Jun 292013

Last year our government capped housing benefit, and London councils started moving social housing tenants outside of London. The bare financial logic of this is impeccable: why house someone in Kensington or Westminster or Covent Garden when there is housing space much more cheaply in Birmingham or Leicester or Milton Keynes?

Unfortunately, there are far more things to consider than a single pure month-on-month financial number taken out of context from total cost of benefit.

Much of the debate around and against this has centred on the individual: removing social housing tenants from their social networks. This means they’re less likely to get a job, have support for childcare, elder care, or anything else. Depression, social anxiety, and language barriers are common.

While these arguments I completely agree with, there’s a larger problem at work, and one that those who argue for higher salaries and bonuses can agree with us on.

Are our cities becoming playgrounds for the elite? The Financial times thinks they may be. There are a lot of arguments over keeping taxes low to retain good talent – and thus good companies – in a given country. People live, and work, however, for a lot of reasons beyond money.

New York and London are both interesting, fascinating, world-class cities. New York has been changing a lot over the past 20 years – London has as well, but while New York has pretty much priced anyone out of Manhattan below 120th Street, London still has social housing tenants everywhere.

I think this is a good thing.

Cities are interesting when they’re mixed up. You might live, for a while, in one of the newer cities, but compare Kensington with Canary Wharf: the older, more mixed up, less done-up place is where people want to go and spend time. Having a variety of people makes you more interesting – there’s more art, more underground culture, more variety of opportunity.

These are the things that make you competitive on a global stage.

New York is an interesting case in point: To a certain extent, people are migrating away. It remains to be seen, but there are new, thriving arts and start-ups scenes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. San Francisco is moving in the same way. There’s just not that much of it, and the increased divide between the rich and the poor (or even the rich and the normal) suggests that San Francisco is becoming a less interesting place.

There are a lot of places that stand to benefit from this sort of shift. Cape Town. Manchester. New Orleans. Baltimore. Are these the next hotbeds of art, entrepreneurship, of the very things that make us human?

Or will London recognise what it has, that its very nature as a place where people struggle, shoved together cheek by jowl, boiler suit sweating against Armani suit on the Tube create a wonderful, interesting milieu?

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