There is a road near where I live that is a monument to the achievements of capitalism. It was once a terrace of shops with flats above. It was built in the 1820s, nothing grand.
Most of the shopkeepers and people living in the flats would have been tenants. Because we're talking here about Hackney in east London, the fortunes of this terrace have changed over the years.
There was a time when some of the shopkeepers made a living, and some bought the premises they traded in. But there have also been times, particularly in the 1980s, when the businesses folded. Hackney council, a group of people not famed for their honesty and willingness to fight for the rights of the poor and needy, came to own a raft of these boarded-up shops.
For 15 years their policy was: (1) keep the boarded-up ones boarded up, and (2) don't let anyone get a long lease, so eventually they will leave too. I was told that this was because the council were waiting for a 'string of investors' to snap them up. For 15 years housing in Hackney has been too expensive for the poor, and council housing has been squeezed by the 'right to buy'.
Yet Hackney council have let a whole road of property fall into rack and ruin. Anyone living or working next door to an empty part of the terrace has to put up with soaking wet walls and rotting timbers. Then came crunch time. Hackney decided that the best way to balance the books was to sell off the family silver. For two years now they've tried to sell off everything they can.
Hackney refuse to educate all the kids in the borough, and to prove it they flog off school buildings for developers to turn into 'loft-style' apartments. While thousands of Hackney parents tear their hair out trying to find a school for their kids, landlords and developers are raking it in from the buildings once paid for out of Londoners' rates.
Meanwhile, back on ghost-town road, Hackney decided to sell off the whole damn shoot. For one brief moment it looked as if the traditional way in which Hackney has changed was going to happen. That is, new migrant communities come in, flog themselves for 100 hours a week in run-down property, and maybe (or maybe not) make a living. The word goes round that there's going to be an auction. The Bangladeshi restaurant guy, the Cypriot catering equipment man and the Jewish baker get interested.
But then, on the day, it turns out that the whole thing has been fixed. Hackney say that they won't sell the properties off to individuals-they will only sell to one developer. He comes in and buys the lot for well over a million quid. Hooray, say some, here comes big capital to modernise the road and provide jobs and homes for the needy.
Er...well...actually not. Mr Developer has put up signs saying that the properties are for rent, but mysteriously no one can rent them. He has other plans. Presumably he's using the road as 'debt', so that he can cut his tax bill while waiting for a hike in property and land prices that he thinks will come when (or if) a tube station is built at the end of the road. So more years go by, while people's basic needs for decent housing in the borough are not met.