Another extract from Paul's book:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bob Steel
This article from Paul Kingsnorth's forthcoming book is very disturbing.
Although primarily about Liverpool I think it's a portent of the way things
are moving in our towns and cities. I was frankly surprised that the
wholesale erasure of rights of way on streets is apparently legal; I'd
recommend all to read this.
Cities for sale
Privatised city centres with no guarantee of public access and patrolled by security guards... a grim vision of the future? No, it's happening right now in London and Liverpool, says Paul Kingsnorth
Chinatown, London, May 2006I'm sitting on the steps of the feng shui pagoda, hoping I've got the right day. Behind me is a large, long, redbrick building; an ugly thing with an underground car park beneath it and a line of boarded-up shop fronts on its lower level. The shop fronts all have notices stuck on them announcing their closure. Each notice bears a logo that reads "Rosewheel".
My phone rings.
"Hello," says a voice. "Is that Paul?"
"Yes," I say. "Is that Jabez?"
As I speak, I see a Chinese man approaching me. Jabez puts away his phone and shakes my hand. He points to the redbrick building behind me. "This is the one," he says. "Let me show you."
This building is called Sandringham Court, and it's the reason I'm here. Jabez walks me around the building, showing me the ex-shops. There was the Golden Gate Chinese Grocer's. There was Chinatown's only fresh fish shop, its only Chinese jewellery shop and its only Chinese kitchen utensil shop. They were run by independent traders, all of whom have now been evicted from the building by the company whose logo is on those signs: Rosewheel.
Built in 1985, Sandringham Court was taken over by Rosewheel when its previous - Chinese - owners went bust. Rosewheel is not Chinese and appears to have no previous connections with Chinatown. Some residents say they had never heard of it until the shopkeepers received their eviction notices in spring 2005.
None of them wanted to move, but they had little choice. Rosewheel had plans: Sandringham Court was to be demolished and replaced by a spanking new Chinese-themed shopping mall known as the "Chinatown Gateway". The shopkeepers were told they were welcome to apply for floor space in the mall. Unfortunately, their rents would be at least double what they were before.
The company then took upon itself the role of saviour of Chinatown. The Chinatown Gateway, said the company's founder, Robert Bourne, would be "110% Chinese-focused". Rosewheel would arrest the "decline of Chinatown" with an "exciting retail development" - "a showcase for the cultural heritage and economic power of China", which would attract "new customers and opportunities". It would feature "100 shops, restaurants and concessions in an innovative setting". It would be good news for Chinatown and its Chinese people, he said.
Many in the local Chinese community are furious about Rosewheel's evictions, and its self-appointed role as the saviour of Chinatown. But what has probably angered them most is what Rosewheel wants to do to the pagoda I have been sitting on. The pagoda is not just a pretty piece of street furniture. Its positioning is said to affect the feng shui, and thus the fate, of Chinatown itself. But Rosewheel intends to annex the pagoda as part of the Chinatown Gateway. Which may or may not affect the feng shui.
The company wants to enclose part of the street on which the pagoda sits, demolish it and rebuild it as the centrepiece of its mall. It is also rumoured, according to Jabez, to want to fence in what is currently a publicly accessible colonnade on Charing Cross Road, and possibly also enclose the adjacent Newport Court, transforming it from a public road to a private covered walkway. The fear is that the public streets of Chinatown are to be privatised.
Jabez Lam is the founder of the Save Chinatown Campaign. "It's not just going on in Chinatown," he says. "It's all over the country. The high streets, the loss of character: whether it's in London, or in the country, whether it's an ethnic or a village community, independent people are being driven out. In this case, it is about a minority community that has made an investment of 50 years. Money, time, blood and sweat have been put in to build this place."
This, he says, is what makes people here really angry; that their hard work is being not only overlooked, but piggybacked on. "It's the work that the Chinese communities did that has made this place desirable now, and that's why the property developers want to come. More than 70% of Chinese businesses here are rented. Think what will happen if developments like this start to push those rents up. This would be the end of Chinatown as we know it."
