A wail of two cities

Last year, Notting Hill, an upmarket area of London (p. 3,097), paid more in capital gains tax than Manchester (p. 2,791,000) Liverpool (p. 917,000) and Newcastle (p. 823,000) combined. Either those northerners are real wizards at tax avoidance or any committed egalitarian must cry havoc and let slip the dogs of class war.

The two most obvious ways of reducing economic disparities between two groups are either making the poorer group richer or the richer group poorer. The second solution has the advantage of being easier and more conducive to virtue signalling.

Yet there exists a less obvious way of achieving social justice (the modern for injustice) by making a prosperous area statistically less prosperous: plonking thousands of units of low-income housing right in the middle of it.

For example, putting a few sprawling council estates into Notting Hill, thereby quadrupling its population, would serve that worthy purpose in two ways. First, since the denizens of such lugubrous quarters hardly ever pay any tax, never mind one on capital gains, the stats will start to look better straight away.

And then there’s the extra benefit of the original fat cats moving out. Because, for a reason I can’t possibly fathom, much as council estates increase equality, they have the opposite effect on social tranquillity. And people who pay a lot in capital gains tax can read such statistics fluently. So they up sticks and move somewhere else.

Now, though I don’t have similar data for Paris, anecdotal evidence shows similar iniquity. One decent apartment in, say, Avenue George V costs more than 100 houses like mine, and that’s if I could sell it at all (rural properties aren’t in high demand).

There is no escaping the shameful fact that both London and Paris spit in the face of everything modernity holds dear. Yet this outrage may not last long if the mayors of the two great cities can do something about it. And let me tell you, they can.

Both cities are blessed with mayors whose politics place them beyond the left end of the mainstream spectrum. Sadiq Khan has held his London office for eight years now, and his Parisian counterpart, Anne Hidalgo, for ten. That’s a lot of time to spend on correcting social injustice, and the two officials seem to compete to see which one can inflict the greater dam… sorry, I mean do more good.

I don’t know whether Sadiq and Anne compare notes, but they do seem to espouse similar policies. For example, both have made driving well-nigh impossible in both city centres. The last time I ventured into Paris was on a Saturday a year ago, and on the way out it took me almost two hours to travel about as many miles. Reducing three lanes to one works wonders for city traffic.

In London, Mr Khan suffocated traffic with bicycle lanes, expanded the congestion charge zone and also extended it to weekends. That means it now costs £15 to drive into the large central area on any day of the week, which has reduced congestion only marginally if at all, while reducing much more the disposable income of those poor out-of-towners who have no other way of getting to work.

Council estates also proliferate in London, with special care being taken to build them in places like Notting Hill, not to let the resident toffs feel too complacent.

Yet, much as it hurts me to admit this as a Londoner, if Sadiq and Anne are indeed in competition, Anne is taking the lead. She has just announced plans guaranteed to give her London rival an acute sense of inferiority.

Mlle Hidalgo wants to build new council estates (HLMs in French) in the smartest parts of Paris, such as Champs-Elysées and Avenue George V. That’s consistent with what Mr Khan is doing in London, but Anne wants to go Sadiq one better.

However, space available for new construction is such areas is limited. That’s more than one can say for Anne’s desire to achieve “social and demographic equilibrium”. The will is there, and she has found a way.

To begin with, she plans to convert some Catholic school buildings into HLMs. That serves three purposes, each impeccably worthy. First, the desired equilibrium will be within sight. Second, the greater equilibrium will make the current residents squirm and, ideally, run for their lives. Third, fewer children will have their mind poisoned with those uncool Christian myths. Happiness all around.

Alas, there are only 110 Catholic schools in Paris, so even converting them all into HLMs won’t do the trick, even though that would be a step in the right direction. Further, longer strides are urgently needed and trust Anne to know what they must be.

