Big Capital is a neatly packaged explication of London’s housing crisis with an emphasis on those who most suffer from it.
The main campaigns against social cleansing are examined, and the kleptocratic property industry is exposed. Along the way there are some startling revelations, like the out of work actor who got paid to pretend he was a resident in order to support a controversial development, or the treatment of single mothers and their children who were shipped out of London to Boundary House, a squalid ex-student residence in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.
Minton usefully explains the legalised tax avoidance that is the “viability industry”. This allows developers to get away without providing social rented housing if they can prove their profits would be affected. This is done with the collusion of councils, Labour and Tory alike.
In a chapter entitled “Demolitions” she rightly excoriates the destruction of council housing taking place at an alarming rate in London, and the aggressive language that goes with it, betraying the real feelings of developers and politicians when it comes to the inhabitants of council housing.
Former PM David Cameron wrote in a piece in the Sunday Times last year, “I’ve put the bulldozing of sink estates at the heart of turnaround Britain.”
One of those estates, The Aylesbury in Elephant and Castle, south London, has become a symbol of resistance to this social cleansing agenda. Minton interviews campaigners and leaseholders fighting Southwark Council for the right to remain.
There are a few weaknesses in the book. There isn’t much in the way of a programme of action that could lead to political change, and Minton says more than once that the politics of space has replaced the politics of class.
This argument is based on the correct observation that the effects of the housing crisis are so widespread that they now affect people who would traditionally think of themselves as middle class.
But as the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated starkly, class and space are very much intertwined in London, more so than anywhere else in the UK. Kensington and Chelsea is the only London borough where the population density is falling. The rich occupy more and more space per person, whereas the working class is forced to live in cramped, unsafe conditions.
Minton tends to underplay the role of some local housing campaigners. For example, she talks about the occupation of empty Aylesbury flats in 2015, and the leaseholders’ legal action, but she doesn’t mention the lobbies of Southwark Council, the local petition and the two demonstrations, the largest of which was organised by Southwark Defend Council Housing, nor indeed the 2015 London March For Homes which was the first grassroots-organised housing demonstration in decades.
Nevertheless, this book is an important contribution to the struggle for housing justice and anyone who wants to understand the housing crisis and get the measure of our enemies should read it.