Foxtons estate agents started out in Notting Hill in 1981, and opened their second branch in Fulham two years later. It was just the time for them. Large Victorian houses were being stripped down and redone, and in a recession London property still represented a good investment.
The Brixton branch of Foxtons opened last weekend. The windows are full of two-bedroom flats for 11 times the median London salary. Rents meanwhile keep going up – by as much as 15 per cent last year, according to the Standard.
Foxtons are probably no more cut-throat than any other large successful estate agents, but their marketing – down to the branded Minis – makes them the most visible and the most hated symbol of a London property market which never really had a crash.
Property prices in Brixton have been going up steadily since the post-riot low of the 1980s, but it’s visibly changed a lot since I first lived there in 2008. Two years ago the indoor markets Granville Arcade (rechristened Brixton Village in 2009) and Market Row were leased out by the freeholder, London and Associated Properties, to a subsidiary of Groupe Geraud, the largest market operator in Europe. LAP receive a base rent of £817,500 and a 50 per cent share of market profits over a certain level. To feed this deal, rents are going up.
A recent campaign to ‘Save Nour Cash and Carry’ from a 22 per cent rent hike has succeeded, for now, but it will be a temporary victory. The engines of neighbourhood change are the property market and the retail and leisure economy, and in the end they don’t defer to petitions. The urban experience is shaped by money, so the power to shape it isn’t evenly distributed. When politicians celebrate the ‘revitalisation’ or ‘regeneration’ of neighbourhoods without recognising this, they give up any prospect of managing change for the benefit of their poorest constituents.
The G-word is verboten for some Brixton-boosters, but gentrification has been going on for a long time, whatever the denialists may say, and the arrival of Foxtons and the battle over the market are more like the culmination of that process than the starting gun. The most recent arrivals are disliked by those who came just before them, but they – or rather we – are fooling ourselves if we think we aren’t part of the change. A 2001 study of two areas of Brixton near Brockwell Park, a street away from where I live, detected a gap between the professed tastes and the lived realities of middle-class Brixtonites:
There appears to be something of a gulf between a widely circulated rhetorical preference for multicultural experience and people’s actual social networks and connections… relations between different social and ethnic groups in the area tend to be of a parallel rather than integrative nature.