The crisis unfolds – catch-up /EiP / new paper

So much has been going on that all the web sites I’m responsible for got rusty. A few people have even complained, which is warming.

London Plan activity has been the elephant in the room year. After a summer break the EiP resumed with debates on transport, neighbourhood issues and all the housing material. About the only positive change in the Johnson plan is the espousal of the notion of Lifetime Neighbourhoods, a concept which Age Concern had nurtured in the spirit of the Lifetime Home standards It has proved to be a useful rallying point for a wide variety of arguments. It’s basically a call for people to have more services available locally, with the London Forum being very practical and starting to build a matrix of what sorts of social infrastructure one should have at 200m, 400m and so on. It could be a platform for the defence of post offices, local social services, small shops and so on, Maybe even to resist the concentration of primary care. And of course it can help reduce the need to travel and thus enlist many more supporters and disability groups. The combined thrust of this topic and the social infrastructure debates could produce useful outcomes and the panel appeared sympathetic.

[ One of the great disappointments to me is that there has been no critique from the academic community of the archaic and property-dominated approach of the plan to retailing and town centres.  If we had Muki Haclay, Laura Vaughan, Alain Chiardia and the space syntax fraternity it would have been helpful – in stressing the enormous potentiality of many small shopping, service and business centres missed by the plan.  We have referenced their work, but it’s not the same as having them there to argue. Some homework to be done here. Michael Bach from the London Forum made a strong case and I mean to listen to that day as soon as the audio is available – see below. ]

Then there were sessions on air and water quality, biodiversity and so on which I missed.  Then a discussion on Implementation. The fact is that there are virtually no mechanisms for the implementation of the London Plan: the Mayor can’t or wouldn’t go out and buy the land needed to build the houses, and then build them. The LDA might and occasionally does buy land, but business plans and criteria apply and the essence of this plan is that any implementation which does ocurr is the result of elaborate compromises among public and private bodies, all very murky (flexible).  No wonder then that the section on Implementation was very weak.  However, the Mayor’s office had produced a draft implementation plan with a very detailed tabulation of who would have to do what, and when, to implement many of the plan’s provisions.

Then we had Regeneration, talked out from July when the developers had used all the time to plead their special interests on the ‘Opportunity Areas’ – Battersea and Nine Elms, Earls Court, Convoy’s Wharf and so on.  Curiously in this adjourned debate the community and voluntary sector voices were loud and clear, partly because the development interests stayed away in droves.  [That’s curious, isn’t it, in view of the private fortunes made in regeneration, the very positive results for investment property ‘performance’ in regeneration areas reported by IPD and Yolanda Barnes of Savills this summer…]   The oppositional argument points to the fact that ‘regeneration’ is launched in the name of deprived people [and the new plan makes this even more micro-focussed] while those people seem to reap few of the benefits and are often damaged by displacement, reduced affordability of housing and local services…. and lack of control over the process. Good to see so much reference to the research literature by council tenants on this and the related question of ‘social mix’.

Finally a few days on the housing issues in the plan. (To follow)

There are paradoxes about how ‘democratic’ the EiP process is. Once you get there, and if you have time to prepare and listen, and the confidence to argue, then I think it’s a fairly good kind of democratic process.  Those are heavy conditions, though, and exclude a lot of people. One great achievement of Just Space – especially Richard and Sharon – has been to support wider ranges of people so that they can join in effectively.  Those with money and staff can ensure their case is fully put: for example the two most consistent attenders have been Judith Salomon from London First, always poised to pop up and remind us that nothing must threaten London’s global city role, contribution to GDP and so on, and James Stevens from the Home Builders’ Federation, usually refreshingly sharp in pursuit of land to build on but sometimes unable to resist a barbed dart from the right:  he really does believe that the public sector is parasitic on the private. [  NB I must remember to ask Lucy Rogers if she would let me use her wonderful drawings of all these people – or maybe she has them on a blog somewhere and I could link them in. ]

Democratic when you get there, but utterly invisible from the wider world though. One UCL student, after a day at the EiP commented “This is really interesting; I’ll see what people are tweeting about it.  But you know what?  There were no tweets. None…  Never…”  These issues never get on TV or radio and are almost proof against journalistic attention.  No journalist has time to sit for days and days to gather a story.  I proudly managed to get Dave Hill, who blogs in the Guardian about London, to show up.  He came for a few hours but to no avail. The London planning and housing issues only came to life in wider London discussion with the con-dem coalition proposals to cap and curtail housing benefit and force council rents to rise. [ I joined in at one point with a letter in the Evening Standard. ]

This overt declaration of class war has filled the newspapers and seems to be about the only thing bringing home to quite a wide range of people the highly agressive and reactionary character of the coalition. Some quite conservative elements are protesting at the predictable displacement  effects in London and Boris Johnson got in trouble for likening the cleansing to Kosovo.  We’ll see whether this issue goes the way of the poll tax.

Back to the EiP though:  there is a serious need for intermediation between these planning and policy debates and the wider society.  It could take the form of courses (a popular university, perhaps), popular TV or radio, more bloggers. Aren’t there some unemployed journalists or planning graduates out there willing to make their reputation doing that kind of work…? Comic book?

