Thursday, November 19, 2015

So this writer has just returned to cold, foggy and rainy London from an extended break in warm California, hence the delay in getting anything up here (some pictures from that visit will be up soon). I noticed while I was away that a certain incident that took place at the Cereal Killer Cafe on Brick Lane, a place near me that's become a symbol of gentrification (on which I've written about already here). Advertised on Facebook as the 'third Fuck Parade', The Cafe was targeted by hundreds of anti-gentrification protesters, who set off a smoke bomb and threw furniture inside the doorway.
On the face of it, a small, independent cafe selling overpriced cereal seems a strange target in protests against gentrification. The Facebook page for the protests ranted: "Our communities are being ripped apart – by Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs. Local authorities are coining it in, in a short-sighted race for cash by ‘regenerating’ social housing."
There's no doubt that property speculation in London - which often involves rich oligarchs and businessmen buying property in London as an investment, and then leaving said property empty, or nearly empty, in order to make profits – is a serious contributor to the housing bubble in London, and by extension the housing crisis, exacerbating social inequality and driving those on a modest income out of London (and it's not just London that is facing a housing crisis, either). Near where I grew up in Stamford Hill, the Woodberry Down Estate, a giant council estate overlooking the East and West Reservoirs, is now undergoing a vast transformation, leading to million-pound luxury apartments. A number have been bought by wealthy Singaporean investors, with no guarantee that they'll actually live in the apartments.
This is capitalism taken to its extreme, leaving communities behind in its wake. By contrast, to then obsess over a bunch of trendy independent cafes and shops in east London – even if one does serve overpriced cereal – seems perverse (though in fairness the protesters did target an estate agents down the road). The independent cafes and cycle bars that have been sneered at have become part of a cliched image of trendy parts of London, full of the usual predictable babble about 'hipsters' – handlebar moustaches, beards, tattoos, craft beer, etc.
These places might annoy some, but in fact are not what should be the real target of people's ire. The real target of the protestors' anger should be those high-street retailers who have managed to avoid paying full corporation tax. That means the likes of Starbucks and Cafe Nero, along with a number of online giants, from Amazon, Ebay, and Google, who have done the same (disclaimer: I actually use Ebay, despite knowing that it is a tax avoider). Yet there seems to be little physical protest outside both these groups of companies, both 'physical' and online. In contrast, the majority of 'hipsters' are probably not tax-avoiders, and it's unlikely that the majority own multiple properties (admittedly I am just speculating here, but I'm guessing that I'm probably right). In addition, in fairness, some high-street multinationals do pay full corporation tax (Ethical Consumers has a list of how much each high-street chain pays).
Going back to the protesters, it seems bizarre that they did not assemble around the various branches of those high-street retailers, given their ubiquity in east London. You can barely go down a street in London without viewing a Pret, Starbucks, or Cafe Nero. Small, independent business in East London often charge slightly more because of having to pay over the odds for rent in an increasingly pricey area; because they have to pay full tax rather than resort to the kind of 'creative accounting' that large multi-nationals can employ; and because they have to pay their staff despite not having the same profits of high-street chains.
What really needs to be addressed in the long-run is a global problem of Governments (of which the British Government is one of the worst offenders) being unable to address tax havens, which multi-national companies then exploit as a loophole. The issue of global tax avoidance is a hugely complicated area, and a legal minefield, but one that will not go away when discussing local issues of community and gentrification. The situations in which Amazon can pay very little corporation tax, while the local bookshop down the road from you has closed, remain related. Meanwhile, if Amazon did pay tax at the same rate as Lush, a high-street cosmetics chain that does pay full corporation tax, that would lead to a revenue of something like £100m a year which the Treasury, and thus British Government, could spend on social services – including, as this article points out, five secondary schools. That's just one of several Internet giants, who between them generate colossal amounts of revenue from tax avoidance that could instead be spent on social services and infrastructure.
Seen in this light, the Cereal Killer Cafe is but a drop in the ocean. But due to its visibility, it has become an obvious, if misguided, target.
In addition, the British Government specifically needs to address the fact that it has brazenly allowed the aforementioned property speculation, turning a blind eye to foreign investors leaving property empty at a time when there is a housing crisis in the city. The only realistic solution – proposed by Islington Council a while ago, to their credit - is to levy huge charges on any property that it left longer than around six months. This has to be done, and should be a policy that Labour under Corbyn will promise for their next General Election manifesto. That includes one building not far from me, next to Wesley's Chapel and Leysian Mission and Bunhill Fields on City Road, which has been lying empty for around twenty years. It was squatted for a while (I even went to a squat party there once), but has now been lying there empty for years. Nothing seems to be done about this house, which could be converted to affordable local flats. It's just one of many buildings that are lying empty while rents rise to unaffordable levels, ripping apart communities and leading to ever more people being priced out of the capital.