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

Owen Hatherley and Benedict Seymour talk urban renewal.

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.

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

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.

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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear