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Living with rats

Exploring better ways to live, and how to make better places to live in

Last Build Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2018 12:00:24 +0000


See you on the other side

Sat, 12 Nov 2016 20:40:00 +0000

After just over ten years and more than 750 posts, it's time to put Living with Rats to bed. Not because I've stopped writing, but because there's more to come. Living with Rats started in what feels, looking back, like a very different world. The British prime minister was Tony Blair, an already tarnished but still largely progressive politician who, compared with his successors, was reasonably serious about tackling poverty, getting to grips with climate change and creating good places to live. The United States had yet to experience the surge of optimism that accompanied Barack Obama's election.Within two years, the world financial system was reeling from the 2007/8 crash. The austerity policies imposed from 2010 in the UK have become semi-permanent. The misery inflicted on the most vulnerable people as a result goes largely ignored, except when someone with the courage and vision of Ken Loach grabs the spotlight.Britain has a housing crisis, an economy as unbalanced as it was six years ago, an ecological crisis that gets barely a mention, and has chosen to unmoor itself from the rest of Europe at one of the most challenging times in Europe's recent history. The United States has turned its back on the hopeful rhetoric of the Obama years and appears more interested in tearing itself apart than in addressing the most serious issues facing our world. When I started this blog, I was editorial director of a national magazine that I and my colleagues had created to support people who were creating better places and working to build community. My posts reflected the work I was doing and the issues I was dealing with. Much of the work we were reporting on has now been dismantled under the auspices of austerity. Today my role is different and the need to focus my blog around my professional life less pressing. The issues that have attracted my attention over the last decade won't go away in the next phase of my writing. How to create good places for people to live in and a fairer society matters as much as ever. But it's no longer as urgent for me to react to the issues of the moment and to put a premium on topicality. What I think is more necessary in a world of limited attention, disregard for accuracy and trends rather than substance, is to create the space to think, and to do so critically and creatively. That, despite the welter of commentary in the media every hour, doesn't happen through a stream of instant analysis. A new home for my blog seems a good way to mark that shift. Themes will recur, but the style will be a little different, more reflective and less reactive. It won't appeal to everyone. But I hope it will create a space where, as Hannah Arendt puts it, we can think what we are doing.  Subscribe to this blog[...]

It's green up north

Sat, 27 Aug 2016 16:35:00 +0000

The Earth, the seventeenth century Digger Gerrard Winstanley famously declared, was made ‘a common treasury for all’. His vision of the original sharing economy, where everyone could occupy and work land for themselves, their families and their neighbours, was very quickly squashed by the powers of the time. But his vision and legacy have lasted centuries, constantly resurfacing in new forms. The combination of a radical vision with direct, immediate action are what’s known as prefigurative politics: you might not have the power to change the system, but you can begin to model what a changed system might look like. You don’t have to share the Diggers’ romantic idealism to recognise why the concentration of property ownership and the lack of fair access to food have become the standout problems of the early 21stcentury. It’s a global problem, with the World Bank increasingly concerned about the future of food; and a very British problem, with emergency food banks turning into the safety net the welfare state once offered. When you face complex and intractable problems, you need prefigurative action as well as institutional change. And you need to begin to connect the two together. In the spirit of the Diggers, some prefigurative planting might help to get things moving.That’s what happened nearly a decade ago in Todmorden. The tale of Incredible Edible Todmorden and its effects in changing the story of a small Yorkshire town is familiar to many, and one I’ve written about before. The Incredible Edible movement has grown organically, with groups springing up across the UK and internationally. What it hasn’t yet done is fully demonstrate how food systems, and the powerful institutions that support and maintain them, can change. But that may be starting to happen. And where better to look than Wigan, birthplace of Gerrard Winstanley?Wigan hosts an annual Diggers Festival, celebrating Winstanley’s life and ideas but also demonstrating how those ideas still strike a chord and inspire action among many people today. And this year there’s some real digging going on as Incredible Wigan starts to get its hands dirty across the Wigan borough.Incredible Wigan is unlike other Incredible Edible projects in that rather than just being run by volunteers, it has the backing of the local council which sees it as a model for building local communities and rethinking local economies. Donna Hall, the council’s chief executive, sees Incredible Wigan as integral to its own ‘deal’with citizens, arguing that: ‘It reaches far beyond growing and eating locally produced food. It’s about creating a sustainable future and empowering local people to be self-reliant.’Councils have been struggling with some of the worst austerity cuts imposed by central government, but still have the power and responsibility to articulate a vision for their communities and act on their behalf. If that action includes bringing people together around food, supporting local food-based businesses and helping people to learn how to grow, cook and share food in ways that preserve resources for future generations, it can open up the conversations we need to have about land: who owns it, who can use it, how it can be used sustainably and who benefits from its use.These conversations aren’t just starting in Wigan. The founders of Incredible Edible see the potential to change the narrative across the north of England, turning previously closed and impermeable institutions into agents that build people’s skills, pride and opportunities. Work has already started in prisons in the northwest, developing prisoners’ horticultural skills and providing fresh produce to share. And if it can happen in a prison, why not anywhere? The slogan ‘it’s green up north’ could catch on in even unlikelier places.The idea of an Incredible North has a long way to go. But as Gerrard Winstanley said in 1649, ‘action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’. [...]

Brexit and the rise of 'post-truth politics'

Wed, 15 Jun 2016 21:38:00 +0000

Political questions are far too serious to be left to politicians, Hannah Arendt famously observed. Britain’s EU referendum campaign has confirmed that in spades. Few if any prominent politicians have enhanced their credibility or trustworthiness in recent weeks. From the Leave camp we’ve heard a succession of unfulfillable promises and talk of ‘control’ of Britain’s borders that has acted as cover for ill-informed and racially charged prejudice and scaremongering. The leaflet with the map highlighting Turkey’s proximity to Syria and Iraq, visually implying that staying in the EU will open the doors to tens of millions of immigrants from troubled and violent nations, was typical (and blithely ignored the UK’s own role in stoking that region’s crisis). The Remain camp has been as bad, predicting everything from plummeting house prices (which actually would be no bad thing) to recessions lasting longer than the lifespan of the giant redwood. Worst was George Osborne’s open threat to punish the country for leaving the EU with an extra £30 billion of austerity cuts and tax increases.Speaking at an event at Sheffield Hallam University on Monday, David Robinson, director of the university’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, mused that Britain was entering an era of ‘post-truth politics’. And at the launch of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies on Wednesday the veteran Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee lambasted the ‘filthy politics, demagoguery and hideously dangerous’ rhetoric of the Brexit campaign. We should be more worried about this cavalier decoupling of information and analysis from contemporary political life than about any of the spectres conjured up by the In or Out campaigns. It paves the way for the politics of blame and bigotry, and clears the field for those with the biggest fists and loudest voices. More than ever, we need to create new spaces for real conversations: conversations that are inclusive and respectful and that refuse to label or exclude. Britain’s political and media elites have largely failed to do so, and the irony is that this failure stems not from their elitism but from their cynical populism.It is probably too late for an intelligent public debate about next week’s referendum. The honesty of Jeremy Corbyn, and those like him of all political allegiances who recognise both the value of the EU and its drawbacks, is hardly the stuff of headline writers. The EU is a mess because it’s a compromise between 28 individual states, each of whom brings its own political, social and economic convulsions to the table. Compromise, mess and frustration don’t go away just because we move from one form of governance to another. Dire as David Cameron’s performance has been, neither his nor that of any of the contenders to replace him will improve if we leave the EU.What we do lose is the benefit of the practical and sensible postwar European vision of easing trade between its partners, offering both workers and employers wider opportunities to earn a living and do business, and preventing a resurgence of the bloody wars and dictatorships that characterised the first half of the twentieth century. And we lose any prospect of building on that vision to create a fairer and more inclusive Europe.Jeremy Corbyn gave the EU seven and a half out of ten. I’d probably give six: adequate, but could do better. Could do better on devolving power and widening political participation; could do better on tackling poverty and inequality; could do better, crucially, on protecting our environment and supporting the huge shifts we will need to make to limit the damage of climate change. Six out of ten isn’t great. But it’s hardly panic territory.  Subscribe to this blog[...]

