As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room (making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’). Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Whitney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city. These two seemingly disparate facts (homelessness and traffic) are, of course, intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe.
The lack of housing cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. Wages and job security in publishing and academia are enjoying a race to the bottom while property prices are continuing to out-perform the rest of the UK. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Simply put, Oxford is the country’s most expensive place to live, in proportion to wages.
The situation for Oxford’s less-well-off is, of course, even worse. The maximum housing benefit is £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. The Government’s so-called bedroom tax does not get a look-in here.
As we move further down the social scale, beyond town and gown towards down-and-out, the picture is even gloomier. The number of new arrivals at homeless shelters is growing by the day, yet the council has cut the hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what me might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. Most of the new arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.
Housing crisis affects all walks of society: The homeless panhandler, the debt-laden student, the impecunious young professional, the struggling single mum, the miserable commuter. But how can we really, honestly, help them? How about we think about supply and demand? Or, as Oxford Labour party say, let’s build more houses. If you look at a map, much of Oxford’s geographical centre is green. The colleges own plenty of marsh land, pastures and playing fields which could be used to house Oxford’s poor, or so the narrative goes. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.
The council is in constant wranglings with itself over various building projects. It recently tried to build housing association homes for over 3,000 people in a new complex near the Kassam stadium, but it was wisely blocked by the Green party. I say wisely, not because I especially care about the no doubt very beautiful sparrows, earwigs and dormice in the proposed location, but because – I’m sorry to say – it is a fallacy that building houses reduces housing demand. Just as building motorways increases traffic, building more housing attracts more people.
Expanding a city attracts more people. There are already twenty thousand or so miserable commuters who’d love to move back to the city, let alone all the service industry staff – by which, of course, I mean immigrants – who would flock to a growing Oxford if it were to expand. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca outwith the academy mean it will always have top people setting up great start-ups. The Universities themselves are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the word “Oxford” on their degree. Building new developments would merely serve to line the pockets of construction companies and landlords, which I can’t help but think is the real motivation behind the purported ‘public good’ of building more homes.
As is so often the case with macroscopic, top-down thinking, seemingly attractive technological solutions ultimately mask a deeper structural problem. Houses have become properties – commodities to be bought and sold. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London are even more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. It made it through the last 1,000 years in good shape. As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.
In saner countries than Britain, these problems have been solved by introducing rent caps or clamping down on buy-to-let. But there are no guarantees. Rent caps in Berlin held back astronomical rent rises, but the city is becoming less affordable to locals by the day. There really are no simple solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can. We may not be able to make the Government put the needs of its citizens before that of the banks, but each of us can be conscious of the housing needs of those around us and ensure that we act with compassion towards the homeless this Christmas.
2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, an event I remember watching with both excitement and confusion at the time. Being only nine years old, I’d never actually heard of the Berlin wall before, but it looked like something very important was happening. Unbeknown to me, something very important was happening. I was witnessing the triumph of freedom and democracy over communism. Or at least the bankrupting of the Soviet Union and its replacement with capitalist hegemony.
In the spring of that year, Francis Fukuyama’s little-read piece in National Interest had predicted that free market capitalism was the only way forward and that communism was inevitably fizzling out. Pretty soon, he said, history would end, leaving humanity in a permanent state of liberal democratic bliss. It was only a matter of months before Fukuyama’s predictions appeared to be coming true: Solidarity won in Poland, GDR Refugees flowed through Hungary, the wall came down in Berlin, and – most surprisingly of all – David Hasselhoff sang atop the Brandenburg Gate. Ceausescu, Gorby et al were consigned to the scrap heap of history, like carbon paper, the ridings of Yorkshire and white dog poo.
A stroll through Berlin today might indeed reinforce the idea that the end of history is here. If ever there was a figurehead for the end of history, it’s the 21st Century cosmopolitain city-dweller. For the sake of argument, let’s call them a Hipster. Equally at home in Williamsburg and Kreuzberg, the 21st Century Hipster knows no international borders, loves all the latest technology and reinforces unequal economic structures in whichever hotspot it calls home. Hipsters are never racist or homophobic and really don’t see much point in governments or international borders. They value diversity and individualism above all else. Capitalism personified.
Of course, the Hipster aesthetic is no longer the preserve of the international backpack/jetset. Hipster went viral. Suddenly every high street in the Northern hemisphere has craft beer, pulled pork and bearded men with tattoos. The Hipster aesthetic is really now nothing more than the mainstream of youth culture: Be nice to gay people, have a cool phone, eat home-made stuff, make stuff and do something interesting with your life.
