Ground Control: Fear and Happiness

Anna Minton’s book ‘Ground Control: Fear and Happiness’ is very timely as the Blair/Brown era draws to a close and a further period of rampant privatisation dawns. The privatisation of public space is one of Blair’s great gifts to the nation – anodyne, soulless windswept malls and gentrified post-industrial zones where the urban walker is nicked on suspicion of terrorist offences.
Here’s a great summary of the book from the New Statesman
What we have here is the first serious account since the crash of what happened to our public spaces and private homes during the boom, and how New Labour reneged on its early promises of an “urban renaissance”, swapping European sophistication for a kind of mean-spirited, bad-weather version of exurban America. Stepping adroitly from detailed research into local government to sharp architectural criticism, and from rigorous sociology to anecdote, Ground Control serves as a horrible bestiary of Blairism’s jargon-laden thuggery and its manifestations in everyday space. Whether through the demolition of the very “communities” that Labour purported to represent (“Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders”), or an unprecedented expansion of harassment and surveillance (“the Respect agenda”), or the obliteration of public space (the introduction of totally private “business improvement districts”), all was done in the name of the “many” and not the “few”. The careful sobriety of Anna Minton’s writing makes the damage all the more shocking.

We start with the Big Bang. To “regenerate” the former docks and warehouse districts, the Thatcher government imposed on certain designated areas (usually over the opposition of Labour councils, which later applied the same methods) a combination of control-obsessed statism and anarchic capitalism, in the shape of enterprise zones such as Broadgate and Canary Wharf. These spaces, though not gated, were emphat­ically private. Certain activities – protesting, loitering, generally being unsightly – were expressly prohibited. New Labour expanded these places, but it did so in a far more sophis­ticated manner. The new private districts – Paddington Waterside in London, Liverpool One – were organised as much around streets as wind-blasted towers and plazas, with the dual aim of welcoming shoppers and deterring undesirables.

Yet their difference from actual streets became apparent when – as happened in Liverpool One – protesters against the developments found themselves criminalised for leafleting. Minton’s descriptions of these places are set against journeys through their contrasting surroundings – a conversation in a grim Millwall pub overlooked by Canary Wharf, the juxtaposition of regenerated inner Manchester with the blighted estates of Salford. Meanwhile, areas up and down the country were designated business improvement districts. In practice, this meant that private companies were employed to police these areas to keep them “clean and safe” from anything surprising: from politicos, the homeless, the very young or very old, the odd lost flâneur. In the case of Manchester, the entire city centre is “secured” as privately controlled yet publicly owned space.

This obsession with security does not stop on the edges of the financial districts and malls. Minton finds that “Secured by Design” policies have turned the remnants of social housing into prison-like enclaves, as heavily gated as the outposts of the rich. Her central argument is that the obsession with eliminating chance through absurdly heavy surveillance, or by surrounding housing developments with ramparts, helps create insidious fear. Hence the fear of crime rising in direct correlation with a fall in the crime rate.

Enclaves rich and poor are caught in a terrible symbiosis. Greater Manchester, described in this book as a kind of capital of Blairism, is a place where – at least in Salford – more is spent on issuing antisocial behaviour orders than on youth services, and where the “transformed” centre and docks barricade themselves against an outskirts of criminalised poverty.

Swaths of (usually public) housing in “regenerating” northern cities such as Newcastle or Sheffield faced their own transformation in the form of the appalling Pathfinders – essentially slum clearances without rehousing in order to “renew”, or rather artificially stimulate, a housing market. The story here is almost unbelievable: from government sponsorship of entirely unregulated Rachmanite slumlords to the destruction of council housing, presented as a matter of (heavily managed) “choice”, all amounted to a de facto policy of slum creation, and created a council waiting list of more than a million.

However, Ground Control can often resemble the lament of a disillusioned believer in New Labour’s Urban Renaissance. Minton’s alternative is a European continental urbanism of piazzas and shared space, with mixed council, private and co-operative housing. Yet, although Zurich or Palermo might not be as grotesquely paranoid and unequal as London or Manchester, she fails to see the comparative virtues of Britain. The endemic racism of public life so common in Switzerland and Italy has only recently begun to creep into our politics.

Minton’s advocacy of a tamed capitalism, in the shape of artistic reuse and creative property development, seems like mere rearranging of furniture. The end of the boom gives her account a vertiginous sense of possibility that she never quite translates into proposals to match the scale of destruction. Nonetheless, Ground Control is a book that needs to be read, both in the gated communities, by way of explanation, and in those places at the receiving end of Asbos, Secured by Design or Pathfinder – as ammunition.

Owen Hatherley is the author of “Militant Modernism” (Zero Books, £9.99)


London’s Burning Podcast on Resonance FM

The other week I was mightily chuffed to be invited by Malcolm Vache from Housmans Bookshop on Caledonian Road (a geographical star of this blog) to appear on a radio show he was putting together for Resonance FM. This was something of a magical combination for me, my favourite bookshop asking me to come on and speak on my favourite radio station.
It was one of those occassions where you have to remember that you are there to actually fulfill a function and talk about something (in this case The London Perambulator and this blog) rather than just sit back and enjoy the stimulating chat. The loose theme was London psychogeography and I could happily listen to the other contributors on their own for an hour – Ken Worpole with his knowledge of the London dockers and the Essex coastline, Laura Oldfield Ford with her vivid art and zines drawn from psychogeographical peregrinations of Greater Hackney, and Merlin Coverley author of essential London books, Occult London, London Writing and Psychogeography.
If you’d like to listen to what transpired over that hour the podcast is now available here on Resonance

The London Perambulator will be screened at Housmans bookshop as part of the London’s Burning season celebrating Radical London on Saturday 25th July at 5pm. Me and Nick Papadimitriou will be doing a Q&A afterwards. Tickets available in advance from


Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning in Leytonstone Woolies

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This was an incredible event that I feel privileged to have attended. The avant-garde-cum-Moaist-folk-revivalist composer Cornelius Cardew lived and died in this neck of the woods and at last year’s Leytonstone Festival there was a fitting tribute to this geographical association as members of his Scratch Orchestra re-united for a performance at the old Green Man pub.
But this event took the Cardew link to another level I felt (with Luke Fowler’s brilliant Cardew film so recently installed in the Serpentine Gallery) – being as it was a 10 hour long participatory performance that took in several local locations including the Green Man Roundabout. I coaxed my 6-year old along to part of the performance in St.John’s Church where he sat in awed (or shocked/ bemused) silence for 15 minutes as James Bull skillfully played a metre of plastic ducting and led a series of synchronicised sniggers. There was also some artful clarinet and tuneful singing throughout.
The Woolies paragraphs (see below for Cardew’s score that was used) took on a rather more ethereal vibe in this vast cream empty consumer tomb – the sounds all vocal and measured pacings marking the aisles where I have variously purchased Power Rangers, a teapot, gel ink pens (pack of 5) and a pear tree.
The Leytonstone Avant-Garde is alive and well it seems – in Woolies at 9pm on a Saturday.