From localism to Caesarism

Thu, 07 Apr 2016 17:41:00 +0000

The casino economy: Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahalpicture: Wikimedia CommonsThe principle of subsidiarity - that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the localities and lives that they affect - is a sound one, and one that at its best can reinvigorate local democracy.But localists and devolution-watchers should be careful what they wish for. Devolving responsibilities without resources, and hailing competition between places rather than collaboration and solidarity, can have dire consequences.Earlier this year I wrote about Sheffield’s hopes and fears for devolution of powers from the UK government.  At the event I attended Leigh Bramall, deputy leader of Sheffield Council, lamented the lack of local control over economic policies - to the extent, he claimed, that the council needed central government approval ‘to move a phone box in Fulwood’. It’s hard not to sympathise. But if local control is pitched in terms of following an agenda of ‘competitiveness’ and economic growth - as it is by influential urban thinkers such as Bruce Katz at Washington’s Brookings Institution - the risks need to be considered as well as the rewards. At last week’s Association of American Geographers conference Jamie Peck, another big name in urban thinking but at the more critical end of the spectrum, highlighted the case of Atlantic City, a city that in his words ‘played Monopoly and lost’ by betting on casinos to revitalise a failing holiday resort. Atlantic City is now bankrupt and under emergency management, run until recently by an unaccountable corporate finance attorney (turned consultant) appointed by the state of New Jersey. Local economic initiative - if that’s what Atlantic City’s gamble was - has given way to what Peck described as a ‘dictatorial board’. A city experiencing high levels of poverty and disadvantage, compounded by poor decision-making, is being treated as a failing business rather than a polity of citizens. In Peck’s phrasing, Caesar’s Palace has given way to Caesarism.  That’s not just a clever bit of professorial wordplay: it echoes the view of Stephen Eide, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who explicitly advocates such interventions: ‘states need to step in, Caesar-like, earlier and more vigorously…’Peck warned of the growth in the US of a kind of ‘municipal Calvinism’ in which cities are seen as getting what they deserve; if they fail, they have only themselves to blame. And when they do, local democracy is sidelined to make way for local austerity: they become neither the elect nor the elected. Detroit is the forerunner here, but Atlantic City is unlikely to be the last of its kind. The effects serve to entrench inequalities: Peck pointed out that 50 per cent of Michigan’s African American population are under emergency management, compared with only 2 per cent of the state’s white population.Could the UK be heading in a similar direction? Local government here is different, in that cities have fewer powers, and in the different treatment of localities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; but comparable in that resources are being both squeezed and localised. In that context local authorities that do not manage the reduction of local services for themselves are likely to have it done for them. There has already been a threat that Birminghamwill be run by government commissioners rather than elected councillors, while one local MP has produced a blueprint for breaking up the city council entirely. It’s no coincidence that the city’s ‘improvement panel’ is chaired by a lawyer and business leader. On a broader scale, David Cameron has threatened to override councils that do not meet central government demands on planning for housing (a curious reversal of his previous contempt for planning targets).It might all be a bit more polite than in the US, but there’s a clear logic to communities secretary Greg Clark’s combination of shrinking ce[...]

Beyond creative placemaking: the wellbeing of future generations

Wed, 30 Mar 2016 21:33:00 +0000

From local art to extractive development - what future for Stokes Croft?Mess, fragility, compromise and disappointment are words that characterise projects to improve life in urban places. Whether it's bringing neighbours together, creating a social enterprise, running an arts project or trying to bring a neglected building back into use, the path is frequently arduous.But there's hope and inspiration too, even if it can be fleeting and hard to measure. People often want to know what works, when the only answer might be to keep working at it. For property owners and commercial interests, such activities are often irrelevant or tolerated in much the way that court jesters of old were tolerated while the powerful got on with their business. So there's a justifiable critique of community or arts projects that make inflated claims of their transformative potential.But such critique can often descend into sterility, an academic demand for political or theoretical purism that can be even more exclusive than the activity criticised. Both celebration and critique were on offer at the American Association of Geographers meeting yesterday. 'Creative placemaking', as arts-based interventions are sometimes described, is a concept ripe for hubris. There are too many examples of creativity giving way to hard-nosed property development for the benefit of the well-heeled: in the UK think of central Manchester, Shoreditch, Hoxton and Brixton in London, and now Stokes Croft in Bristol. Such developments are often accompanied by protests against eviction and 'gentrification'. And behind them follow a phalanx of critical theorists who frequently conflate the creative workers displaced by property development with the landlords and developers.Ann Markusen, an academic not known for her lack of criticality, had little patience for such theorising at a session on creative placemaking yesterday. She clearly has her own position on the subject. But she challenged the critics to be focused: look at displacement - who is being priced or forced out, by whom and why - rather than nebulous talk of gentrification.And she called for a move from 'placemaking' to 'placekeeping' - a notion of stewardship and care that is gaining currency as activists, artists and those who wouldn't attach any label to themselves recognise the need to preserve the places and social capital they have worked for. My own preference is to talk of stewardship - a concept that keeps future generations in mind and thinks beyond the built environment and ideas of community to include the natural environment and awareness of planetary as well as local resources and limits. Next month a farsighted piece of legislation comes into force in Wales. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act places a duty on public bodies to think beyond their immediate interests and take those of future generations into account. It's aspirational, and may prove hard to enforce: but it reframes questions of priorities and interests. Its crucial weakness is that it doesn't apply to the private sector, which in many cases has done the most to compromise the wellbeing of future generations. But it's a start, something that allows the conversation to happen in a different way. And it may be the beginning of what Ann Markusen describes as 'strategic placekeeping'. Subscribe to this blog[...]

What the red kite tells us about town centres

Wed, 16 Mar 2016 12:05:00 +0000

For tourists visiting on a warm summer weekend it's idyllic: coastal paths alive with gorse and heather, seals basking in coves and maybe a seafood supper at a village restaurant. And many visitors decide to settle here, at the far end of Wales, as a respite from a fast and furious world.As the tourists see it...For those who do, and for those locals who stay, the story is more nuanced. Remoteness is a disadvantage as well as an attraction. If you want work, you often have to make your own. And while the quality of life may be excellent, you have to work hard to enjoy it.This week I was the guest of Transition Bro Gwaun, the Transition Towns group for Fishguard and Goodwick, at an event on town centre regeneration. It was called Cymuned Unol - Community Together. Walk around the town and you can see why the community needs to come together, and how it is doing so. Goodwick and Fishguard are twin but separate towns, one clustered around the ferry port linking west Wales with Ireland, and the other, older, at the top of the next hill. Most of the shops are in Fishguard, much of the employment in Goodwick. Stand in the town square in Fishguard and you might think this is a town that is on its uppers. The three empty pubs, including the domineering Abergwaun Hotel; the cluster of empty shops, including one fittingly called Debris. There might seem little reason to stop here. First impressions... (are often incorrect)But search a little harder and the town is full of life, from the organic fruit and veg shop and the fish and chip shop in West Street to the Gourmet Pig restaurant and coffee shop opposite. There are three bank branches; a cinema saved through community efforts; Ffwrn, a former church hall turned into a bakery, bar and music venue; and further up the high street, the Transition Cafe which serves meals from 'waste' food and whose community-owned wind turbine will eventually bring an income to reinvest in the town.The shops display determination and inventiveness, from the wool shop which doubles up as a coffee shop and the fish and chip shop that sells fresh bread (or is it a bakery that sells fish and chips?) to the independent bookshop and the delightfully named Luna Cycles. That inventiveness is evident in the local town team's work, from the Aberjazz festival to plans for free wifi across the town centre, and in the number and busyness of local community groups.There are plenty of challenges, not least from landlords who sit on their property hoping for a lucrative rental stream when it needs to be brought back into use to create value for the whole town; and inevitably from the naysayers who believe things will never get better. But challenging places also offer opportunities that supposedly successful ones have a habit of excluding. Nothing wasted: Transition Bro Gwaun's mural I finished my presentation this week with a picture of a red kite. There was a time when the red kite was such a rarity that it could only be seen in a small area of mid-Wales, having been persecuted out of existence in most of Britain. Two decades ago kites were reintroduced in England. You can now find them in the Chilterns, in Lincolnshire south of Grantham, and in Leeds. I often have to travel up and down the A1 in Lincolnshire. Between Grantham and Peterborough more often than not I'll see a red kite circling above one of Britain's busiest roads. A few weeks ago I spotted seven in the space of an hour. They thrive on roadkill, and have found that the roadsides that are value-less places to humans provide them with the sustenance they need.There's a parallel in our town centres. It's the spaces that are seen to be lacking in value that may provide opportunities, whether it's the brief excitement of a pop-up shop or festival or the longer-term interventions of initiatives such as Incredible Edible. In How to Save Our Town Centres I talk about the 'inspiration of the i[...]