In spite of all this, if someone were to ask the question “Does it feel that, in 2014, we have reached the end of history? Do you feel like everything will more or less stay the same from now on?” The answer most of us would give is a resounding “no”. Not only are we becoming increasingly aware of a multi-pole world emerging where America, China, India, Brazil, Europe and Russia vie for economic and ideological hegemony, we are also witnessing a challenge to the liberal democratic dream in the west by so-called popularism. Figures as comically disparate as Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin, Osama Bin Laden and Hugo Chavez remind us that history is far from over and that either the barbarians are at the gates of Rome, or that Rome needs to realize that Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo exist too.
A list of the top ten world population growth hotspots reads like a compendium of despots, beheadings, child soldiers, modern-day slavery and rule by military coup. I would wager that transexual rights are pretty far off the agenda in Liberia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Oman. Even Russia and China may never be as zealously enthusiastic about minority rights as the west. (As Hitler showed, it is possible to have a capitalist system which supports majority rights at the expense of minorities.)
Fukuyama and others imagine that, given time, the international markets will correct the whims of national politicians and that capitalism – albeit in a Chinese or Indian flavoured model – will prevail. So far, it appears that once people reach a certain level of material wealth, they have the time and energy to question authority and to push for democracy. As Fukuyama said in a recent article in the Wall St Journal, “Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.”
Fukuyama would point out that the market, by its very nature, cuts down national boundaries and that, through the internet, infrastructure and immigration, humanity will be forced to be liberal, like it or not. His entire prediction, then, is based on a single idea: Capitalism will prevail. If we are to predict whether his predictions are correct, we need to decide whether Capitalism has a future.
The fundamental basis of our economic system is the idea of growth. Without growth, there can be no stock market, no investments, no loans, no banks. There are three ways to get growth: Exploiting nature (eg – by manufacturing goods or by burning fuels), exploiting human capital (eg – by making working weeks longer, or introducing zero hour contracts), and exploiting money (eg – by insuring money or betting on futures). That’s it.
Aside from the cheery realisation that our entire economic system is based on environmental destruction and human misery, the other thing these facts should tell us is that growth capitalism doesn’t have long left to run. The UN says with 80% certainty that what I’m going to call ‘peak humans’ will occur before 2100. The earth cannot support more than 12 Billion people, whether they eat GMOs or not. Similarly, the oil, gas and mineral deposits of the planet are finite. Fracking and shale gas have delayed the inevitable, but I don’t think that even the most gung ho of petrol heads expects to be running on gas come 2080.
Two of our three pillars of economic growth (ie – the exploitation of human and natural resources) look pretty unlikely to survive the century. This means that capitalism is going to have to change drastically if it is to survive. The question of whether you can make money out of money without human and environmental resources like manufacturing, immigration, air travel and wage competition is oddly both pie in the sky and a pressing concern. My intuition is that somewhere along the line, debts need a human being doing a crappy job so they can buy crappy things. I’m no economist, but I can’t help but think that over-dependence on ephemeral assets is the stuff of crashes, bubbles, bank runs, dust bowls and wheelbarrows of banknotes.
The next couple of years will be a vital turning point in deciding whether the world will switch towards a more sustainable economy. The economic recession has forced many people into creating their own sustainable businesses, far from the clutches of the stock markets. In fact, the amount of money made by profit-sharing cooperatives outstripped that of smartphones by a significant margin in 2012 (in spite of what the mainstream media failed to mention).
Young Western people are into things like knitting, baking, sewing, buying vintage clothes, collecting old things, growing stuff on their rooftops, riding bikes, eating less meat – all hallmarks of a post-Capitalist, sustainable economy. The big question might be whether or not the young people in China and India catch the same bug.
In the years since the fall of the wall, we have seen a homogenisation of cultures, where the global rich’s youth are a tolerant, democratically inclined, liberal-minded elite which grows by the thousands in number every day. We could be forgiven for mistaking this for the end of history. But counter to this, the years since 1989 have seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the rise of Popular parties, and a population spurt in some of the world’s least liberal countries. We know that something is going to happen with global warming: It might mean catastrophic destruction of major cities or perhaps a move to sustainable local energy cooperatives. In technology, we are going to see artificial intelligences overtake humans and the reflexive phase of human history will really kick in once genetic manipulation and nanotechnology is applied to our own bodies and brains. Either way, it’s pretty clear: Fukuyama don’t know shit: History is only just beginning.