Ground Control by Anna Minton is a great summation and ordering of the neoliberal features of current planning and development in the UK, and how they have developed since the 1970s. It quite brilliantly gets at the main features of planning and housing policies, ordering them in ways that makes a wealth of detail comprehensible while also highlighting its egregious effects on individuals, their communities and society as a whole.
It is a pleasure to read, but not pleasant reading if you know what I mean. Nothing infuriates me more than the privatisation and destruction of housing and the constant increases in control, security and surveillance. Over and over again you see the looting of the public sector and land belonging to all of us by the private sector, facilitated by politicians and planners and academics as well. Not that academics have power, but write the kind of theory that people in power want to hear and watch that shit fly. Above all, the promotion of profit as the highest and best use, and the purpose of government to facilitate that. So while the Olympics in East London were billed as a benefit and income generator, it turned out as we ‘cynics’ expected all along.
According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee less than 2 percent of the Olympic budget has ended up coming from the private sector. (xvii)
When things began to fall apart in the economic downturn, the Wellcome Trust made a £1 billion bid for the development to explore a more full community use for the land. They were rejected, and Minton writes:
It is amazing that despite the utter collapse of the commercial case for the Olympic development the bottom line remains the only consideration the Olympic decision makers are prepared to consider. (xix)
She describes the rise of large corporations becoming community developers, which explains why so many new builds have so little possibility of generating community. This rise of what she calls ‘Tesco towns’, where a corporation building superstores builds customer’s homes along with it through its regeneration subsidiary Spenhill. It has built homes, schools, and public places in Gateshead, Kirby , West Bromwich Bradley Stoke, Shepton mallet, Seaton, Bromley-by-Bow, Woolich, Streatham. (xxxv)
A book in itself to explore our new company towns. But I am reminded of that book I have seen on a colleagues shelf, Tescopoly, and am resolved to steal it. Borrow it. Whatever.
Then we have the Docklands as the birth of an idea — land amassed with the support of the state and sold off (cheap) to a developer. It is no longer public but private. New ‘luxury’ residences sit under rigid control alongside bars and restaurants in gated, high-security communities.
‘…every former inner-city industrial area is trying to emulate this model, from the waterfronts of Salford Quays and Cardiff to the controversial demolition programmes of the old industrial northern cities.’ (5)
God forbid, but I stare at Salford Quays and can see the truth of it for myself.
The very particular form that this has taken in this country is fascinating though, as it is quite different from the states. Beginning in the the 1980s and the rise of the quango — the Urban Development Corporation, or UDC. A very clever way for conservatives to bypass the power of local (powerful, Labour) authorities — essentially giving developers who generally dominated the UDCs power of planning & economic development, power to buy land using compulsory purchase and sell land & spend public money without debate required. Elected figures too often seemed to be a rubber stamp and an air of legitimacy, but the real teeth in planning and public processes were removed.
Thus we have the Docklands — eight and a half square miles assembled and developed with no public debate in the face of immense local opposition. It sits there today, a place that in its form goes against everything I believe quality public and city spaces — spaces that promote wellbeing, conviviality, interchange and a sense of belonging to a wider society — should be.
Minton got some great interviews, this is so telling:
In the late 1980s it was like the Yukon gold rush in the whole Docklands area. Places such as Limehouse were totally overheated and developers were building orange boxes and practically giving away free Porsches with them. It was exciting, but it was frightening. Then the whole thing went belly up. (12)
— Bob Barlow, marketing consultant with Barratt Homes and others
In 1992 Canary Wharf Estate went bankrupt, in spite of all the public subsidy. I’ve heard Canary Wharf’s ‘success’ in generating profit billed as a success story, instead I think of just how much public taxpayer money went into building such a space for international capital and insanely wealthy individuals who have chosen to put walls and gates between themselves and the local community. There’s ExCel just down the way, I’ve written about that terribly bleak space too, just one of the spaces along the Thames that are all privately owned — like ExCel, with its exhibition centre, six hotels, 2000 homes on ‘one hundred-acre ‘campus” on the old Royal Victoria Dock. It sits above Canning town, it’s hard to reach from the community, it makes protesting the arms fairs happening there harder. (13)
Of course that in itself is not entirely new — Minton notes the controls and the gating of the old Bedford Estate, particularly along the border with Camden (remember when Camden was full of poor people? Damn.). They:
used uniformed ex-prison officers to patrol their enclave and when a fight over entry into the area broke out, leading to a death, the coroner is recorded as saying that government conduct was “disgraceful in allowing these squares and place places to be closed to the public.” (20)
Leading to a death…unthinkable for so many years, but I think we are returning to those kinds of times once again.
Still, there is something different about what is happening now, about this huge shift in the twenty-first century towards the creation of large private estates — shopping centres and office complexes that no longer sit on public streets. A very clever way of stripping local authority assets. Much of this was made possible in 2004, when a new act of Parliament changed the definition of ‘public benefit’ to make economic impact rather than community impact more important.
Didn’t see New Labour getting rid of that now did we.
Minton’s tells us that the best place to look for how space will be managed and run, the feel of it, is in the ‘Estate Management Strategy’. Management is all important.
“Insurers like to see developers taking as many measures as possible to avoid a claim and they’re taking an increasing interest in risk controls being put in place in developments”, Gloyn says [Bill Gloyn, chairman of European real estate at Aon]. The consequence is that the private estates are far more ‘risk averse’ than the public parts of the city. This creates a very different atmosphere and public culture, which is now at the heart of all new developments. (33)
It doesn’t matter whether your taste runs to these developments or not, Minton says (I wonder honestly who does like them, but I know I am not hanging out with people from the city):
The real problem is that because these places are not for everyone, spending too much time in them means people become unaccustomed to – and eventually very frightened of – difference. (36)
BIDs and privatisation
We move to take a look at my new home of Manchester and New Labour’s love affair here — putting this city on the cutting edge of the introduction of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and growing privatisation.
