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Regeneration: "Not a rebirth, just a little death"

Owen Hatherley and Benedict Seymour talk urban renewal.

The Silicon Roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch
The Silicon Roundabout at Old Street in Shoreditch. Photograph: Getty Images

That Britain’s unequal and restive cities are in trouble was hardly news to the panel debating urban regeneration at Nottingham Contemporary, but, hey, some of us are still playing catch-up. Participants included one Owen Hatherley, a man whose celebrated architectural tour of the regions "A Guide To The New Ruins Of Great Britain" offered both a scathing journalistic critique of New Labour’s sometimes tragicomic efforts at "Urban Renaissance", and a vindication of the idea that you can learn a lot about the state of a country through its buildings. 

Likewise, a second volume released earlier this year, "A New Kind of Bleak", laid into the coalition’s failure to come up with any viable alternative to cramming former industrial heartlands with unaffordable "luxury flats" and public-private white elephants, and portrayed a "Tory-Whig" government unwilling or unable to move on from a vague neo-liberal hope that the empty aspirational monuments of the "creative industries" might somehow lead the proles to a better life.

Joining him on the panel was Benedict Seymour, a man who, in the early part of the last decade used provocative films and unflinching essays to warn of the "imminent collapse" of the UK’s housing bubble and predicted where "creative" areas like Shoreditch in East London might be headed. In his view, gentrified creative zones represented "not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath", a hipster contingent lending areas an artsy credibility that, rather than Britain’s cities and dragging them into the "ideas economy", would end up increasing rents and pushing working class locals to the margins. Given the recent arrival of the totally straight-faced, "Avant Garde Tower" just off Brick Lane  he may well have had a point.

Even after a financial crisis that revealed the fragility of regeneration projects built on property speculation, Hatherley argued that town planners remain hellbent on "accelerating a process that in somewhere like Hackney had taken fifteen years". He singled out London’s much-mythologised Heygate Estate, a place currently seeing its 3,000 run-down council homes replaced (a process backed by the strong-arm of Compulsory Purchase Orders) with 2,500 questionably "affordable" homes, as an example of the many councils’ continued regenerate-or-die intransigence. 

"The best thing [Southwark Council] could do," he argued, "is clean the thing up, refurbish the building to level out some of the five million people on the bloody council waiting list. The idea that they would do that is completely implausible, because they would lose so much face for one thing. I think that’s the thing for these [Labour] councils – once you’ve sold your soul you can’t really ask for it back. Most of these people used to be socialists, used to believe in stuff, and that’s still somewhere in the back of their minds but I don’t think they can get back to it."

The coalition government, meanwhile, rests much of its hope for urban renewal on the return of Enterprise Zones, though extensive research suggests their effectiveness has been overstated, with even the supposed success of Canary Wharf more the  result of infrastructural spending and the rehabilitation of unusable land than freedom from onerous regulation. "Everything you thought was dead is resurrected," Seymour warned of the return of Enterprise Zones. "But that doesn’t mean the dynamism supplied by the real estate bubble will be there again."

While the government tries to revive dying cities through a culling of regulations, Seymour argued that this hands-off alternative to New Labour’s clumsy Urban Renaissance itself risks exacerbating their problems, setting a precedent for "hyper-exploitation, lowering of wages and the relaxing any protection of workers’ conditions". "If that is the formula for renewal of the economy for regeneration," he warned, "then you might want to consider whether it is too nihilistic and unpleasant to endorse".

Blueprint Regeneration planner Nick Ebbs, on the panel to prevent it descending into violent left-wing agreement, accepted that the UK is littered with regeneration done badly, but contends that it doesn’t always have to be like this. "I was in Liverpool very recently looking at some of the Pathfinder schemes and these are examples of how absolutely not to do it, perfectly good Victorian streets being compulsorily acquired and then demolished and actually left as wasteland. That’s bonkers." He claims that Blueprint’s plans for redevelopment around Nottingham’s Waterside, though, "will be done incrementally, will involve adaptation and re-use of existing buildings. You know, there are alternative models out there."

Local town planner Adrian Jones, meanwhile, called on local authorities, now able to borrow cheaply and acquire land at knock-down prices, to seize the chance to be bold. "You can see it in Nottingham, all of its schemes have stalled, except for, ironically, the publicly funded schemes which are the transport schemes like the tram and the station, funded by the taxpayer," he said. "There’s only really dogma standing in the way. At the end of the day, the current model for capitalism is basically milking the welfare state. The privatisation model is making money out of the public sector. So why don’t we cut out the middle man?"

Hatherley, romantic old social democrat, agrees, and clearly believes that basic post-war alternatives hastily hurled on the Thatcherite bonfire can still provide a route out of the morass. "No one has tried over the last few years to take a former regeneration site and build public housing on it," he said. "These all sound like relatively small things given the scale of the crisis, but... people aren’t able to think about utopia when even a public housing estate with 200 houses is considered implausible. Of course no one can think about utopia."

"Regenerate Art" was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Public Programme.