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When you’re too skint for Newham, you’re in trouble

Samuel Johnson famously observed that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. But I suspect that the prospect of families suddenly becoming too poor to live in Newham would not even have crossed his mind.

One of the big stories this week has been the revelation that a Labour-controlled council on the eastern extremities of the capital has been seeking to rehouse a fair chunk of the local homeless way outside its patch.

Indeed, it has even asked a housing association 160 miles away in Stoke if it could come up with accommodation for 500 people.

Housing minister Grant Shapps instantly accused it of ‘playing politics’. Oddly enough, he has not ventured the same observation about Tory-run Westminster, which has been following a similar policy for some time.

But some readers outside London do not fully appreciate what is happening here. Newham, it needs to be stressed, is one of the poorest places in Britain.

It is isolated despite its location, being farther away from the City and the West End in terms of travel time than many affluent parts of the commuter belt.

Distance acts as a force multiplier; this is outer London with inner London social problems, exacerbated by the collapse of such major employers as the docks and Ford in nearby Dagenham.

Historically it is one of the cradles of Labourism. Beckton gas works was in 1889 the birthplace of what we today know as the GMB, while West Ham South was in 1892 the first constituency anywhere in Britain to return a Labour MP, prior even to the formation of the Labour Party itself.

Now the last place in London many of us would have thought capable of gentrification is having to ship out its poor, prompting accusations of social cleansing.

There is a sense in which this process is nothing new. My own family moved out of Tower Hamlets to the Midlands in the early 1960s, under what was then known as the Greater London Council’s ‘overspill policy’.

That, at least, was a nationally-agreed scheme. It was entirely optional, and well-paid blue collar jobs in nationalised industries and decent purpose-built social housing awaited at the other end.

By the time I got back to the capital as a young student in the early Thatcher period, things were starting to get into gear, with the unelected London Docklands Development Corporation pushing settled communities out of Wapping and the Isle of Dogs.

Now the process is reaching a turning point, with the Coalition’s decision to cap housing benefit putting even neighbourhoods as frankly unglamorous as Canning Town beyond the reach of many.

Labour local authorities, some of them perhaps reluctantly, are complicit in the process, while the Labour leadership seems to have nothing to offer the victims except handwringing.

Even the sections of the left that once might have encouraged squatting, a movement that dates back to the immediate post-war period, are strangely silent.

So it is that London is heading down the road that Manhattan and Paris have already  travelled, and my side of the political spectrum has absolutely nothing radical to say. We live in thoroughly depressing times.

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