Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Review of Anna Minton's book "Ground Control"

Fear and happiness in the 21st century city

 "They sold our streets and nobody noticed".  This quote from an Observer journalist brings you up with a jolt.  I think the quote taps into a feeling that all of us have experienced over the last decade: public spaces feel like they have been colonised by private interests and as a consequence have undermined our personal freedoms and changed the way we relate to each other.   No wonder that the battle cry on the student demo of 2010 and the London riots of 2011 was "Who's streets?  Our Streets!"  Ground Control unearths the ideas that have led us to be the most  CCTV-ed country in the whole of Europe put together.  The book outlines how architectural ideas such as "secure by design" and successive governments’ bogus "respect" agenda have added to our sense of alienation and mistrust and criminalised activities that were previously part of the rhythm of local communities.

Before I read this book I kept wondering why I rarely go to Bluewater shopping centre with my sister, or why I feel alienated by the design of the new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford.  I kept thinking about all the political activities that were routine in my area in the past that are now classed as an ‘Enviro- Crimes’.  We used to flypost  derelict shop-fronts when publicising a public meeting. Political and community activists would spontaneously meet in the local square for events and demonstrations without having to fill in any booking forms.  During the campaign poll tax (1987-91), there was a mass burning of poll tax bills in the town square in an old tin bin whilst the local police warmed their hands on the burning bills! Nobody got chased away, nobody got a penalty notice.

How things have changed!  Socialist Party members in Walthamstow have been harangued by the New Labour council for some time now.  Motivated by political spite and a raft of New Labour edicts, they constantly try to restrict our political activities.  However, it is not only council jobs-worths and officials who attempt to control us but also a raft of security guards and community patrollers whose remit is to"keep order in the public space".

A comical example is the weekly exchange we have with a particular security guard at the local shopping mall where we sell.  He comes out and points to an imaginary line on the floor and says that we mustn't cross that line and if we do we are trespassing onto private property.  I normally dip my foot over this imaginary line and cheekily ask, "Are we trespassing now?" I then move it and say, "How about now? Have we gone over the line now?"  What's interesting is that the old Walthamstow market that sits adjacent to the shopping mall does not have such control of the streets.

The market stall-holders could get annoyed with us if we sold in the middle of the market but they in no way could tell us that we were trespassing.  Anna Minton’s book describes how occupiers, skate-boarders and protesters of many descriptions have become criminalised by the privatisation of public spaces and this in some way may explain the battle-cry of the youth in the last few years that the streets belong to them.

The Industrial collapse and birth of a private idea

If you know the film "This is England", you will remember the scenes of teenagers playing in empty buildings that scarred the industrial landscape in the 1980's.  In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the Capitalists decided to "close down " industrial Britain because they couldn't make sufficient profits.  In the same way, that they recently sacked 350,000 public-sector workers, they turned their back on manufacturing and just let it go.  The bosses switched to finance capital to make a fast buck.  The buildings and streets and industrial areas that characterised industrial Britain became hollowed out, with problems of anti-social behaviour, drugs, unemployment and poverty.

Ground Control cites the early 1980s and Thatcher's setting up of the quango The London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC) as a pivotal moment in the change in public planning.  The new breed of finance workers wanted lovely views of the river after they had finished a good day speculating.  The derelict land and empty wharfs provided ample opportunity to realise this idea.  A mixture of construction companies in partnership with property developers were in effect given land all along the river front that was previously publicly owned by the Port of London Authority.  The LDDC renovated the wharfs and riverside flats and built gated communities.  The LDDC by-passed local government laws and enabled property developers, along with construction companies, to champion themselves as "regenerators".  Unlike the new towns in the post-war era, where elected local councillors planned housing, swimming pools, libraries and roads, the essence of these new builds were that the market would solve the problem of industrial collapse through retail developments and rising property prices - and local democracy was ignored.

What was pioneered in London's docklands soon spread to every canal, harbour and riverfront in every city.  The book describes how the docklands model progressed to Canary Wharf and to The Broad Gate Centre in London. Every town has one of these developments and this has led to a huge growth in private security guards as the walkways and streets between shops are owned and controlled by the companies that built them. 

Some developments were explicitly private companies being given land in or out of town and placing retail at the heart of 'regeneration’, such as the Trafford Centre in Manchester, Meadowhill in Sheffield and Liverpool One. This method of land assembly, based on partnerships between construction and private enterprise, soon spread into the public sector and was championed as a means of repairing, rebuilding and regenerating the buildings and the land failed by successive Tory government.