Thus was the Free Trade Hall made into part of a national hotel chain and removed from public life — now I know to mourn. Picadilly Gardens the same. The centre of Manchester is run by Cityco since 2000, in the fashion of a BID though they took over before BIDs were introduced here. Like in the States (I write about them, and they are so much more in your face there), their primary interest in keeping the area ‘clean and safe’. This is entirely about customer experience and about business bottom lines, not community. At least, not about the whole community. BIDs are clearly set up for consumers, Minton quotes another BID manager:
…The whole business of BIDs is moving the problem on, either by putting homeless people in a hostel or making sure they go somewhere else. (57)
In 2002, David Blunkett as home secretary introduced the ‘wider police family’, broadening who could exercise police powers. (45) Minton writes, that the:
flipside to clean and safe is control and zero tolerance. (48)
It is the promotion of the view that people ‘doing nothing’ in a space are suspicious or dangerous. (53) The opposite of what people who actually study public spaces have shown to be true. So we come to the best quote from a Bid manager:
We probably are a bit controlling in your terms, but we want quality control… There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises, I agree with that, so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a consumer. We make huge efforts to import vitality. (54)
It really is the best quote. It really explains why those spaces are completely dead inside. Minton notes, however, that BID’s face less opposition here, due partly to tangled nature of the partnerships involved. For example in Manchester the founding chair was from Cityco and head of Brintwood — then Manchester’s biggest property developer — and the current chair is joint chief exec of Argent, the company redeveloping Picaccadilly Place. But the council is also represented. (56)
In the 1970s Britain first moved towards policies on ‘defensible space’ — established by Oscar Newman whose ideas were adopted by Essex County Council in the Design Guide of 1973. They drew on lessons from 3 public housing projects in NY — I mean, really? And then over the last decade we’ve seen the government initiative ‘Secured by Design’ (62, 72), spearheaded by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1998 as a crime-reduction project. Same as ‘Crime Prevention through Design’ or CPTED in teh States. Still blaming poor people’s behaviour for all the world’s problems and thinking punitive architecture can fix it. Still, insurance companies love it and provide lower premiums when its used, as do security agencies.
So everyone uses it. More gates. Minton describes them as a stereotype of luxury living. God, I suppose they are, but it wasn’t always…She gives the depressing example of St George’s Hill of Digger fame, which was the first gated development in the 1920s. Is now a golf course and country club. Is now full of absurdly expensive hi-tech homes marketed at men just like other gated communities.
This breaks my heart more than anything, streets of row houses demolished for profit only, communities broken up. Oldham is her example. It’s infuriating and desperately sad. If a building is listed it can only be knocked down if it becomes a danger to the public — good reason to let it become so.
Again we are back to that 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act — allowed economic well-being alone as a justification for purchase and redevelopment. (93) Profit rules.
She gives the example of Wainman Street, here in Salford as one of these places identified by Brendan Nevin, academic and architect of the Pathfinder Policy to ‘restructure housing provision in some older industrial cities.’ (97) Houses were emptied out of people who wanted to live in them through the 2000s, demolished to create land for redevelopment. Pathfinder has been shown to benefit only developers who get control over wide areas of empty land and councils who get government funding for the program, no one else. Definitely not the families who want to keep their homes. New Labour ran with it.
There are, of course, the new HMOs, or Housing in Multiple Occupation: ‘bedsits with high concentrations of economic migrants… Often they clash with the poor, mainly white population…” (108)
In London almost everyone I knew lived in this kind of housing of course, but here up North it’s just coming into its own. Just one of the horrors of the Private Rented Sector. There are bad conditions:
Following the buy-to-let boom, there are now hundreds of thousands of landlords who have not had to pass any tests of competence, demonstrate any knowledge of landlord or tenent law, or prove their honesty, financial probity or absence from criminal convictions, let along have any experience of property management. (111)
There’s Right to Buy — only had impact it did because councils not allowed to reinvest money made through sales back into council housing, combined with the buy-to-let mortgage that really came into its own under New Labour– buy-to-let now makes up a third of the private rented sector. (117) This created huge added costs to councils to provide statutory duties to those who find themselves homeless. By 2005, it was common practice that many of these empty investment rental apartments were leased back to the council as temporary accommodation as they scrambled to find housing for homeless to whom they had statutory duty to house. At exorbitant prices you can be sure. More transferal of money from the public to the private sector.
The Civil Society
The impact of all of this on society can hardly be underestimated. Minton starts with the fear of crime — looking at where it comes from, and how it increases for those living behind gates. Thus, while it ‘arises from a multitude of complex reasons, underpinned by the emotional state of the individual’, eventually it turns on trust. Gates tend to dissolve trust, and shutter people away from identification with the larger world. (132)
There’s a lot on ASBOs here which helped me understand them better — they are very English, emerging from the Labour government’s Antisocial Behaviour White Paper of 2003, what a travesty. Of course this connects to broken-window theory, which I hate with a great passionate hatred.
Turns out Manchester was the ASBO capital of Britain, with Cityco particularly enthusiastic in this regard. Salford too declred a Respect Action Area…so a lot of focus on the impacts here.
Minton tells us about a mother in Salford describing how her kids can’t go into kebab shops or play on the street. There is nothing in Salford to do for youth, and pubs tend not to be open to people under 21. That shocked me, so I’ve started noticing just how many set age limits above the national ones. A number of them.
A final thought on the crux of it all
So many of today’s fractures in civil society have come about as a result of the single-minded approach to extracting the maximum profit from the places we live in, through policies on property. (177)