Do we write for reward or do we write to resist?

Mon, 01 Feb 2016 12:32:00 +0000

We all want to be rewarded. Especially if we’ve worked hard, and writing - any sort of writing, if it’s done well - is hard work. Really hard work, if you care about it.But I’m always hearing writers say how difficult, even impossible, it is to make a living from writing. Poets, by and large, don’t stand a chance. Novelists likewise. Commentators need to get lucky, but there are a few openings. Academic writers have to shoehorn their writing in among a host of other responsibilities, though they have the relative luxury of a salary. Journalists, old-style reporters in particular, are a dying species.Adam Smith, that hard-nosed devotee of markets, reckoned writers were better employed doing something useful like teaching. Back in 1776 he had this to say in The Wealth of Nations about ‘that unprosperous race of men, commonly called men of letters’:In every part of Europe, the greater part of them have been educated for the church, but have been hindered by different reasons from entering into holy orders. They have generally, therefore, been educated at the public expense; and their numbers are everywhere so great, as commonly to reduce the price of their labour to a very paltry recompence. Before the invention of the art of printing, the only employment by which a man of letters could make any thing by his talents, was that of a public or private teacher, or by communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself; and this is still surely a more honourable, a more useful, and, in general, even a more profitable employment than that other of writing for a bookseller, to which the art of printing has given occasion.  Adam Smith was a curmudgeon. But he had a point. In the world of supply and demand, there will always be more people wanting to write than buyers willing to pay for it, however honed and burnished the writers’ skill. And this was centuries before the internet. There will always be more poets than patrons of poetry, more wandering minstrels than leisured gentry wishing to be entertained. That’s partly to do with inequality. The arts, whether performed or printed, can only survive in a market world as luxury items. They don’t generally fix the gutters or put bread on the table.But they do something else, which is why they shouldn’t be seen as part of the market economy. The poet Seamus Heaney urges us to ‘go beyond what’s reliable’; I think this applies not only to what we write but to why.I believe we write to resist, and as resistance. We write in particular to resist the laws of the market, its insistence that everything that can be given must be priced and that every exchange must be a transaction. We write not to contribute to ‘the economy’ but to establish different economies: to push against the hierarchies embedded in pay scales and position, in house prices and home furnishings. We write to resist in deeper ways too. To resist the appropriation of our time that trades alert hours in the workplace for knackered hours of freedom. To resist the reduction of grief to mawkishness and joy to entertainment. To resist everything within ourselves that tells us the effort is wasted. To assert that laughter and lament are not for sale, not to be mediated through power or politics, not to be kept at bay while we roll up our sleeves and pay off our deficits.We write in order to keep our eyes open, and to encourage those around us to keep their eyes open. There is no particular reason why such activities should be rewarded within an economic system that doesn’t respect or recognise their value. There are exceptions: uncomfortable compromises between what Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot call the worlds of inspiration, the market and fame. Some writers become celebrities; a few become rich. But that is not (with a few anomalies) why they write, and when it becomes why t[...]

Growing pains

Fri, 15 Jan 2016 13:57:00 +0000

Europe's greenest city? Don't count on it...On the day the World Economic Forum declared climate change to be the number one threat facing the global economy, my city hosted an event to talk about its own economic ambitions. Climate change was not on the agenda.The ostensible topic was devolution, the possibility that Sheffield and its neighbours might gain control over some responsibilities and resources currently decided centrally. But the premise of devolution in England (unlike the agenda in Scotland or Wales) is economic rather than civic, and certainly not environmental. The shared agenda between central and local negotiators is one of maximising economic growth.So there’s a lot of talk about transport, skills, education and support for business: the nuts and bolts of what makes a city tick commercially. This matters, but as a number of participants underlined, it’s far from being the only thing that matters. What didn’t get a mention from the platform is the fundamental resource that gives life to a city and, even in a global economic context, is a foundation of its economy: the quality and resilience of its environment. In an era where cities are increasingly disconnected from their hinterlands in terms of food or water resources, this still matters. It matters in terms of risks - flooding is the big one in Sheffield, with a projected 14% increase in winter rainfall over the next 40 years - and in terms of quality of life. There’s some recognition of the latter in Sheffield’s plans to market itself as an outdoor city, a place of sport and adventure. Clearly you can have adventures in the grimmest of surroundings, but that’s something of a niche interest. Presumably Sheffield doesn’t plan to put tree-felling at the top of its list of outdoor sports. But if environmental quality is going to be a unique selling point for Sheffield, we need to become more serious about looking after it. You can’t look after what you don’t understand, and recent events hardly inspire confidence. The Sheffield Plan - the document that will eventually determine how the city handles issues like the protection of open spaces and green infrastructure, and accommodates around 2,000 new homes a year to house a growing population - acknowledges the importance of the natural environment but has little to say about the need to invest in it.Part of the vision outlined in the plan is that Sheffield ‘prizes, protects and enhances its natural assets, green infrastructure, and distinctive heritage and character areas, whilst promoting high-quality buildings, spaces, and places’. Another aspect is that the city ‘mitigates and is resilient to climate change, making the best use of energy, water, land and food resources, and is at the forefront of sustainable design and technology’.This is motherhood and apple pie stuff, but the ‘whilst’ in the first sentence is significant: it recognises that the outcomes depend on a succession of trade-offs between competing demands. The issue is which demands carry most weight in a society that overwhelmingly ascribes value to what can be monetised.Sheffield’s growth plans are predicated on using the city’s natural surroundings as a resource, but pay limited attention to understanding the real worth of that resource as the basis for human and nonhuman life; and to protecting that environment for the benefit of future generations, not just for the benefit of the city’s growth aspirations.Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Sheffield’s devolution deal has been put together in negotiation with a government that sees environmental sustainability primarily as an adjunct to growth, and as something to be justified only in economic terms. There is little recognition that the world that supports human existence has intrinsic value.And if the agenda is growth, it is growth measured in the narrowest of [...]

Tidings of comfort and joy?

Thu, 17 Dec 2015 11:16:00 +0000

Been smoking' too long... Picture by The Library of Congressavailable on The Commons on FlickrAn international agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels sounds almost too good to be true. And with national governments’ pledges on greenhouse gas emissions linked to increased temperatures of almost twice that level, it almost certainly is.And yet does this mean that - as some experts have suggested- the Paris climate agreement is a huge let-down? Or, conversely - as the head of one coal industry lobbying group recently appeared to suggest - the end of civilisation as we know it? Our orientation, the way we see the world, our norms, values and cultures, do make a difference. They frame our aspirations and expectations, even if they’re constantly frustrated by events and realpolitik. The way organisations and institutions, be they nation states or private companies, construct and shape meaning can change the physical environment in which we live and the goals towards which we strive.At the moment the overarching theme of climate change discourse is that we can have it both ways. We can continue to enjoy the lifestyles that have become the Western norm in the last quarter-century while ‘saving the planet’ for future generations. Economists like Nicholas Sternare the cheerleaders for such an approach.It’s an obviously attractive proposition, suggesting a future of maximum benefit for minimum outlay. Like contemporary Christmas, it’s all tinsel and carols and no massacre of the innocents. Everything can change while nothing substantial changes. It’s comforting, but it’s less than joyful. What has been described as ‘carbon lock-in’ is far more difficult to shift than even climate convention negotiators imagine. It involves not only re-engineering technologies, but changing entrenched patterns of power, influence and understanding that are associated with those technologies and the way they are used in everyday life.Changing the way we make sense of the world requires facing up to the harm successive generations, including ours, have done: recognising that whatever the benefits of the industrial era - and there have been plenty - they have come at a cost that’s still being calculated, and that impacts most damagingly on many who have benefited least.In theology such recognition is known as repentance: taking responsibility for wrongs that have been done, by omission as well as commission; doing what can be done to put them right; and setting out on a different path - reconfiguring our worldview. But just as there’s no longer much theology in Western Christmas, there’s little repentance or remorse in dominant discourses about climate change. Instead there are aspirational slogans and finger-pointing, just as in much contemporary religion.This matters because it allows us to say (and even believe) one thing and simultaneously continue the practices that cause harm, because there’s no sense of personal as well as collective responsibility. How do we feel contrite about our actions when many of their victims have not yet been born? Take the case of Volkswagen. After the outrage of the discovery of the ‘defeat devices’ that allowed the company to say one thing about its vehicles’ nitrogen oxide emissions and do something entirely different, we had the ritual of VW chiefs lining up to admit ‘errors’ (as if they were unintentional) and hoping to make amends with the equivalent of a few Hail Marys. What’s a little pollution between friends?Meanwhile the governments that collectively set the standards for air pollution are - in the case of the UK at least - pushing for such standards to be relaxed in order to make life easier for the motor industry. It may not be a massacre of the innocents, but deaths from air pollution are realand - once ag[...]

