It is a favourite haunt of tourists who come in their tens of thousands every week to shop at its famous canal-side market and pack out its trendy bars and music venues. But while Camden Town in north London may give the impression of booming Britain, a walk up the high street will tell you a different story, writes Adwoa Korkoh.
Every hundred of metres or so, beggars sit cross legged on the pavement calling out to passers by for money. Go a little further, and a couple are fast asleep outside a store on makeshift bedding, while across the road, a young man lies flat out on a camp bed. Around the tube station, there is a little encampment of more rough sleepers, and opposite them, outside the aptly named World’s End pub, two men sit drinking.
Then there are the empty stores on this, the main shopping drag – a Snappy Snaps recently closed, so did a Carphone Warehouse and even a Coral’s betting shop. Joining them this week is the Camden Town branch of Waitrose after only opening to huge fanfare three years ago, while yet another retail unit will be left vacant when the Post Office moves to much smaller premises a few doors away.
Add to this, the filthy pavements, overflowing rubbish bins and evidence that the streets are being used as a toilet and you head as fast as possible to Camden Lock Market to be transported in a different world of money changing hands for holiday souvenirs and ‘street’ food.
What you are witnessing on a small stretch of road is startling evidence of what happens when you bleed people dry through sustained austerity measures. On the one hand, funding cuts to welfare services have removed the safety net that used to keep the poor from reaching rock bottom, on the other, shops are feeling the pinch as shoppers watch their pennies as prices rise but wages do not. If this is happening in what is ostensibly one of the more prosperous parts of London, then what about elsewhere? It is clear that the chickens are coming well and truly home to roost: Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, is not booming, it is broken.
While once successful chain stores like BHS, Maplin, Pounstretcher, Toys R Us and House of Fraser have recently fallen by the wayside due to a collapse in profits, the number of rough sleepers in England has rocketed by a staggering 169 per cent since 2010, the year the Conservatives took power. Conversely, the number of beds in homeless shelters has plummeted by almost a fifth in the same period as a result of cut backs.
Add to this the fact that the waiting list for those seeking a council home is getting longer and longer, and the number of people being declared homeless by local authorities is up by 48 per cent, according to the latest figures. Yet go into any part of the capital and you will find mini forests of new housing, mainly tall blocks of ‘luxury’ apartments. The problem is, these were built to take advantage of the property boom, not to solve the housing crisis. Their inflated price tags place them out of reach of ordinary people and even those on decent incomes.
The homeless problem has been building up ever since Mrs Thatcher allowed people the right to buy their council homes the early 1980s. Two million were lost without being replaced and today very little social housing is being built. This has forced people to rent privately – often paying through the nose for sub-standard accommodation – or to take on high mortgages that eat up more than half their wage packet.
You didn’t need a degree in economics to have been able to predict that the housing bubble would eventually burst and that people would stop paying silly money to live in an apartment whose balcony overlooks a busy railway line. Back on Camden High Street again, most of the flats in one so-called luxury block remain unsold after more than a year of being on the market. One retail unit on the ground floor has been let to a Tesco Local, but the other two remain boarded up and are a favourite spot for rough sleepers.
As homelessness rises, it should come as no surprise that drug abuse, crime and mental health problems are also on the rise. Shoplifting has become such a way of life for some people that even Poundland employs security guards.
It would be true to say that the Tory government is privatisation-mad. The excuse is that privatising public services saves money. But Carillon, the government’s favourite outsourcing construction giant, went bankrupt earlier this year leaving thousands of people out of work and two much needed hospitals in Liverpool and Birmingham mothballed. Northamptonshire County Council outsourced everything down to a handful of in-house staff but now admits that it can no longer provide core services. Other councils are following suit and it is ordinary people who will suffer.
And as the likes of Virgin get NHS contracts and rail franchises thrown at them and then receive subsidies to help run them, the small independent stores on Camden High Street struggle to pay huge rents and business rates. They open up full of hope and enthusiasm to offer something different from the dreary chain shops, then they close a few months later. It is only charity shops, which pay low rents and rely on volunteers, that seem to truly flourish.
It was the Scottish nationalists who first questioned the need for the austerity back in 2014 when they were seeking to break away from Britain via a referendum. Austerity is not a necessity but a policy, one that has ended up impoverishing us, said the SNP. It was only a matter of time before someone else would take up the baton, and that was Jeremy Corbyn. It was Corbyn’s anti-austerity crusade that propelled him to the Labour leadership and made it the largest political party in Europe as people flocked to join it. Older people were alarmed that services they and their parents had fought for were being systematically destroyed, younger people that they face a future of being under-paid, overworked and struggling to find a secure roof over their head.
Corbyn’s unexpected ascendancy seemed like a miracle but looking back people were yearning for their voice to be heard. The fact that he has been subjected to a wall-to-wall campaign of vilification both from within the Labour Party and without, shows that there are many who simply cannot countenance an alternative society that is, in his words, for the many, not the few.
If one is any doubt that the Tory government is not working, then a quick walk up Camden High Street should serve as a wake up call. Winter will be upon us in a couple of months and, as happened last year, people will be freezing to death on the pavement – just outside that boarded up shop over there.