"In Camberwell, recently," he adds, "the council were evicting black businesses from their shops, and there was an outcry. They had an inquiry headed by Lord Herman Ouseley, who used to run the Commission for Racial Equality, and his report concluded that what they were doing was the equivalent of ethnic cleansing. So I ask you, what is this? The same thing is happening here. Small Chinese business owners are being pushed out by the council and a rich developer."
Trying to get an answer from Rosewheel doesn't get me very far. Its website has a message declaring that it is "currently being updated". I check with Companies House, but it has no phone, fax or email for the company, just a postal address. I discover that Rosewheel was incorporated in 2003, just before it bought the 200-year lease on this building. It appears to have no other projects, and no stated previous history. Its accounts are overdue.
I telephone Westminster city council five times. Eventually I am told that it has no contact details for the company. Then I discover that Robert Bourne, Rosewheel's founder, is a multimillionaire property developer, known for his closeness to the government. He has multiple business interests: as well as being a director of more than 50 other companies, he was also involved in a failed bid to buy the Millennium Dome and turn it into "London's silicon valley". He's not a man, though, who seems to want to shout about it. All my efforts to talk to someone from Rosewheel are in vain.
Jabez wants to show me something. He walks me around the corner to Gerrard Street, where he points to a dingy staircase. To one side is a red plaque with gold Chinese lettering on it. "This used to be a brothel," he says with a slight smile. "Now it is a family club. Most of the people in Chinatown came from Hong Kong and the New Territories, where there are five major surnames. When they got to London, they formed their own clubs - five clubs for the five surnames. This is one of them. All of this took decades to build up, but it could be uprooted in a day. This is what makes Chinatown, not the golden dragons. This can't be replaced."
What's happening in Chinatown is, in one sense, happening all over the UK, as supermarkets advance and local boozers are swallowed up by PubCos. Yet it is more, too. What's happening in Chinatown is an act of enclosure. And it is not the only one.
Urban public space is at the heart of city and town life. It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape.
Yet this, too, is under assault. From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down, often with little consultation or publicity. In towns and cities all over England, what was once public is now private. It is effectively owned by corporations, which set the standards of behaviour. These standards are the standards that are most congenial to their aim - getting you to buy things. So there will be no begging, no being homeless, no wearing hoodies. There will be no busking, and often there will be no sitting either, except in designated areas. You will eat and drink where you are told to. You will not skateboard or cycle or behave "inappropriately". And as for political demonstrations - don't even think about it.
Throughout history, urban space has been a source of danger to those in authority, a place where dissidents gather. So, for a cash-strapped local authority, handing over control of public streets can seem like a boon. Private companies provide security guards to police them and keep them tidy. It saves money and time.
The battle Jabez is fighting may be much bigger than he knows. But the good news for him is that he may have allies he doesn't even know about
Liverpool, April 2006
The place is a mass of cranes and concrete; at its centre, a gaping hole. Collapsing buildings around the edge are hung with giant banners reading, "Requisitioned for the Paradise Project".
"By what right?" asks Don. "That's the key question. And who's asking it?"
Donald Lee and I are in central Liverpool, walking the boundaries of the biggest retail development in Europe - the Paradise Project. The walk takes 40 minutes, which gives some idea of its size. What's happening here is a familiar story: a vast shopping centre being carved out of a city; a shopping centre that will be filled with chain stores, chain restaurants, chain cinemas. But again, this is different.
Liverpool is not short of shopping space already. The retail centre of the sixth-largest city in England is a grey wilderness of underpasses and branches of H&M (a typical example of the mess created in the 60s by planners and architects who believed that they, too, were creating paradise). But in the years since it was built, the growth of out-of-town retail parks has sucked shoppers away. Paradise, its advocates say, will re-establish Liverpool as a "premier retail destination".