In praise of stench

Fri, 13 Nov 2015 17:12:00 +0000

 Order and cheerfulness - or congestion and stench? Picture courtesy of British LibrarySpitalfields Market had its originsin congestion, stench and foul language. These were the vices that prompted the removal of the market once held within the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral first, in 1666, to Mansion House and a couple of decades later to the edge of the East End.It’s a far cry from a place that today prides itself on catering to the tastes of the hip and the well-heeled. But then markets have always been places of tension and contention. Who gets to use them, who gets excluded and what prices are paid have been the stuff of squabbles through the ages.Sometimes those arguments erupt into violence. One of the most celebrated market riots took place at Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair in 1766, when - according to the chronicler Thomas Bailey - market-goers became ‘excessively exasperated’ at the exorbitant prices being charged for cheese:‘The lots of cheese were taken forcible possession of; much was carried away, and much more damaged by being flung about, and rolled down the adjacent streets and passages... The mayor, whilst endeavouring to quell the disturbance, was knocked down by a cheese, hurled at him by one of the mob, and severely stunned.’Spitalfields’ own riots happened just a few years earlier, in 1763. They were the result of longstanding grievances over the pay and conditions of silk weavers. In a protest that foreshadowed the Luddite disturbances sixty years later, disgruntled weavers destroyed looms and silk. For good measure they paraded an effigy of one of their employers around the streets before hanging and burning it. Commenting in the journal Past and Present, the historian E. P. Thompson observed that the ‘riots’ of the eighteenth century were far more than a gut reaction to the price of food or lack of work. Thompson describes them as the consequence of a breach of an unwritten social contract:‘…a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.’Few use the phrase ‘moral economy’ these days, but that sense of fairness underlies many of today’s tensions around markets and their surroundings. The redevelopment of Spitalfields Market that finished ten years ago was strongly resisted by many local people; the fine line between regeneration and gentrification is often only noticed once it has been irretrievably crossed.In a city where property speculation has become feverish and local councils are under pressure to sell social housing estates for redevelopment, all the signs are that the social contract is once again under unbearable strain. Markets have often been the flashpoints where the tensions inherent in urban life explode. From Queen’s Market in Upton Park in the east to Brixton Market in south London and Portobello Road in the west, redevelopment plans and rising rents have prompted protest and opposition. These tensions matter because they concern not only the historic character of the city’s markets but also the extent to which London can still be said to be a city for everyone. In the nineteenth century social cleansing was justified on grounds of morality: London’s Bartholomew Fair, a byword for licentiousness, was closed by the City of London in 1855. Today the removal of the cheap and unsightly has an economic rationale as markets are turned into ‘destinations’ for wide-walleted visitors. At Queen’s Market, Upton Park, traders and local residents fought a long battle ten years ago to stop the redevelopment of the market [...]

Never underestimate the value of doing nothing

Mon, 09 Nov 2015 09:54:00 +0000

Welcome to Birkenhead...
Three years ago I wrote a piece on this blog titled A small celebration of street furniture. It was a eulogy to expensively designed and inappropriately placed benches.

So I was delighted to discover The Bench Project, a collaboration between the Young Foundation and Sheffield University’s Department of Landscape. It’s a much-needed defence of benches in public spaces.

The project’s report was picked up in today’s Yorkshire Post. Their story emphasises the mental health and community benefits of hanging out in public spaces. The Bench Project is rightly challenging the trend of removing or restricting access to such communal assets.

The project has produced an excellent Bench Manifesto, which you can read here. You’d have thought most of the points in it were obvious, but it’s remarkable how frequently the obvious gets overlooked.

At the top of this post is a picture of a bench I particularly liked. It’s in Birkenhead, a place once known for the trade union virtues of comradeship and solidarity. It’s both a memorial and an invitation. I like the welcome of ‘take a seat, chuck’. We need more of that.

As I often say in my talks on high streets and town centres, never underestimate the value of creating spaces where people can do nothing.

There's no economy without community

Thu, 24 Sep 2015 15:28:00 +0000

The market: more than just a place to buy and sellFour years ago I coordinated a submission to Mary Portas's review of the UK's high streets. We called it The 21st Century Agora.This week, speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of British Market Authorities, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit that idea. The point of the agora analogy - and it comes with the limitations and caveats of any analogy - was that the ancient Greek agora was not isolated from society. The marketplace worked because it was a meeting place. The agora was surrounded by educational institutions, the debating hall, places of religious worship and spaces for games and athletic contests. And the result was that different interests and elements of society intersected and interacted. A market, when it works well, should be a place of intersection and interaction. Nobody should feel excluded because they're too poor, too rich, or from the wrong demographic. Britain's markets, though, have been enduring a torrid time in recent years. Research presented at this week's conference showed that in the last five years the number of traders in the UK's markets has fallen by one third and the number of jobs has dropped by 40 per cent. Takings have plummeted. Relatively few traders have engaged with the shift of retail to digital channels. But markets can still do what few other retail formats can. They can provide affordable opportunities for startup businesses. They can celebrate local imagination and produce. They can provide spaces for showcasing local creativity and supporting community initiatives. A good market can signal to its host community what a good place can be. It can do that through a broader view of the economy than is usually promoted by businesses or politicians.The root of the word economy is the classical Greek 'oikos'. Oikos means household: the network of relationships that centres on a family but can also include those who work for the family and people who are dependent on it. The bottom line of an extended family's economy is the wellbeing of the household - and, by extension, the wider community. That bottom line involves income and outgoings. But it also includes investing for the longer term in the education and training of children and young people; and caring for those who cannot make a financial contribution. That is all part of the economy. It includes what the new economics foundation calls the 'core economy' and what others refer to as the 'social economy'.So a view of economics that sees 'business' as productive and 'social' as unproductive or a drain on resources is a shrunken and diminished one; and a view that glorifies the maximisation of personal wealth and praises entrepreneurs for their competitive ruthlessness is one that earlier generations would rightly have regarded as venal and corrupt. I used a third Greek reference in my talk - polis, the word for the city. The agora only works within a polis, a community of citizens. And you can't have a polis without politics, in the broad sense of engaged and informed decision-making and debate. Too much of what passes for politics closes down genuine debate about what a good life in a good place should consist of, refusing to countenance alternatives to current models.The economy was made for people, not people for the economy. It's a truth that, as Jane Austen might have commented, is almost universally unacknowledged in contemporary discourse with its 'Business is Great' sloganeering and obsession with commercial success at any cost (as cynically demonstrated by that apparently most respectable of companies, Volkswagen).We won't create better places unless we think of ourselves first of all as citizens. That means [...]

How much longer can food banks pick up the pieces?

