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

    Friday, August 07, 2009
    Ground Control
    Anna Minton came to see me a while ago while researching her book, Ground Control; Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City, newly-published. This paragraph is the fruit of her morning's work:
    As I had done in Docklands, I wanted to get an idea of whether people in the city feel that Liverpool One is not for them but for the affluent of the region, so I went out to Norris Green, a run-down estate about a half an hour's bus ride from the centre of Liverpool. There I was quickly reminded of Pat, who had said that the shopping centre at Canary Wharf wasn't for the likes of her. In Norris Green I met John, who said, 'In terms of what's going on in the city centre, people out here don't relate to it. They say, "The city centre's nothing to do with us." The money isn't touching them at all. People can't understand who's going to shop in all those fancy stores.' Darren Guy, who is one of the founding editors of Nerve, a grassroots arts, culture and social issues magazine, said, 'I'm all for regeneration but the type of regeneration they're talking about is a bit of a con. It's just economic boosterism for the centre.'
    Minton seems to me to be one of the few journalists who raises serious questions about the ethics of regeneration. She shows how market-driven regeneration is sustained by complex mechanisms such as the discredited and morally bankrupt Pathfinder housing clearance programme (the death of the Welsh Streets in Liverpool), or Business Improvement Districts which, by means of unregulated security regimes, unaccountable CCTV operations and high-tech cleaning robots, hour by hour expel all impurities (homeless, protesters, street artists, anyone loitering without intent to buy) from city centres (you can leaflet, of course, but only as sanctioned by the city managers whose products your leaflets will endorse). She writes about Secured by Design, a methodology widely adopted in the UK through which the way that our housing and public spaces look and feel are determined by security experts rather than architects and the general public (that's why you can never find a seat in a shopping area - they mean you to keep moving).

    In contrast to how these strategies are sold to the public at large (if they are sold at all - often they are introduced with the minimum of consultation), these signifiers of regeneration are increasingly understood to mean not just social inequalities but societal malaise. Minton demonstrates how the rise in privatised high-security city centres and gated communities corresponds with a rise in a general sense of anxiety and fear in society. Affirming what many people on the receiving end tell you for nothing, Minton demonstrates how Care in the Community turned out to be just the opposite and that the Respect agenda deepened distrust between the agents of government and the people they allege to serve. In demonstrating both the causes and the effects of polarisation in society Minton's work might marry well with that of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett whose research shows that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor.

    Minton offers solutions as well - celebrating European models of 'shared spaces' - and I'm left impressed that although journalists tend to leave housing and regeneration well alone ('Once every broadsheet had a housing and planning correspondent, now none of them do. 'Property', on the other hand, has spawned supplements fit to bursting and countless television programmes'), Minton has put years of careful research into this timely, readable and challenging book.

    Buy it online from News from Nowhere