Mlle Hidalgo can’t take all the credit though, because she works hand in glove with her Housing Deputy, who is a card-carrying communist. Anne herself is merely a socialist, which on this evidence is a distinction without a difference.

The two of them came up with a plan striking in its simplicity. The city will confiscate 10 per cent of the area in every new or refurbished building 5,000 sq. meters or larger and turn it into an HLM. Falling into that category are most Haussmann buildings on the Right Bank, such as the one in the photo above.

This is called servitude de mixité sociale, and servitude is the right word for it. However, even the feudal servitude of the past presupposed a greater respect for property rights than Mlle Hidalgo shows. The French in general hold these rights in lower esteem than is customary among les anglo-saxons, but this really takes la brioche.

When I first heard the news I recalled a conversation I had with a Parisian friend some 15 years ago. Then it had just been announced that 50,000 units of HLM housing would be built in the 16th Arrondissement, Paris’s answer to Notting Hill.

I did some quick mental arithmetic and pointed out to my friend that this could mean half a million recent arrivals moving into a fine residential area. His reply made me think of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the 19th century Russian satirist who once quipped that “The severity of Russian laws is only mitigated by noncompliance therewith”.

“Don’t worry,” said my knowledgeable friend. “None of those flats will go to the people you are thinking of. They’ll go to the mayor’s friends, their friends, or anyone capable of placing a bribe strategically.”

That put my mind at rest: it was good to see fiscal corruption trumping the ideological kind. Given the choice between bribery and ideological ardour, I’d choose bribery every time.

But things have changed and ideology is taking the upper hand. Mlle Hidalgo has specifically said that the new properties will go to the socioeconomically and racially disadvantaged.

There shall be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth among middleclass Parisians who make up most of the population inside the ring road. They are hoping the mayor won’t be allowed to act on her plans, and their hope may well come true.

Yet the very fact that such plans were to be hatched shows that Sadiq Khan still has work to do. Anne Hidalgo is pulling so far ahead she may be hard to catch up.

I have an idea, Sadiq: how about killing every white male middleclass new-born? Something to think about, I dare say, although I confidently predict it will still be a few years before such an idea can come to fruition.

P.S. I’ll look askance and possibly out of the window at any attempt to attribute the ideas of the two mayors to their foreign lineage. However, this is another thing they have in common.

5 thoughts on “A wail of two cities”

  1. The historically and continuing prohibitive cost of London property I think has less to do with supply and demand, than with the Englishman’s immemorial fetish for his castle. Typically, even a British extension like Canada, a dull frozen wilderness for the most part, boasts of ludicrously exorbitant housing costs.
    One of the master strokes of clever cities like London and Paris is in making you believe that any price is worth living there.

  2. “Reducing three lanes to one works wonders for city traffic.” Reminds me of the time my friend was driving us home from a hockey game in Philadelphia. The toll road was reduced from three lanes to two. When we stopped at a toll booth my friend shook his head at the request for $3 and instead offered $2. The jest, and the arithmetic, were lost on the poor late-night operator.

    Government intrusion into housing (endless regulations, no-build zones, rent control) has seen no end of problems. Of course, the Left see this as a reason to interfere even more. “We just didn’t go far enough” is their standard cry. I recently read an article trying to explain that the failures of the voucher system for government-ensured rent payments was the amount of bureaucracy involved for both the tenant and the landlord. Nowhere was it mentioned that a tenant who cannot pay full price is less likely to be concerned for the care of the apartment and the neighborhood. New apartments were built near our home. Standard rent is $2,950 per month (£2,326). I would think anyone who can afford to live there would look askance at a neighbor who is only asked to pay $1,000. I would hazard a guess that they have very different lifestyles and values. (No statistics are reported for people participating in the Housing Choice Voucher system who eventually are able to pay full rent on their own.)

  3. Don’t they still have that yearly Notting Hill festival/riot? With context it may seem reasonable to build more council houses [called projects USA] in the area. Cater to the locals and bring in a more diverse and vibrant community.

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