Mon, 27 Jul 2015 16:03:00 +0000

Plenty of donations - but how long can food banks cope?‘We stick plasters on where people hurt. We’re not treating the disease.’That comment, from a worker at a food bank in Hampshire, sums up the quandary food banks now find themselves in. More and more people are hurting; national figures from the Trussell Trust show a continuing escalation in the number of people seeking help from food banks, with enough parcels given out in the last year to feed one million people.These figures tell only part of the story. There are numerous independent food banks that are not part of the Trussell Trust network, and nobody collects their statistics. Far from exaggerating the problem, the national headlines underestimate it.Earlier this year I and a colleague, Rachel Papworth, conducted a study of food banks in this relatively affluent part of southern England. The research, published last week by the Bill Sargent Trust, confirms previous national studies in finding that people only turn to food banks as a last resort and do so because they are not getting enough help elsewhere.Our interviews with food bank users and workers show the hidden costs of a creaking system of social support. The benefits system that is supposed to help the most vulnerable frequently fails them. People are turning to food banks because of delayed payments, punitive sanctions and because benefits don’t meet the cost of living.One food bank user we met who received Employment and Support Allowance had been unconscious in hospital for 13 weeks as a result of an assault. During this period, his medical certificate lapsed so his benefit was stopped. JobcentrePlus wrote to him but no one had access to his house so the mail wasn’t collected.People who use food banks are often accused of having poor budgeting skills. We found people who stretched every penny by rummaging through bins for food, going to household tips to replace broken items, and going without meals or eating only the very cheapest basics. One told us: ‘The Citizens' Advice Bureau said, “We’ll have to give you a voucher but you’ll have to come in here next week for a budgeting plan”. And, I thought, “Well, I budget my money!” I know what I’ve got to pay out. I went to the budgeting meeting, and the guy said, “It seems as if we’re wasting your time and you’re wasting our time because you’ve already budgeted your money. You can’t budget any more”.’Another said: ‘It’s not like I go out and spend loads of money on myself … I’ve been very, very savvy and I’ve located a place where I can pick up clothes for free and I go down the tip a lot.’We were told that increasing numbers of people using Hampshire’s food banks are in work - the ‘hardworking families’ and ‘strivers’ that are the familiar theme of government rhetoric. These hardworking families may be on zero-hours contracts or in minimum-wage jobs; often their wages are only just enough to live on, and any crisis might tip them over the edge. A food bank worker told us: ‘We had a single parent in not so long ago who was on a zero hours contract and she’d, I think, only had her hours cut by half an hour a day but it had made a massive difference to her. You know it didn’t seem much in terms of time for the employer but it made a massive difference to her circumstances.’Running out of food isn’t the real crisis for people who use food banks. It’s the culmination of a series of crises, often long-term and interlocking. A bag of food is not enough to put these people back on their feet, grateful as they are for it. If you have physical or mental health problems, if your relationship has broken up, if you have lost your job or your tenancy has been terminated, or[...]

The first of the new?

Tue, 07 Jul 2015 09:48:00 +0000

Bright lights and promises: Sheffield City Council's latest visualsThe latest consultation on the future of Sheffield's city centre closed last month. By the turn of the decade, it's hoped, the city will have a brand new shopping quarter optimistically described by some of its proponents as the 'first of the new'.Sheffield Retail Quarter, as it's currently known, is the latest in a saga of plans and projects that can be traced back at least 20 years. It was once known as the 'New Retail Quarter', but 'new' rapidly became a hostage to fortune.Over the last decade the area adjoining the landmarks of City Hall at Barker's Pool and the impressive Victorian town hall has been the focus of a £600m redevelopment plan led by developer Hammerson and anchored by John Lewis, the department store of choice for cities worried about their retail rankings. The scheme, branded as Sevenstone, floundered and was aborted in 2013.So what will we end up with after nearly a quarter of a century of consultancy, masterplanning, public consultation and political lobbying? There are some signs that concerns have been taken on board: the latest consultation emphasises the quality of urban design and materials, a mixture of uses, walkability and the protection and restoration of neglected historic buildings. Other signs might suggest that not much has changed. The aspiration for Sheffield to be a 'top shopping destination' is still foregrounded; at bottom, this may still be an old-style 'build it and they will come' big-box mall, though in a city centre rather than on the edges. A shed with frills is still a shed.What should or could the 'first of the new' look like? One response might be to examine who shapes the development, and who owns and benefits from it. Is Sheffield's retail quarter just another tradable asset for the property industry? In which directions does the value flow? What was really radical about Ebenezer Howard's garden city proposals was not just the green space and urban planning, but the insistence that assets should be held in trust for the benefit of the community. It's an insistence that contemporary practice tends to forget.Questions of ownership lead on to issues of access. If Sheffield's retail quarter is to be the first of the new, you might expect to see a very different range of uses and occupants to those found in most urban shopping centres. Will we see the innovative and experimental businesses that are normally squeezed out of so-called high value locations? To achieve that, space needs to be available at low rents and on flexible terms.A visualisation of the new retail quarter. Clearly it helps if you're young, affluent and white.The 'first of the new' should surprise and delight in ways other retail areas don't. You can't plan in serendipity, but you can plan for it. One way to do that is to ensure that enterprising uses that seem to have little commercial value can exist cheek-by-jowl with hard-headed profit-making. Community and civic uses, places for sociability and idling, spaces for growing and performance should all be part of the mix.That demands an approach to planning that prioritises animating and curating space, moving beyond the regulation-and-enforcement protocols of use classes and paper trails. Regulation needs to be in there, but it's neither the start nor the end of the process. That necessitates planners being closer to the streets, not more distant. It will take a brave local authority to invest in engaged and positive planning in the current climate, but the benefits are there to be grasped. When planners know their patches as intimately as the people who use them every day, we might all end up with better city centres.  [...]

Is there more to 'impact' than reinforcing the status quo?

Mon, 15 Jun 2015 09:56:00 +0000

Impact: expect the unexpected (click picture for slides)A few years ago I was chatting to a housing professional who’d been employed in a controversial government programme to restructure ailing housing markets in the north of England. His job was coming to an end and his team were being transferred into the local council.As part of his work many hard lessons had been learned about design, planning and working with local communities. Many of these were summarised in papers and evaluation reports produced by his team. What should be done with them, he asked. The answer? Put them in the skip. We won’t be needing them.The Year Zero approach to professional learning isn’t unique to local authorities (as I’ve blogged previously). A decade ago the then Labour government spent much time and energy investigating the need for ‘skills for sustainable communities’, even setting up an Academy for Sustainable Communities that would - so the word went - bring together competing sectoral interests and transform education curricula.Within a few years, under the same government but a different prime minister, the ASC was merged into the Homes and Communities Agency, where its work went the way of an abandoned sandcastle. The other week I met a survivor from the ASC when I was giving a talk to doctoral students from Sheffield and Leeds universities. Now studying for a PhD and financing himself by working shifts at the local Asda, he gave me an insider’s insight into what I’d observed from the outside.My talk was on ‘research impact’, a major concern among academics in the UK since their funding (particularly in fields like human geography and the social sciences) depends on showing how academic output is benefiting society at large. This can be measured in various ways: publication, changes in practice or influencing policy, for example.Reflecting on my own experience in different roles, I’m less sure than I used to be that influencing policy is all it’s cracked up to be - or that this is the best impact that researchers should be looking for. I used four examples. First, as someone seeking to influence policy and practice on high streets and town centres, I reflected on a political process that didn’t commission evidence on ‘high street performance’ until halfway through an inquiry announced by the prime minister; that dumbed down the complexities of town centre regeneration into a competitive pitch for so-called ‘golden tickets’ fronted by one of the least credible government ministers of the last decade; and that was hijacked by tabloid headlines about a council spending money to get someone to turn up in their town centre dressed as the TV character Peppa Pig.The second example was that of the Academy for Sustainable Communities. In my role at the time as editorial director of New Start magazineI was able to help make the case for professional learning and bring researchers’ work to wider audiences. But creating and curating such ‘epistemic communities’ has limitations, not least of which is their vulnerability to policy faddism and the self-reinforcing circularity of approved ‘knowledge’. The third example was drawn from my role as an activist seeking to debate and make sense of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ agenda in 2010-11 (an agenda that briefly surfaced in the most recent Conservative Party manifesto and was promptly forgotten again). The debate, in brief, was about the level of support society needed to function in the ways politicians clearly wanted it to, building social capital and encouraging self-help. All the evidence showed that the withdrawal of support was damaging the very structures the polit[...]

What does the Nottingham Cheese Riot tell us about markets?

