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In the shadow of Dame Shirley

We’re lucky enough in my local area, Kentish Town, to have a real local newspaper to read – the truly awesome Camden New Journal. Unlike most local papers it is fiercely independent and always provocative.

I’ve loved the paper since the 90s – it’s unique combination of scary crime stories, politics and music reviews means it’s always worth a read. I’ve been in it a couple of times – for campaigns to stop things being closed down – and think its journalists are pretty special.

A rather splendid article appeared in the CNJ last week, with some strong comments from Camden’s Cabinet Member for Finance, Theo Blackwell.

Theo is a smart guy and he came up with a rather pithy way of describing the way in which poorer residents are being forced out of central London. He calls it ‘doughnutting’ – the jam (for the rich) is left in the centre while everyone else is squeezed out to the margins of the city. This has already been discussed in terms of the benefit cap; in this article Theo discusses it in reference to the ending of council tax benefit.

As I have written before, the transformation of London into some kind of theme park for the rich makes me both very sad and very angry. Our country’s economy is so wildly unbalanced that a disproportionate amount of jobs are in London, yet the people who do them cannot afford to live here. If public transport was amazing (and affordable) then it would be possible for people to commute from further away. But sadly this is not the case and in order to work in London (and have some sort of life) it helps if you can live here too.

Much has been written about how the benefit cap is driving people further and further out – from inner London to outer London to the suburbs and beyond. Many of the people claiming housing benefit are working and just need extra money to pay private rent (and eat/feed themselves etc). Obviously council lists are full and buying is only an option for very few.

The discussion is usually around the issue of market failure – ie the fact that the so-called ‘free market’ just fails when it comes to housing. It is sometimes also described as ‘social cleansing’. Or “Kosovo-style social cleansing” if you’re Boris Johnson.

I see it as something even more sinister. I see it as an attempt to redraw the political map of London – to turn the red areas of  London blue. and replace working class voters/Left leaning middle classes with people who would vote for a dead donkey as long as it was representing the Tory party. Camden is an obvious case in point – property costs a packet and no one can afford to buy or rent now unless they’re pretty wealthy. There is obviously a lot of social housing and a lot of people who – like myself – live here because we bought years ago.

In case this sounds like proper head-banging, conspiracy theory nutter stuff (no I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat), I would like to remind you of Dame Shirley Porter.

In case you’ve forgotten (or just weren’t alive back then), Dame Shirley ran Westminster Council back in the 80s. In addition to flogging off loads of council properties (and cemeteries) Shirley’s bright idea was to try and redraw the political map within Westminster – partially through moving voters from marginal wards into rotting, asbestos filled tower blocks in poorer, Labour voting areas of the borough. This policy was described – in words that Orwell himself could have written – as Building Stable Communities.

In the end Shirley got her comeuppance and was found guilty of gerrymandering – attempting to rig the vote – by the District Auditor in 1994. She was fined £27 million (£42 million once costs were included) and eventually paid about £12 million. Dame Shirley moved to Israel in 1994 but has been back in the UK since 2006.

Many wonder why she is still a Dame – but it’s hardly surprising seeing that her legacy is alive and well.

As they continue to push their reckless doughnuting effect, perhaps this government should go one better and make her a Duchess!!!

This article is adapted from Lucy’s own blog, Reese’s Rants. Lucy’s articles will resume the Thursday slot on Left Futures from this week.

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