My home town: how London changed under Conservative rule

<span>Jacqueline Crooks: ‘Life goes on in the beautiful galleries, museums and theatres … but not everyone can afford these things.’</span><span>Composite: Katherine Anne Rose for the Guardian, Getty</span>
Jacqueline Crooks: ‘Life goes on in the beautiful galleries, museums and theatres … but not everyone can afford these things.’Composite: Katherine Anne Rose for the Guardian, Getty

As Labour takes power for the first time in 14 years, the Guardian has asked three writers to describe how their home towns changed under Conservative rule – and the challenges now facing Keir Starmer. Here, Jacqueline Crooks describes what has happened to London.

I grew up in Southall in the 70s and 80s not far from where I landed with my mother when we emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. I live in Camberwell now. As an author and the founder of a consultancy working with community groups across London, my work brings me face to face with people grappling with socioeconomic changes across the city.

Back in 2010, I led a children’s and families’ charity in Westminster. Most of the families were trapped in temporary accommodation, sharing cramped spaces in hotels or substandard flats.

Despite my role as CEO of that charity, I too faced homelessness at 47, burdened by debt in the aftermath of a divorce and the failure of a business venture. I couldn’t afford rent and became a property guardian in a former elderly care facility, paying a nominal fee for a one-bedroom flat in a cavernous, eerily deserted building that had once housed older people. The corridors echoed with emptiness, yet I considered myself fortunate not to have to resort to an unaffordable house share.

In the past few years I have become aware of having to be hypervigilant as a woman walking through London

I am now a novelist, living with my new husband. The housing crisis in London has only worsened in the past 14 years. It’s not just vulnerable families who cannot afford to live here now. Many of my friends have departed the city, priced out of home ownership or rentals, mirroring a broader exodus. I often think about the families I worked with. When I left the charity in 2014, most were still languishing on 10-year housing waiting lists. Those children must be young adults now, making their own way through a changed city.

Something else has changed in this city that has been my home for 60 years: my social network. Having lived and worked in various parts of the city – east, west, north and south – I’ve seen and experienced first-hand the undercurrent of isolation. Life goes on around us in the beautiful galleries, museums, theatres and Michelin-starred restaurants. But not everyone can afford these things.

During my tenure at the charity, loneliness was the second biggest issue affecting the families, after poverty. Our social events were always packed – family outings, mothers’ coffee mornings. This was the only meaningful contact many families had with other people from week to week.

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Since then, the pandemic has laid bare London’s vulnerabilities, amplifying feelings of isolation. Thanks to book tours for my novel Fire Rush during 2023 and 2024, I’ve been pushed out of that state, thrown into festivals, connecting with people. But many don’t have access to these cultural sites. I’m organising a free literary festival in Sutton in the autumn, targeting marginalised communities, to drive change.

Since the pandemic I’ve witnessed a heartening resurgence in the use of London’s green spaces. My local park has become a hub of communal activity – family runs, picnics, yoga and dance sessions. I have a park friend, Percy, a 75-year-old Jamaican, whom I walk and talk with. But I won’t walk by myself early in the morning or evenings because women have been sexually assaulted in this lush park in daylight and at night. In the past few years in particular I have become aware of having to be hypervigilant as a woman walking through London or travelling on public transport.

Some of the communities I’ve worked with in the past 14 years have escaped violence in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and other territories. I recently ran weekend writing workshops for refugee children who lived on a housing estate across from me where there had been several stabbings. We worked in the local library and afterwards went to the park, where I watched them playing on the swings, slides and trampolines, carefree and safe.

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There were two brothers aged 10 who were thoughtful and funny and made everyone laugh. After the summer break, when the workshops reconvened, the brothers weren’t there. Another family told me that their parents had taken them back to Somalia. London was too dangerous for boys.

One of the central themes in my book Fire Rush is that of a young woman trying to find a place of safety in London in the late 1970s. The novel is based on my own experiences. Some of the dark, smoky places of danger that I write about seem to be seeping dangerously into the here and now of the city.

Challenges such as homelessness, soaring rents and escalating violence loom large. Governments have to do more. But change is also in our hands. Londoners are and always have been resourceful and creative, and because of its diversity there is so much cultural capital for the city to draw on.

Jacqueline Crooks is the author of Fire Rush (Vintage), which was shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s prize for fiction