Mon, 18 May 2015 16:20:00 +0000

Bury market: social leveller or social segregator?The Stag and Hounds, in Bristol’s Old Market, prides itself on being one of the city’s top music pubs. It has another claim to fame that most regulars won’t know: it was home to one of England’s longest-lived Piepowder Courts.Piepowder Courts (from the French pieds poudres, or ‘dusty feet’) were established in mediaeval times to oversee traditional markets, dispensing summary justice to pickpockets, thieves and cheating travelling merchants. Bristol’s Piepowder Court continued to sit until 1870.Sometimes, though, the cursory consideration of a few local dignitaries was not enough to keep the markets and fairs running smoothly. In Nottingham the city’s annual Goose Fair, a huge event that would draw crowds from across the midlands, became the scene of the famous Cheese Riot of 1766.Thomas Bailey’s Annals of Nottinghamshire, published in 1852, describes how irate crowds ran amok after complaints that traders were overcharging for cheese, grabbing cheeses from the stalls and rolling them down the streets. ‘The mayor, whilst endeavouring to quell the disturbance, was knocked down by a cheese, hurled at him by one of the mob, and severely stunned,’ Bailey recounts.I came across the story of the great cheese riot while researching my book, How to Save Our Town Centres. Since then more than one reader has suggested a re-enactment of this historic occasion. Others might argue that these days the equivalent of the cheese riot is Black Friday in Tesco, while traditional markets have become a haven of decorum.There are other conflicts over our markets, though, that should worry us more. Some are over the cost of trading and the rents demanded by private (or local authority) owners: Brixton and Oxford have both seen disputes over rents in recent years. The closure of Sheffield’s Castle Market and its relocation to a new building on the other side of the city centre has attracted complaints that both traders and traditional customers are being priced out.What is at stake is not just the markets themselves but the character and vitality of our town and city centres. Go to Bury in Lancashire, home of the black pudding, and you’ll see one of the most successful traditional markets in England. Every year up to 1,500 coachloads of visitors descend on this former mill town to sample the wares at nearly 400 stalls. Market traders boast that you can get everything you need from cradle to grave. There’s even a man who’ll do your headstone. But at the other end of town, the new Rock shopping centre is stretching Bury’s retail core, offering a glass-and-concrete panorama of Marks & Spencer and Superdry, Costa Coffee and River Island. In between, at the 1990s Mill Gate shopping centre – itself a replacement for a 1960s precinct – every other shop is a discount store and there’s an acne of ‘to let’ signs. Bury’s planners, it would seem, like planners across the UK, have swallowed the myth of ‘retail-led regeneration’, imagining that shiny new shopping centres will revive their towns. In the process the traditional markets are often left behind, physically distanced from the new developments and reduced to either a throwback to a bygone age or a curiosity, providing a retail diversion for people with plenty of disposable income and time on their hands.Places that used to be social levellers, providing something for everyone and where well-off and hard-up would rub shoulders and exchange banter, are now becoming socially polarised. At the same time an economic segregation is dividing successful from unsuccessful towns, as high-end retailers conce[...]

Something more than pride

Sun, 19 Apr 2015 22:26:00 +0000

Blaenau Ffestiniog has been on my to-visit list ever since I met artist Howard Bowcott at a conference a couple of years ago. I'd seen pictures of the artworks created as part of the town's regeneration project, and wanted to put the work in context. Blaenau has been described as the 'hole in the polo mint' of the Snowdonia national park. When the park was created a line was drawn around this devastated hub of the Victorian slate-quarrying industry. It was as if there was nothing to celebrate and no reason to go there. On one level that's understandable. Arriving in Blaenau some years ago might have felt like entering the gates of Mordor: shattered hillsides piled with the remnants of slate mining, shops and pubs struggling to survive. Today there are still plenty of problems. This is not a rich area. At the Seren social enterprise, which provides work in furniture reuse and recycling for people with learning disabilities, one manager comments: 'Recycling is one of the only growth industries in Wales - that and debt collection.' That may be an exaggeration, but it's a heartfelt one. Blaenau's high street isn't exactly buzzing, though you wouldn't expect that in a small town in a remote part of North Wales on a wet day in April. By all accounts it's more lively than it was. What's more important is the sense of pride that's evident from local people. Howard Bowcott and Jim Buckley, leader of the town's regeneration project, talk enthusiastically about the community's involvement in steering the vision for the town's future and their part in creating the slate artworks, dramatic sculptures that open up the centre of the town and turn previously deserted streets into a focal point. The sculptures celebrate Blaenau's character, but not in the mawkish style characteristic of many public artworks, the sort of nostalgia in bronze that reminds us how many cities used to work. They reference the town's industrial history, echoing the gradient of the slate deposits and are brought to life with the words of local poets and musicians; but they're distinctly contemporary. Heritage here is about life, not mourning. A similar defiance is evident at Antur Stiniog, another social enterprise at the heart of the town, which specialises in mountain biking and outdoor adventure activities. Ceri, the company's manager and a passionate advocate for the town, also sees heritage as something alive: you share it when you take someone for a walk, he says. It wasn't always like this. This is a town that used to be suspicious of the tourists who swarmed around the national park and resentful of their prosperity. Now, I'm told, on a sunny day you'll find visitors and locals alike sharing the town centre space. There's a pride that makes people insular, but when people are welcoming it's more than pride: it's confidence.  Subscribe to this blog[...]

Why Gordon Brown's latest rescue mission is a lost cause

Thu, 05 Mar 2015 12:24:00 +0000

There is a better way: picture from prime minister, Gordon Brown heroically pulled the international financial system back from the brink. It was a move that benefited the banks rather more than it helped the public.His final act as a backbench MP might be to pull off another rescue mission for an organisation saddled with the consequences of financial shenanigans. This time his quest is to rescue Tesco.More precisely, it is to rescue the Tesco store in Kirkcaldy, preserving the 189 jobs of staff who work there. It’s become quite a cause celebre in the town since the supermarket giant announced a round of store closures in January and abandoned a raft of plans for new developments. Other retailers fear the loss of the Tesco store could spell the end for Kirkcaldy as a shopping centre. Hundreds of people joined a Valentine’s Day march to declare their love for Tesco.Tesco’s troubles are well known. They include over-ambitious expansion plans, both in the UK and internationally, and a business culture that led the organisation to overstate its profits by £250 million. You could say the culture at the heart of the world financial system that Gordon Brown did so much to rescue was as apparent five years later at the heart of Britain’s retail sector.The difference is that Tesco isn’t about to collapse any time soon. The company’s official trading profit in the UK in 2013 was just shy of £2.2 billion. Shave the odd £250 million off that and that’s still a profitable company in anybody’s book. So why Britain’s biggest supermarket should need a former prime minister to go cap in hand to its bosses to save 189 jobs deserves some interrogation.What Kirkcaldy’s Valentine’s Day marchers should know is that Tesco will never be a faithful partner. Its promises have never been to love and cherish the places where it operates, but to honour and obey its shareholders - who are more than a little twitchy right now.There are better ways of thinking about how to keep a town alive. One that continues to inspire me is the Teenage Market, the brainchild of brothers Joe and Tom Barratt in Stockport. The Teenage Market opened up Stockport’s traditional market as a space for the town’s young people to celebrate their creativity - their music, their making, their business ideas. It showed how just below the surface, a town that was once chosen by Newsnight as a symbol of high street decline was full of life and ideas. The Teenage Market idea has now spread to 16 towns across England, from Croydon and Kettering to Salisbury and Stoke-on-Trent. It shows that you don’t need a Tesco to keep a town alive.What you do need is to believe in local people. My new book, How to Save Our Town Centres, shows how this can be done. It can be as simple as growing and sharing food in a town like Todmorden; or as ambitious as taking on the transformation a whole neighbourhood for the benefit of the community, which is what’s happened in Boston in the US. What’s lacking in many of our town centres isn’t investment, but imagination. There’s a kind of learned helplessness that assumes that only people with big bucks can make big changes. If I wanted a superhero to rescue my town, I’d put my money on Joe Barratt, not Gordon Brown. Even better, I’d put my money on the Joes around me of all ages, backgrounds and genders who have the determination to make a difference. • How to Save Our Town Centres is published by Policy Press and available here. Subscribe to this blog[...]

