Monday, 28 May 2012

Piss off, Portas

Those of you based in the UK may have seen lots of headlines about The Dark Place and 11 other cities winning £100,000 each to 'revitalise' their central districts, a competition overseen by the ubiquitous Mary Portas, one of those individuals who has turned self-confidence into national prominence.

Local bigwigs are orgasmic about this, which I think is utterly foolish. £100,000 is a nugatory sum to spend when the challenge is this big. It won't make the slightest bit of difference. Instead, the government has spent £1.2m to a) draw attention to the fact that most of Britain's urban areas are identically depressing and b) to further this woman's career.

The simple fact is that there are two ways to solve this city's problems. The first is to repair this country's damaged economy. That might sound glib and facile, but I mean it, and you certainly won't hear my useless multimillionaire MP Paul Uppal (last website update: 1 month, last Tweet: 17 days) making this point. Conservative and conservative Labour governments decided to pursue an economy based on rock-bottom wages for the vast majority, with the proceeds of financial speculation temporarily filling the gap in government funds. That's come to a crashing halt and the population is too poor to carry on spending.

If you believe in consumerism - and I don't - then the answer is easy: pay people more. Divert some of the billions which accrue to directors and shareholders (FTSE CEOs earn an average £2.7m) and thence offshore, to the workers. They'll buy new shoes and wallpaper and Katie Price 'novels' and ice-creams and bicycles.

Secondly, this competition is a symptom of our urban failure, rather than a solution. The language is of consumption, while the planet burns. What this town needs is a mixed economy, like an Italian city centre. Not just a place to shop (the appalling Paul Uppal prefers to talk about shoppers who should be privileged rather than citizens) but a place to chat, flirt, sunbathe, vote, argue, preach, proselytise, sing and dance, read and rally. City centres should be microcosms of their communities: we need to reflect the messiness and irrationality of the population. If the kids want to skateboard and the old people want to sit and watch the world go by, they should be free to do so.

Sadly, The Dark Place has opted for the sterility of the monoculture.
 But most of the money will be used for a Dragon's Den-style project to support entrepreneurs while solving one of the city's biggest problems. Wolverhampton has the fifth highest level of empty shops in the country, and so new businesses will be given grants to move into abandoned buildings to trade and showcase their work.
This is ridiculous. Cities are more complicated than piss-poor TV entertainment. We all know what 'entrepreneurs' want: subsidies and higher profits, achieved by blackmailing local government, importing shoddy tat and depressing wages. Who are these 'entrepreneurs'? What qualifies them for the term? Who judges them? Why not 'support' local citizens - perhaps some of these abandoned buildings could be turned into Citizens' Advice Centres, trades union offices, child-care centres, art galleries or educational establishments (we used to have a city-centre 'HE Shop': long since closed).

Local power has been put into the hands of 'City Centre Company' known as WV One (sadly and rather covertly supported by my employer, the local university, though perhaps it will provide a non-consumerist voice), rather than retained by local government in the interests of all.
WV One works with partners in a co-ordinated and proactive way across the city to attract new investment, shopping and leisure facilities and to encourage continued improvement in the city's environment, safety and access. 
As far as I can see, there has been no debate about this. The result is that the city's future will be narrowly focussed on consumerism, and by corporate consumerism at that. The city is virtually dead in terms of independent shops: there's no baker, no cheese shop, no independent book shop, no wine and beer outlets, no independent shoe shops and very few independent clothes shops.

The result of course is that shoppers' money flows out of the town to Swiss and Cayman accounts.  The physical results are two-fold: appalling architecture and a population discouraged from doing anything other than shop in the city centre. If WV One and its counterparts in other cities get their way, any non-consumerist behaviour will result in exclusion from space which once seemed public but turn out to be private.

This is already under way here. Under the deeply Orwellian headline: BID Will Put Businesses In Charge, WV One announces that local democracy has been abandoned. I thought - perhaps naively - that I was in charge, in some small way, by casting my vote for a council. But no.