Architecturally, the Paradise Project will certainly be an improvement on what went before: something the city council, and the developer it is working with, is trumpeting from the roof-tops. What they are less keen to trumpet is that Paradise requires the first privatisation of a city centre anywhere in England.
Liverpool city council has sanctioned the corporate enclosure of the 42-acre city-centre site, which encompasses 34 streets and a public park. The development company Grosvenor, owned by the Duke of Westminster, the country's third-richest man, has been given a 250-year lease on this area. Grosvenor, with the enthusiastic blessing of the council, is putting into practice the kind of massive, consumer-focused re-engineering of the landscape previously seen only in private malls such as Bluewater.
At the centre of the development, on Paradise Street, will be a 280,000 sq ft John Lewis department store together with "a host of major high-street names" comprising 1.6m sq ft of new shopping space. Nearby Hanover Street will be a "lifestyle-focused district with an eclectic atmosphere", while South John Street will be the "family-orientated district". Then there is Chavasse Park. Previously a publicly accessible green space, the park is now a giant hole in the ground. This will be filled with a 2,000-space car park with a new landscaped park put back on top of it.
This is not a development that will allow the area's own character to evolve over time. Its character has been predetermined by architects, marketing specialists and planners. No room is left for responsiveness to people and locality. This is not about those things. It is about money, and in that sense it has already been a great success.
This is the way the deal works. The city council gets an expensive, flashy renovation of a rundown area, costing almost £1bn, for which it has to pay virtually nothing. In return, it must give up - or rather the public must give up - its rights to it.
Don Lee is from the Open Spaces Society, a campaign group founded in 1865 to protect common land and public rights of way, and he is not happy. "In Des Moines, in Iowa," he says, "there is a network of underground tunnels and walkways. You can only access them with a password, and only people who can afford to pay for it get a password. It's absolutely true. It's the ultimate privatisation of public space. What is happening in Liverpool is a step towards this kind of thing. You think that sounds extreme? Come back in 10 years, and see where we are."
The thing that bothers Don, apart from the Paradise Project itself, is that no one else in Liverpool seems to care. Perhaps no one in Liverpool: Don is from Manchester. About the only other significant opposition to the Paradise Project comes from the place where we're headed now - Quiggins.
Quiggins is a three-storey shopping centre. A Liverpool institution, it's a chaos of clothes shops for teenage goths, secondhand clothes, furniture and books. It's about to be demolished to make way for Paradise. Quiggins' founders, brothers John and Peter Tierney, set up the centre 18 years ago as a conscious attempt to keep alternative culture alive in an increasingly corporate city centre. They kept rents deliberately low, and provided a space for creative talent to flourish. The city council says it will find Quiggins another home, but the brothers are not satisfied. "Quiggins is committed to Liverpool's cultural industry and has been since its formation..." they write on their website. "It houses 45 local businesses, employing 25 local people, all helping to recycle within our local economy." It doesn't matter much what the brothers say, though. Quiggins has already had a compulsory purchase order issued against it.
In the noisy, wholefood cafe on Quiggins' third floor, Don and I sit down to talk. "It took me a long time, and a lot of correspondence with the developers and the council, before they finally admitted what was happening with this project," he says. "There was a very low-key public announcement - you had to know where to look to find it - that they were removing the rights of way from 33 streets in the city centre. It took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but I finally got them to admit to me that they were replacing these rights of way with something called 'public realm agreements.' " He looks at me with raised eyebrows.
"Well, I'd never heard of these things, so I kept pressing them, and it turned out that these 'public realm agreements' would give the public very limited access to the streets, on Grosvenor's terms." They would be within their rights, Don tells me, to begin access half an hour before the shops opened and end it half an hour after they closed. There would be nothing to say that they had to allow you in outside those times. "Remember, these are streets - this is not some private shopping centre. Yet now you will have no right to use them unless you're shopping. While the public are winning new rights of access in the countryside, they're having these rights taken away in towns and cities."
