But this comes at a heavy price. It curdles the mix of social backgrounds that cities need to function, and many homeowners only ever get to put their increased wealth towards an even more expensive house.
If you want to see the real face of urban economic cleansing, don’t go to Easton or Stokes Croft, walk around the sterile new developments on Bristol’s Harbourside. An “affordable” apartment starts at £180,000. There was no exodus of poorer residents here: they were never included to start with.
One solution is to take the energy and the financial capital that come with new developments and use them to cross-subsidise housing for a wider range of incomes. If communities are willing to recognise the potential negative effects of new developments and organise themselves, they can play a powerful role. At the Carriageworks development in Stokes Croft, local activists successfully called upon the developers to increase the percentage of affordable housing in the development, drop the proposals for gates that would have shut the site off from the wider community, and incorporate independent local businesses. Tellingly, many of the protestors fit the hipster stereotype, with photos awash with flannel shirts and even fixed gear bikes.
With council resources stretched and the odds stacked in developers’ favour, it’s vital that communities continue to focus their energies in the right places, support the good developments and push for the bad ones to be changed. Lazy stereotypes of sourdough versus sliced white aren’t going to stop gentrification, or even slow it down. We need to look behind the shop fronts.