Compulsory Purchase Orders - Urban Land Clearance

The chapter dedicated to the role played by compulsory purchase orders enacted in favour of property developers and construction companies is the most enraging part of the whole book.  New Labour, in cohoots with the construction companies and housing associations, literally cleared the land to make way for these new privatised areas and streets.  In Walthamstow, once again, there was a scandal some years ago when the council requisitioned land at the top of our market.  Everything that wasn't owned by the council was bought by us, the taxpayers, through various compulsory purchase orders to the tune of £14 million.  The private company that "promised" to pioneer the development there was subsequently found to be "financially" suspect and the council pulled out of the deal. However, the empty land stands as a living example of the power of compulsory purchase orders and the willingness of Labour politicians to trust private companies to deliver despite the fact that their main motivation is private profit, not the public good.  See the video I made on this issue here

Laws on compulsory purchase were changed in 2004 by the then Labour government.  For the first time in history, this law stated that "economic well-being" was sufficient to justify compulsory purchase orders being enacted.  This was a significant shift in the law that meant that private consortia just needed to say that private interest would benefit and then buildings could be swallowed up and cleared.  The dominance of big corporations in towns and cities across Britain is explained by the clearing out of local facilities enshrined in this new law.

Minton points out that in the United States, when something similar was tried, there were mass protests and big debates on TV, and protestors even camped outside Congress to highlight the assault on public rights. However, in Britain New Labour, wrapped in the cloak of public service reform, pushed the change through without a whimper.  Planning law was lax before the compulsory purchase order came in.  Minton describes how the whole of Canary Wharf needed less planning scrutiny than a ‘change-of-use’ from a newsagent to a fish-and-chip shop. Post-2004, every scrap of land or empty public building could be sold off or redeveloped in the interest of supposed "economic well-being".

Housing- They Sold Our Future

One of the most shocking aspects of the book is the short-sightedness of the selling off of council homes, compounded by the lack of any strategy to ensure the country was not engulfed by a future housing crisis.  The people who played their part in wrestling secure tenancies and public housing from working-class people, have committed a crime against the next generation.  Our young people now find themselves at the mercy of the market, with no security, living in constant fear of losing their jobs, and this book outlines how this came to be.  New Labour in many ways played a worse role in this process than the Tories.  The New Labour government inherited a war chest in 1997 from the Major government.  There was enough money to have a programme of mass repairing and expansion of public housing, but instead of embarking on this programme, they deliberately chose to give that money to the private sector, with disastrous consequences.

Minton gives evidence of the deliberate running down of public housing stock, which smoothed the way for housing associations to come in and mop up. "Decent Home Standards" were used to condemn housing, much like Ofsted is used in schools today

In the North of England, the Pathway Projects went into areas such as Oldham and Pilton and propagandised against perfectly sound council homes.  In these areas, people had had no work for decades and the council housing budgets had been cut, so people had not been able to keep them in a fit state of repair. Rather than have a discussion about unemployment and industrial decline, a whole debate erupted as to the terrible state of repair of these homes and the homes themselves became the cause of anti-social behaviour!  Ironically, some of these supposedly "condemned " homes have more recently been spruced up, repaired and sold on the open market for hundreds and thousands of pounds.  Television programmes gushed at the solidness of these buildings and young couples showed what could have been done with funds and imagination.  Not so for the people of these areas who had lived there for years and built lives there.

400,000 homes were demolished and in their place multi-national housing associations came in and built high density boxes.  In exchange for stumping up the money for these developments, housing associations were allowed to sell some of these properties on the open market as well as offer some for part-buy, part-rent and existing tenants were given new, less secure tenancy agreements when they were moved back into their new builds.  The million homes that have been lost through privatisation have never been replaced.

A personal example of what happened is a housing estate in Waltham Forest which used to be three large, ugly tower blocks.  They were knocked down and replaced by compact streets and houses that were built by a large housing association.  Not only are the buildings owned by the housing association but so too are the streets between the houses.  One area of housing that has seen a mushrooming of employment is estate management.  There are whole armies of people employed to ensure that no-one steps out of line and this includes activities such as kids playing football.

The book does reflect the fightback that communities waged to resist the stealing of their homes by the private sector.  In Edge Hill in Liverpool, Minton gives the example of Liz Pascoe who won her case in the high court for "failure to consult" when the council wanted to knock her Victorian terrace down and build high-density housing. After her long-fought victory in the high court, at considerable personal expense, the council merely closed that loophole and slapped another compulsory purchase order on her home the day after her high court success. Shockingly, because many of the elderly residents who wanted to stay had lived all their lives in these houses and were traumatised by the prospect of moving, thirty residents died during this battle.

Anna Minton has produced a book which makes you feel like a fuzzy, blurred piece of film that you were trying to concentrate on which suddenly comes into focus.  You become aware of the ideas behind the changes to your area. There is so much in this book that it is well worth a read, particularly the chapter, added to the second edition, about the Olympics and corporate control of the games.  She argues that power has to be wrestled from private interest to restore civic society.  In the Socialist Party, we stated when Labour became a neo-liberal party that workers had to form their own party to rehabilitate the ideas of public ownership and control.  No amount of words or statistics will make that happen: it will take deeds.  As an ex-Financial Times journalist, I doubt that Anna Minton would agree with me.  Nevertheless, her book is well worth a read.

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