After I meet Don, I go to Liverpool's city council, to meet councillor Peter Mullen. Mullen is responsible for maintenance and repair in the city centre, and he is an enthusiast for the Paradise Project. He's an affable Scouser who takes pride in his city and believes the project will improve it. He waxes lyrical about the money it will bring in and how it will allow Liverpool to compete for shoppers with Manchester and Chester. What Grosvenor is doing, he says, is emphatically not privatisation of the streets; it's more a kind of clean-up.
"Grosvenor will employ its own security people and they will patrol the streets, but that will be in addition to the police," Mullen says. "They will take responsibility for maintenance and repair, and I'm quite pleased that that's the case... For the pedestrian going into the district, the shopper going into the shops, you really won't notice the difference. It's not as if the security guards are going to stop and search people."
Will the abolition of public rights of way prevent public access? "I'm assured that they will not," Mullen replies, but he doesn't sound certain. He says there will be 24-hour shopping some days, so it won't be in Grosvenor's interests to prevent access. "People going about their lawful business have nothing to worry about," he says. So will Grosvenor be preventing people from wearing hoodies on their streets, as Bluewater does? "I don't think they'll be allowed to do that." But, again, he doesn't seem sure. He's a nice guy, Peter Mullen, but what he tells me is not reassuring.
What's happening in Liverpool city centre might sound like an isolated case. It isn't. One of the things that Mullen was keen to tell me, in fact, was that Paradise-style arrangements were "nothing new". He was right: they are becoming increasingly common all over the country.
In 2006 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) produced a landmark report on precisely this subject. What Kind Of World Are We Building? examined the growing private ownership and management of the public realm, and showed that places such as Paradise - "over-controlled, sterile places which lack connection to the reality and diversity of the local environment" - are proliferating. In London, the Broadgate Centre, adjacent to Liverpool Street station, is a 30-acre site owned and managed by development company Broadgate Estates. The Broadgate Centre is patrolled 24 hours a day by private security, and is aimed specifically at attracting "high-earning people". Also in London, 70 acres of land in the King's Cross redevelopment area has been farmed out to Argent Developments, which hopes to control, brand and market the public spaces as prime destinations for visitors.
Then there are Business Improvement Districts - or Bids. Bids are a way to get more private finance into urban areas, and councils all over the country are adopting them. A tax is raised from local businesses and spent on improving the local environment. In return, the businesses decide what the environment looks like. But Bids are also a means of homogenising and controlling that environment: focusing it on consumption and taking the day-to-day running of it away from publicly accountable authorities.
The RICS report quotes one city-centre Bid manager, who "made it clear that he is keen to encourage more high-earning shoppers and fewer less affluent customers. 'High margins come with ABC1s, low margins with C2DEs,' he said. 'My job is to create an environment which will bring in more ABC1s.' " This job frequently involves, for example, moving homeless people out of Bid areas for fear that they will deter shoppers.
Seen in its wider context, said RICS, this was starting to look like the beginning of "a quiet revolution in land ownership, replicating Victorian patterns". Our urban streets are becoming "malls without walls", a trend that has been evident in the US for decades. The end result, suggests RICS, could be very unfortunate indeed: "Today's developers are more concerned with the principles of the shopping mall than with creating places able to stand the test of time... This is because they are too narrowly focused simply on creating places that would generate maximum returns in terms of shopping and spending... The drive towards creating a place purely as a consumer product contradicts the creation of that sense of place, as the aim of property-led regeneration is higher property prices and higher rents, out of reach of local residents and local shopkeepers."
What is happening in Paradise looks like a clear indication of where many more of our urban public spaces may be heading: not just clone towns, but private clone towns.
· This is an edited extract from Real England: The Battle Against The Bland, by Paul Kingsnorth, published next week by Portobello Books at £14.99