Friday, 9 November 2012

Is Leith a gentrified neighbourhood and does it matter?

This is the second of my posts for the Greener Leith blog, where I ponder my role as a gentrifier...
Gentrification is a very ominous word. It is also a very contentious issue and an area with a wide amount of scholarship and research.

It is generally understood to be the process by which a less advantaged neighbourhood that has experienced local house price drops, shops closing down and industrial vacancies becomes a much more advantaged neighbourhood, with sky-rocketing house prices and young professionals moving into the now fashionable small homes.

The usual story of gentrification is that earlier on in the process new people, such as artists, would have moved to the neighbourhood and these “gentrification pioneers” made the neighbourhood attractive to others. Often now the process is so rapid, led by big developers, that this stage barely registers. The term was coined and process first described in the USA in the 1960s, but in places like Islington in London, and closer to home arguably in neighbourhoods like Stockbridge and Newington the same process has happened.

One of the most contentious issues around gentrification is the displacement of previous populations by higher-income new arrivals. I’m not going to talk about this here; what I will discuss is the question of whether Leith is a gentrified or deprived neighbourhood and from my own perspective of research in public service provision, whether this matters.

It is obvious to most people that live in Leith that the neighbourhood has changed and that most of these changes could be characterised as gentrification. The new developments in the Docks were clearly built for people with professional salaries to move into as owner-occupiers. At the same time, general house price inflation across the UK, but particularly in Edinburgh, have meant the traditional tenement properties are increasingly out of the reach of many.

But as was pointed out in my previous post, Leith contains some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. I’d say Leith remains, and will remain a mixed community. Mixed communities have been a political ideal for centuries – going right back to Aneurin Bevan’s post-war dream of the doctor living next to the butcher and the miner.

A common social justice argument about mixed communities and living with different people is that we learn to get along better creating a civic democracy. A more practical argument for mixed communities is that if you have wealthier, or middle-class people living in a neighbourhood they will complain about local public services more and thus the standard of these will improve for everyone.

The evidence on this is mixed. However, it’s also deeply problematic in two other regards. Firstly, it presumes that it is only the more affluent, more vocal and more middle-class people that have the suitable education and civic-mindedness to complain to public services.

The long history of community activism in more deprived communities, such as those in Wester Hailes, Muirhouse and Greater Pilton, and even Leith shows this is just not the case.

More of an issue is whether public services listen to less-advantaged communities in delivering services. The other problem with this model is the behaviour of middle-class people themselves. It’s a very beguiling policy idea because the social stereotype is so strong. There’s a wonderful episode of the 70s sitcom The Good Life where the middle-class neighbour Margot goes to pay her rates at the District Council and refuses to pay some of them because of daft excuses like “the attitude of the bin men”.

The so-called NIMBYs who hold up wind farm developments, are, in many people’s mind middle-class homeowners (and often incomers to the areas they’re trying to protect, at that). And I’m as bad as anyone else middle-class – I was invited to do these two posts because I’m a regular pest with Edinburgh Council about the state of Leith.

But a recent research review a colleague and I carried out shows a more troubling pattern to this stereotype. We looked across a wide-range of evidence, around 69 studies in total, that looked at middle-class interaction with public services.

In this we found four key mechanisms by which middle-class, or more affluent, people and groups have a disproportionate impact on public services: They are more likely to form and join groups and also join groups that matter, like the Community Council or the School Board; They are more likely to complain, and when they do so are more likely to get a positive response and complain again; They, as middle-class professionals are speaking to other middle-class professionals so are more likely to be understood and taken seriously – we refer to this as an alignment of “cultural capital”; Lastly, most policies and the delivery of public services, such as school choice in England, are generally beneficial to the middle classes.

What is more, we found no evidence of “spill-over” effects that other members of the community benefit from the actions of the middle-classes. In fact, what evidence we could find was the very opposite – this was selfish activity that took away resources from those more needy. This is one of the reasons why I’m ambivalent about the current policy agenda for community empowerment – you could end up just empowering the more powerful.

This is a very difficult finding and one us as researchers have struggled with. It also troubles me as a relatively affluent incomer – a gentrifier – in Leith. I want to complain about local anti-social behaviour, the state of the streets, and the other problems that are worse in a more deprived neighbourhood. But I also don’t want to take resources away from, say cleaning out the corridors of Cables Wynd House, just so my street can look a little bit tidier.

The research has made me reflect much more on this. Often when I’m talking about living in Leith I have ended up saying “I am a gentrifier and I’m not ashamed of it”. I say this because it’s true and impossible to deny. However, it also allows me to reflect on my position in a very mixed community and turn what could be a very negative thing, displacing people less advantaged than myself, can become more positive.

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