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)