London, once known for its diversity, became progressively more socially and economically segregated after the 2011 austerity measures kicked in, triggering six years of social upheaval that changed the the city forever.
By 2015, academics had coined the phrase “urban neo-Victorian dystopia” to describe the dramatic social and spatial changes in the city they had begun to compare, with only a little exaggeration, with the London described by Charles Dickens 160 years earlier.
The housing benefit reforms of 2012 and 2013 had swept tens of thousands of lower income families out of inner London, to the fringes of the capital and beyond to Margate, Hastings, Milton Keynes and Luton.
This triggered an inexorable and progressive separation of rich and poor in the capital and helped unleash a wave of social problems.
It was boom time for some privileged areas, such as the string of well-to-do neighbourhoods stretching along the north bank of the Thames from Westminster and Notting Hill to Hammersmith that estate agents dubbed the “Golden Westway”.
Chelsea, Kensington and Marylebone, once dotted with patches of social housing and deprivation, had become almost almost uniformally gentrified and increasingly sought-after by the wealthier upper middle classes seeking refuge from the day-to-day realities of austerity.
Here, wealthy residents became obsessed with soaring property prices, whether they should exercise their right to privatise the street they lived in, the relative merits of British or Polish private security firms, and the extraordinary difficulty in hiring domestic cooks and cleaners.
By 2017 the last council-owned social housing properties in Westminster were sold under the 2011 right-to-buy scheme. The local authority also annouced the sale of half of its public parks and libraries, Sure Start children’s centres and school buildings, for which there was no longer significant public demand – due to the borough’s changing economic and demographic profile.
Outside the wealthy centre, things were less serene. Riots sporadically broke out and right-wing bloggers increasingly warned about the suburban menace of unemployed young people. Health officials worried about the tuberculosis epidemic caused by overcrowding in Tower Hamlets. In Barking, the BNP launched a campaign against “Westie scroungers” dispersed from central London in the 2012-13 housing benefit exodus.
A branch of Tesco in Hackney started “austerity days” in 2013, with cheap food offers to coincide with the arrival of weekly benefit payments.
The Salvation Army announced in autumn 2015 that it had just handed out its millionth food parcel, to a family living in Walthamstow.
In 2014, a consortium of housing associations declared that they had converted some empty 2012 Olympic village buildings into temporary “warehouse hostels” for young homeless people.
Criminologists recorded increases in burglary and theft. Social workers pointed out that child protection registers were bulging and psychiatrists noted that prescriptions for anti-depressants had risen exponentially.
Public health officals noted that suicide rates, teenage pregnancies and hospital admissions in poorer areas were rising at five times the London-wide average.
Statisticians argued about whether the number of people who had seemingly “disappeared” from electoral rolls and other official datasets had finally reached the crucial million mark
Announcing the end of austerity in 2017, the government attacked what it called the doom-mongers in the media. Britain had survived its greatest crisis since the second world war by pulling together, the prime minister declared from behind a bulletproof screen outside No 10: “We were, as we have always been, in this together.”
Reconsidering that move to Beffffnal Green.