A Wolverhampton-educated woman has been appointed to lead the establishment of a Business Improvement District (BID) that will put local businesses in charge of improving the city centre trading environment.
University of Wolverhampton law graduate Michelle Baker has joined WV One as BID Director with a brief to help city centre companies decide if this is the right approach for Wolverhampton.

Thanks Michelle, but a) there are almost no 'local businesses', just national and international chains, and b) how about us, the inhabitants. The paucity of Michelle's thinking is cruelly exposed:
“A BID can stimulate economic growth and a positive sense of place but for businesses, the real benefits are on the bottom line.  With the support of city centre companies, a BID in Wolverhampton could provide a quality shopping and social experience in the city centre with increased footfall and consumer spend and reduced crime levels.  It would stimulate the economy, improve on the existing appeal and market the city centre as a destination of choice.”  
These could be additional security measures, more events, city centre hosts or rangers and better marketing to attract footfall.”
They just can't think further than corporate profits - not that this kind of announcement is brought to the attention of the general public, who would, I suspect, think of themselves as more than pound notes with footfalls.

We need to beware of these weasel words: what does she mean by a 'social experience'? We know that Uppal and Co. want to sweep the streets clean of beggars, religious loonies, political groups and charity collectors - just like Albert Speer in Germania. 'Additional security measures' = private security guards with no responsibility to the general public, just to their employers, no duty to prevent crime, simply the task of getting rid of inconvenient or annoying people. As to these 'city centre hosts or rangers': how are they any better than 'charity muggers'? Either they're salesmen for tacky promotions or they're another force used to sweep the streets clean of intransigent non-enthusiasts. (Read all about this and similar schemes in Anna Minton's excellent Ground Control).

This city is full of weird and wonderful people, with interesting and exciting ideas. Many of them work for the council, so it's strange that that organisation is so keen to pass on its responsibilities to these unelected, partisan and unaccountable bodies. There's little sign in the city centre of citizens' priorities, ideas or activities - nor will there be if Portas and her friends get their way. The mantra - despite 4 years of evidence to the contrary - is 'private good, public bad'. I reject this. Citizens are brilliant, and its time we stopped accepting that we're the lead weight on the economic and social balloon. That's why I'm such a big fan of UK Uncut - the real Big Society.

At least Michelle and her friends are honest in this headline: this is a coup. The question is, what are you and I going to do about it?

Update: Uppal's risen from his regeneration tank to 'welcome' the bid. Thus proving that while he doesn't believe disabled children deserve state benefits, private business does. So he is a socialist of sorts… redistributing our taxes from the poor to the rich. (Oh yes, could somebody show him how to deploy an apostrophe?). 


bbtom10 said...

You managed to omit the key non-commercial element of the bid to win this ludicrously small amount of money:

"Wolverhampton wowed Portas with its idea of introducing "contemporary town criers" to shout about the city's best bits ("They'll shout 'oh yey, oh yey!' and then tell people what's on," said Gilmour)".

Perhaps they can be sponsored by the new organisations vying for a slice of the Portas Pie? "Oh Yay, Oh Yay, Check out Domino's £9.99 pizza deal, now with a free 1.5 litre bottle of Pepsi Oh Yum.".

Nice blog.

imelda havers said...

Excellent, pithy and spot on article which should be used as a blunt instrument to knock some sense into the profoundly witless bunch who have systematically destroyed anything interesting in the city over past decades. I used to run a regeneration project in Wolverhampton, a city I came to love with all it's tat, diversity and rich humour. I had to argue the toss with many a drone, hell bent on sweeping all of this out of the way for 21st Century version of the Wulfrun and Mander centres.

I agree entirely about Ground Control - an exellent book just rereleased with a new chapter on the Olympics.

Keep on blogging - I only wish I could write this well!

The Boss said...

Excellent, enlightening and a needed commentary to wake us up to what The Government and Porta's is doing.
Worth RT, promoting etc. Wake up Real People!
BTW I came to the Article via the Professional Network. I am not a Local Government Professional but the Article and your Post that led from it was pure gold. I am cheeky enough to do this but would other members of the Public do so???
Something to put in the old academic pipe then.