Monday, 30 April 2012

Citizens, not shoppers

The forces of darkness, aka Paul Uppal MP and the local Masons small businessmen, have decided that they want to sweep the city's streets clean of, well, everybody except shoppers. They have no vision of society beyond the transactional exchange of money between low-paid drones and tax-evading national chains. Walk down The Dark Place's main streets and it's nothing but Lichtensteiner mobile phone providers, Swiss-domiciled chemists and a bland, narrow 'range' of establishments substituting baubles for community. Of all the shops in the city's main space, one is independent: a butcher's. And they wonder why the place is depressed.

Trapped in this consumerist paradigm - and no wonder, given the Secretive Millionaire MP made his money speculating in commercial property - Uppal and his friends want to turn the city centre into a BID: Business Improvement District. They're a kind of urban cancer: they promise local councils that they'll turn any area into a clean and shiny place, the kind you see on corporate brochures. You know, white couples in pastel clothes strolling from Starbucks to John Lewis. Perhaps even a black or same-sex couple in the background to prove that capitalism can cope with 'diversity'. The clue's in the name: they don't want to improve the city - just their profits.

Of course BIDs are sinister, Orwellian organisations. They take public space, get the law changed and turn it into private space. The high street ceases being somewhere I could sit and read the paper, where goth kids can sit and peaceably sneer at me, where the mad and bad can expound their terrible religious views. It becomes a conveyor belt from the neon hell of chain store to chain store. No deviation permitted. You'll be there on sufferance, rather than as a citizen. Security guards can and will remove you for sitting, not shopping, for announcing your political views or simply looking wrong.

I can't express how strongly I oppose this. I want my high street to be a place where weird, spontaneous things happen. I want it to be various: not just a parade of shiny plastic. It's where we should party and protest or just stop to chat - think of all those Italian squares where the cool and the crazy, the old and the young interact. Cities are brilliant places, because large numbers of people are thrown together in an accident of geography. Out of this comes weird, exciting - and sometimes unpleasant - encounters, activities, art and other activities. If Uppal and his greedy friends get their way, we'll be reduced to one thing and one thing only: buying, then leaving. That's partly why this place is so unpleasant. During the day, you shop. At night, the only reason to be there is to drink so much that a technicolor yawn seems like the only way to brighten the place up.

The Dark Place is zoned. Nasty kebab shops and sex shops down a couple of streets, municipal buildings tucked away, shops - and empty shops - dominating the centre. Let's be more imaginative. Let's place public buildings in the shopping arcades: libraries, council offices, free leisure activities, so that the crowd isn't made up solely of open-mawed consumers. Encourage the goths, the chavs and whichever other social groups are out there.

I am seriously thinking about starting a proper organisation to challenge the BIDs. I've already got a name: RABID Wolves (Residents Against Business Improvement Districts). Neat, eh? Who's with me?


Alex said...

I'll join RABID.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Alex. It's an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend to everyone.

Alex said...
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