Why our towns need a better future than Tesco can offer

Wed, 18 Feb 2015 09:37:00 +0000

Wolverhampton Royal Hospital - 'a betrayal' by Tesco.Picture by Ian Hampton, used under Creative Commons licenseBritain's town centres are on the political agenda again. The high profile collapses of chain stores like Woolworths and Blockbuster may have eased up, but many of our towns and cities continue to struggle.Last month local leaders across the UK who had pinned their hopes on plans to regenerate landmark sites in partnership with Tesco had to bin years of planning and negotiations: the giant retailer pulled out of schemes to develop 49 sites, dumping promises to create at least 8,000 jobs, more than 1,100 new homes and nearly 2.5m square feet of retail space. Wolverhampton's Royal Hospital, derelict for 14 years, was just one of the victims. Less than a year ago the local council leader, Roger Lawrence, was hailing a £65m scheme to bring the site back to life, create hundreds of jobs and revitalise the city centre. Last month the local MP, Pat McFadden, had a different story. Tesco's decision to walk away from the redevelopment was 'a betrayal of the people of Wolverhampton and a clear breach of the promise made to the people of the city'.Such frustration continues to typify the debate on the future of town centres. Local and national leaders place their faith in private developers and big retailers to rescue towns from decline, only to have those hopes dashed time and again.Speaking in Parliament on 10 February Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, declared that town centres were 'threatened by all sorts of forces: not exactly evil forces, but forces of change'. His roll of shame included supermarkets, betting shops and takeaway food stores. Two days later Northern Ireland's minister for social development, Mervyn Storey, took up a similar theme at the Northern Ireland Town Centre Futures conference. There is an 'urgent need to radically rethink how we regenerate and revitalise our town centres as multifunctional social centres', he argued.There are signs that this is starting to happen. In Bangor, Northern Ireland, artists have worked with the local council to bring a run-down parade of shops back to life. In Falkirk a series of festivals have created a buzz and sense of local pride. But the real changes we need go much deeper than that. They involve rethinking how space is used, who has access to it and owns it, and where the economic, social and environmental benefits flow. The decline of our town and city centres has taken decades, exacerbated by social and technological changes, unintelligent planning decisions, and a naive faith that 'the market' will solve the problems it has created. It may take as long to reconfigure town centres in ways that generate lasting local benefits.But in the meantime there are powerful symbolic actions that can demonstrate the direction of travel that's required. In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, local people are rethinking public space and creating a new narrative for their town by growing and sharing food. In Bristol, street artists have pioneered alternative futures for Stokes Croft, an area neglected for years by the city council and private landowners.On London's South Bank, Coin Street Community Builders has shown how creating affordable homes for local people rather than yet another bleak office city can bring lasting benefits for everyone, opening up the riverside as a public space and preserving a diverse community in a city that is increasingly the preserve of the affluent. My new book, How to Save Our Town Centres, shows how such symbolic actions can signpost new ways of thinking of urba[...]

Welcome to the world of bricks without straw

Fri, 06 Feb 2015 07:30:00 +0000

The bricks-without-straw society (click for link to slides)'There is no money' has been the catchphrase of austerity, ever since Liam Byrne's famously flippant note to his successor as chief secretary to the Treasury after the 2010 general election. It is, of course, nonsense.There has always been money to do what government deems necessary. The question is how we raise it and how we choose to spend it. But the narrative of austerity is that all those things we used to consider valuable - public services, decent housing, social support for people in crisis - are now unaffordable luxuries. 'More for less' is the mantra.It's time to call a halt to more for less. Speaking at the National Housing Federation's regeneration conference this week, I described this as the 'bricks without straw' society - the image of a subjugated people subjected to ever greater demands for cost-cutting.The bricks-without-straw society is, in the phrase of the sociologist Ulrich Beck who died last month, a risk society. It is one that contains the seeds of its own destruction and in its efforts to resolve one problem simply creates others. For Beck, the risk society is one that poisons itself in the name of progress (think Bhopal, Chernobyl, and climate change) and dismantles its social foundations in the pursuit of individuality. I think there are three ways in which the bricks-without-straw society particularly impacts on issues connected to housing. The first is the world of work. Beck saw the increasing individualisation of the world of work as something that undermines society; there is ‘a hidden contradiction between the mobility demands of the labour market and social bonds’. The result is that ‘community is dissolved in the acid bath of competition’ (Risk Society, Ch3).Today the labour market demands more flexibility and availability than ever, but many employers are chipping away at the entitlements previous generations of workers fought for: sick pay, holidays, permanent contracts. The growth of zero-hours contracts and the advent of the 'precariat' have contributed to a society in which work is no longer a route out of poverty for many: more people in poverty are in work than are unemployed. Employers expect society to pick up the tab: but at the same time governments are relentlessly removing social support, arguing that private philanthropy and charity will step in. The food bank, with its well-meaning but wholly inadequate patchwork of support, has become the icon and the consequence of this bricks-without-straw economy.The second area of risk concerns the homes we live in. Nearly 50 years after Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home shocked a nation, we are in danger of recreating the conditions that led to the growth of the housing campaigns of the sixties. We have residualised, rationed and stigmatised social housing. At the same time we have priced owner-occupation out of a generation's reach through a collective obsession with price speculation and rising capital values. The idea of shelter as a human right and a basis for community has disappeared from government policy. The result, in Beck's terminology, is the social production of risk: social problems entirely of our own making.The third area of risk is financial, and concerns the way a society that claims to value social mobility is making it more and more difficult for those from poorer backgrounds to change their prospects. Contemporary culture incessantly encourages people to use stuff, whether it’s Apple gadgets or Alfa Romeo cars, as signifiers [...]

Whose resilience are we talking about?

Mon, 12 Jan 2015 08:00:00 +0000

It's adaptive resilience, Jim, but not as we know it...Google ‘Black Friday mayhem’ and you’ll instantly get more than 28,500 specific search results. A few years ago that would have been unheard-of in the UK.Black Friday has been one of the most successful recent US exports, if the degree of media coverage and number of images of people tearing lumps out of each other to get their hands on giant TVs are indicators. And while the Friday after Thanksgiving has become the biggest shopping day of the year, with an estimated £1.65 billion spent in the UK in 2014, the brawling in the aisles horrified at least one police chief and left the boss of genteel department store John Lewis (a company that had done its share to stoke up the excitement) wondering whether Black Friday was worth the aggro.Black Friday is an extreme example, but what’s good for retailers clearly isn’t necessarily good for society at large. And we need to remember that when people start talking about the revival or resilience of our high streets.If revival and resilience are simply more of the same, you have to ask whether they’re the kind of futures we really want. And you certainly need to start interrogating the concepts a bit more closely.Resilience, in particular, is in danger of rapidly becoming what Ann Markusen calls a ‘fuzzy concept’ - something that because it means so many different things to so many different people, becomes impossible to measure and turns into a cloak for activities that may be far from beneficial.It’s good, then, to see some fairly sober academics getting their brains around the idea in a recent publication on the future of the high street from Southampton University. One of them, Professor Neil Wrigley, has developed the idea of ‘adaptive resilience’ - bouncing forward to a different future rather than bouncing back to a rose-tinted past. ‘Taking that perspective implies, additionally, that policies focused on assisting high street revitalisation are likely to be most effective and efficient when they work with the grain of evolutionary trajectories which were becoming clear before the shock of economic crisis,’ he writes.Up to a point. But I’d argue that it leaves some important questions unanswered. It suggests, in particular, that economic evolution is something that just happens and over which people, individually or collectively, have no control. We become passive ‘consumers’ within structures we must live with whether we like them or not. This leaves our local economies as a kind of Bourdieuian ‘habitus’ in which we can only imagine that we have much genuine choice and agency. I would contest that: just as many sane and sensible people chose to stay away from the Black Friday sales or even observe the more creative Buy Nothing Day, so we can reshape our high streets and town centres through our own choices and by challenging the choices of others (especially those who imagine that ‘investment’ should dictate how we plan and use our town and city centres).So for me, resilience is about more than the survival of the high street as we currently know it; and it’s more than simply adapting to external circumstances and trends, useful as adaptation can be. I see it as a process of protecting and strengthening local citizenship, enabling people to begin shaping their towns in ways that generate public involvement and local economic benefits. That means challenging the notion that economics is somehow value-free and that the best we can hope for is[...]

