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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, June 12, 2008
    Flourishing outside regeneration
     
    The Magical Mysterious Regeneration Tour opened with a documentary film by Peter Leeson called Us and Them, about the community in the Vauxhall (Scotland Road) area. The guys from City in Film who'd sourced this underground masterpiece admitted that on first viewing they thought they were looking at a record of a city in 1945, so devastated was the landscape, so impoverished the children. But this was 1969 and Us and Them is a reminder in luculent monocrome of the social realities of the so-called Swinging Sixties. Here, at the very heart of Merseybeat, was extreme poverty in the raw. Not that those suburbanites speeding through Vauxhall on the newly opened urban superhighways would have noticed.

    Us and Them is a brooding polemic about the inequalities perpetuated by the planners and politicians in a modernising city. Vauxhall's vibrant, gifted children getting little chance to grow their potential in a school system weighted towards the city's wealthier youngsters, Vauxhall's people having suggestions about better housing ignored as, without consulting the residents, the planners carved eight-lane roads and a second Mersey road tunnel entrance right through the heart of the area.

    It was good that Peter Leeson was in attendance tonight, so that we could hear him tell the story of the film himself, and so that we could applaud him for this committed, outstanding piece of work. Better still, the organisers had invited members of the Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council, including some who had appeared in the film, and their contributions to the subsequent debate were memorable. Little has changed for them and their neighbours: still in the lowest one per cent in official indices of deprivation, still being ignored by planners and underfunded by a city council compromised by regeneration targets set by government and subservient to the agendas of private sector 'partners'. Still also proudly Vauxhall people, with strength of character and massive dignity steeped in a strong sense of themselves as a substantial community.

    All that the regenerators in the room could offer the people of Vauxhall (and other sidelined city areas) was the hope that 'trickle-down' from the new city wealth-generators would help. I felt anger rise in me about this: even if the trickle-down theory had any economic credibility (which it doesn't), why should a city's wealth 'trickle' to most of its people while a minority rake it in? And the miserable morphology of the word 'down' - blithely implying that the people of Vauxhall are in some way inferior to those who take the tunnel journey home each weekday.

    Leeson offered Vauxhall something far more substantial: the film itself. Because although it's seldom been seen in any kind of mainstream media outlets, he gifted it to the Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council to use it in their work. And, as more than one of them said, Us and Them has helped a lot, over the years, in getting local people talking about their situation, finding a voice and the confidence to take power into their own hands to change the place for the better. All very peripheral to the Capital of Culture, their work, but none the worse for that. Finding ways to flourish outside regeneration, the people of Vauxhall.

    Picture: Peter Leeson