Stop working, start walking

Sun, 21 Dec 2014 18:24:00 +0000

Whatever Baudelaire was thinking of when he came up with the concept of the flaneur, you can be pretty sure it wasn’t Bradford.Flaneurs, those wandering urban aesthetes who lose themselves in exploration and gain new insights in the process, aren’t the kind of species typically associated with West Yorkshire. You can imagine the average Bradfordian’s response to the kind of material you might read in The Psychogeographic Review.But getting lost in the city isn’t just for dandified intellectuals with time on their hands. There are reasons why we should all do it, seeing, smelling and discovering the places where we live.Flaneuring, Bradford styleWe should do it especially if our jobs involve planning, strategizing and looking after the city. The office is too comfortable an environment: it allows us to imagine that plans and maps and visions are actualities, rather than aspirational interpretations of places. So wandering, talking and discovering is a necessary antidote to the kind of activities that keep many of us chained to our desks.Last month in two workshops with Integreat Plus, I encouraged council officers at Bradford to take time out for flaneuring. This being Bradford, our first session also involved a soaking. Over the two sessions we explored Little Germany, the once thriving merchant quarter that has been reinvented as a location for city living, and asked why it doesn’t really feel like a bustling neighbourhood. We discussed whether the new Westfield shopping centre would connect it to the city centre or cut it off, and whether it would feel better by turning streets into green spaces or creating more space for car parking.The Samson of Church BankWe also investigated the shopping areas just north of the city centre, where we found a flurry of new activity clustering around North Parade and bumped into David Craig, a designer who’s been working with new businesses moving into some of the parade’s architecturally impressive but underused buildings. That chance meeting was important. A couple of phone calls, and we’d arranged for David to come and talk to our flaneuring group of council officers about the realities of trying to bring a previously dead quarter of the city back to life. The council officers gained an insight into the choices and trade-offs that independent businesses have to make which they’d have missed if they’d stayed in their offices doing their usual work.In a culture that is constantly demanding more for less from public services and blaming those who get anything wrong, it’s a good time to make the case for less working and more walking.  Subscribe to this blog[...]

Incroyable! France gets a bite of the Incredible Edible cherry...

Thu, 27 Nov 2014 10:30:00 +0000

Incroyable! Francois Rouillay, founder ofIncredible Edible in France, with food to shareThis time last year I was writing about the ups and downs of our Kickstarter campaign to publish the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden. One year on, it's exciting to know that there’ll be a French edition of Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution next year.Urban Pollinators has agreed to licence French publisher Actes-Sud to translate and republish the book as Incroyables Comestibles! - and we’re looking forward to seeing the Incredible Edible magic continue to spread throughout the French-speaking world.It's a long way from where we were a year ago, contacting everyone we could think of to spread the word and wondering whether there would be enough backers to bring Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson’s book into life. One year on, four fifths of the initial print run has been sold and the book has readers in New Zealand and North America, several European countries and every nation of the UK.We’ve been struck, too, by the positive reviews from readers who have been delighted by the quality of the writing as well as the book’s content. Roselover24 on Goodreads wrote: ‘If we could all implement even a few small ideas from this book in our towns and cities I think the world would be a better place.’Similarly, Steve Bentley from Geelong in Australia said: ‘I thought it would be just a really informative book. I was pleasantly surprised that it not only has given me inspiration and practical ideas but it was also a really good story.’And for those who wonder whether anything can rival hearing Pam Warhurst’s inspirational speaking, here’s Vanda Horvath, writing on Amazon:‘I met Pam when she came to speak to the Alliance for Women Scientists and Scholars for a Better World, and so know her to be inspiration on legs. I was therefore naturally drawn to read her new book and found it un-put-downable. Written in the same engaging, humorous, and very moving style in which Pam speaks, reading this story is like sitting down with her and hearing it first hand at the same kitchen table over which the whole idea of Incredible Edible Todmorden was originally hatched.’ There are still a few copies of the English version available via the Urban Pollinators website - and £1 from every copy sold supports Incredible Edible Todmorden. Subscribe to this blog[...]

Coming soon: a new generation of northern garden powerhouse cities?

Tue, 25 Nov 2014 06:30:00 +0000

Don't worry about the skills: future cities are all about the graphicsTen years ago the British government of the day was worried about the challenge of creating communities fit for the future. It was even more worried that the professionals who were likely to be in charge of the process frequently didn't have the skills for the job.The government did what governments often do when faced with a complex and perplexing issue: it brought in one of the great and the good to lead an inquiry. Sir John Egan was just such a grandee, with a track record in government inquiries to boot. The Egan Review of skills for sustainable communities was, in many ways, a groundbreaking and far-sighted piece of work. It was particularly notable in challenging the hegemony of the built environment professionals and their complacency about their expertise.What was really needed, Egan said, wasn’t just a set of professional skills, but a set of attitudes and behaviours - notably leadership and partnership working. In other words, the experts’ technical skills may have been adequate, but their people skills were far from it.For a little while Egan was taken seriously. The government set up an Academy for Sustainable Communities, with ambitions of changing the way placemaking was taught, all the way down to school geography classes. A new generation of enlightened regenerators would emerge.Within less time than it takes for a child to go through primary school, there's less to show from the Academy than from the average primary school kid's homework folder. The government’s priorities had changed, and the new wave of placemakers would be the responsibility of the Homes and Communities Agency. Ten years on, we’re back where we started. Today the Westminster government is strong on rhetoric about ‘garden cities’, but generally clueless about the skills needed to create good places to live in or how those skills are to be nurtured.Does it really matter? Might not the development industry, of its own accord and through sheer high-minded aspiration, organically evolve until it provides us with the places we need? Might not our politicians, purely through the power of soundbites, conjure into being a new generation of northern garden powerhouse cities from the ashes of austerity? The unsurprising truth is that if we don’t make the effort to invest in better places, we don’t get them. And in the UK the national efforts to critique and improve the skills of our planners, property developers, architects, surveyors, local government officers - and anyone else with a hand in the places our children will inherit - are generally lamentable.That’s not because the professionals, or those who aspire to become professionals, are uninterested. In two recent talks about placemakingin Bradford and at Sheffield Hallam University I was struck by the willingness of local government officers and aspiring architects to get to grips with the big issues.But they can’t do it on their own. In the run-up to what promises to be one of the most miserable and unpleasant General Election campaigns in decades, we need people in politics, institutions and business who are prepared to ask serious questions about the future of the places we live in.  Subscribe to this blog[...]

Without more than a vision, the people perish

Fri, 24 Oct 2014 11:52:00 +0000

Merry Hill: vibrant, viable, sustainable? Picture by Brian CliftSetting visions for towns, cities or nations can be challenging. The Welsh Government has risen to that challenge admirably with the aspirations of its regeneration programme.Here’s its vision statement: ‘Everybody in Wales should live in well-connected vibrant, viable and sustainable communities with a strong local economy and good quality of life.’It’s hard to disagree with anything here. Who wouldn’t want such laudable aims? But that’s just the start of the story.The Welsh government’s regeneration summit this week presented a range of ways of fulfilling this vision. One was the big property approach, illustrated by Grosvenor’s case study of its Liverpool Onedevelopment. Another was a focus on cities as attractors of high-value jobs, advocated by Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities.Both arguments have merits and drawbacks. Both tend to be presented as if it’s a no-brainer that economic development is good for everyone, or that good physical development means regenerated communities. Both arguments tend to be presented as value-neutral, when they’re anything but: they elevate particular notions of economic value to a dominant position and in doing so, relegate others.I was asked to open the conference by speaking about the need for a new vision for town and city centres. And my vision for the future, too, is anything but value-neutral. I believe we need to open up the conversation about the values we stand for and advocate, and take it beyond aspirational statements that nobody could disagree with.I began with a short case study of Merry Hill, the shopping centre that has transformed the face of the Black Country - in ways that have dubious benefits for local communities.Merry Hill is not just a case study of out-of-town retail displacing traditional shopping streets, though that’s part of it. The real irony of Merry Hill is that it was facilitated with bucketloads of public money: it was one of the earliest Enterprise Zones declared by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. And, unsurprisingly, the developers and property speculators followed the money. Who would blame them?But such publicly-bankrolled place-changing raises questions. Not only about value for money, though that’s important: a study by the Work Foundation found eight of ten ‘new’ jobs created in Enterprise Zones were simply displaced from elsewhere. The key questions, I suggested in my talk, concern who benefits and how. The property developers won’t tell you what activity has been displaced when a shiny new centre opens. The economists won’t tell you about the quality of life enjoyed (if that’s the right word) by those who take up new jobs - or what’s on offer for those who are left behind by new technologies or patterns of work.For me, there are some key questions to be asked before new projects or developments are considered. They’re questions that are often asked by evaluators after the event, but should be posed by planners beforehand.The first three are the standard evaluation questions about displacement, deadweight and drop-off:• what activity is being displaced from one location to another?• what changes would have happened anyway?• how long will the investment effects last?The fourth is the fundamental one: who benefits in the long term?Who are we expending our efforts for? And if [...]