One big bit of democatic deficit is about the publications of the EiP proceedings.  Just Space had been pressing since 2007 for daily transcripts to be made avaialble so that people NOT paid salaries to attend (volunteers, active citizens, people who have to take time off paid work or find chaild care) could follow the examination.  The panel was quite sympathetic but it depended on the GLA to pay for it and they refused – repeatedly.  As a second best we asked for webcasts or podcasts and even that was refused.  All we were offered was audio files which would be available after the event on CDs at a price of £7 per session.  We managed to get hold of one of these, by paying.  But now that want 20 or so to try and make a retrospective transcript with the help of a fine crew of UCL volunteers, there is a “technical problem” so severe that the helpful planning officer in charge can’t get the files out of the one computer which has them.  We are waiting and waiting, weeks after proceedings ended.  Contrast this with the mere Borough of Camden where their committees have simultenaous webcasts which are immediately webcast.  This is so obstructive of the spirit of consultation. [Later 8 November. Only today do they email to say that they have fixed that computer and can now start burning discs etc. That’s 2 weeks’ delay and we still don’t have the material.  By contrast, a week ago there was a GLAEconomics seminar at which they announced that there was a live video webcast and archive – so the GLA just doesn’t rate public access to the EiP as important.  I also note that this work is done by a contractor Bow Tie TV Ltd]

Finally LSE stuff

On Friday 29th the LSE had a seminar on the potential use of alternative scenarios in London Planning.  Ian Gordon led off with a good argument (similar to his chapter in the forthcoming book (see below)) then Bridget Rosewell did a very fluent argument that they had tried it and it didn’t work, that they had looked at substantial variations either side of their central projecions and so on. Then an economic historian called Tim Leunig gave a hilarious, glib, liberal-with-some-redistribution talk. Finally a bit of discussion.  Drew Stephenson was stalwart in saying that running alternatives was feasible and had been used in earlier London Plans.  Sharon Hayward was stalwart in challenging the orthodoxy and I did a bit.  Otherwise it was all hopelessly mainstream. Most of the speakers were concerned only with GDP/GVA growth rates, were happy that London’s GDP is less vulnerable to public expenditure cuts and therefore pleased to say that things were not going to be too bad.  We (London) might even be rather a (relative) success story.  Almost as though it were a sport, and we might win the cup, or avoid relegation. OMG.

This week (on Thursday) LSE is launching the little book it commissioned in the summer from its internal academics + Glaister and me.  When we wer asked to do it the book was to be called “London after Labour” but now it’s called “London: coping with austerity”.  The book is a free download and my chapter – which deals with public partcipation in London Planning and the Just Space Network is available as a separate e-print.  Take your pick. I need to do a wonderful 10-minute rousing speech and I hope that I can.  I may start from Ian Gordon’s call for multiple narratives.

Later:  this is (roughly) what I said.  Not much reaction but afterwards friends were enthusiastic about and Sharon (who Tont Travers had avoided calling to speak – as at a previous meeting) said she didn’t agree with it all.  That needs discussion.

Book launch talk – Michael Edwards

(personal view – not JSN)

Ian Gordon last Thursday called for a wider range of narratives, of accounts of the past, present and potential futures of London.

This is one of them.

It starts from a different interpretation of the evidence on the origins of the crisis.

First: long trend since the late 1970s for the wages share in GDP to fall and the profit and rent shares to rise.  Essentially a class perspective on the struggle for control of the social surplus.

Second: the growth of credit which has enabled consumption to grow while wages don’t.

Third: the strong growth of income inequality and wealth inequality in most countries and especially strong in UK.

Fourth: the flows of money capital in Europe increasingly into acquisition of assets whose value will rise – or can be made to rise, not least by the flow of money itself.  Housing, land and real estate have been major recipients of these flows, especially where scarcity is enforced in one way or another through the practices of the development industry and the planning policies being pursued.  Thus the UK and a fortiori London and the South East have fared worst.

The crisis which was triggered in 2007 is thus not seen as primarily a financial crisis but as a particular moment in a long class struggle. The attacks mounted on the social wage by Labour before the election and by the coalition since the election are thus interpreted as another blow in the same struggle.  For workers in the middle and bottom of the income distribution and who are not established owner-occupiers these cuts are experienced as another blow to their survival.

Keeping this perspective-this kind of consciousness-alive in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy has been an enormous struggle (like Fahrenheit 451) in the face of the hegemonic discourse of neo-liberalism and it’s much to the credit of the EiP panel members that these voices have found a place in the Examination in Public of the DRLP.  It’s also much to the credit of the LSE that the London Group has welcomed this deviant narrative into the book. As universities become more and more focused on the international luxury market, our community-facing activity has to be treasured and expanded.

We have raised some important issues about the Plan and enabled many voices to be heard which would otherwise have been silent. I even hope that we may secure some changes in the Plan, though we are realistic enough not to expect  much.  But the contradictions in the plan are so many and so profound that some cracks may be opened up. For example:

(i)  The mayor speaks of the “step change” needed on environmental issues (DRLP §1.47) but no such step changes are proposed. (NB no mention was made of any environmental issues at last week’s LSE London seminar on scenario planning either.)

(ii) The Mayor expresses fine aspirations about tackling poverty-especially in relation to health outcomes-but in fact the plan is relentlessly driven by the pursuit of aggregate GDP.  The problem of low wages is noted but, apart from the Mayor’s support for the London Living Wage, nothing is offered on this front.  Higher average productivity is to be secured by fostering the growth of sectors which have high GVA per worker.  Nothing is done about raising the productivity (and thus potentially the wages) of the low-GVA-per-worker sectors. (ref to  Crossrail?)  That’s the real challenge.

(iii) On housing the plan is structured in such a way that discussion is focussed on total output targets while it should be focussed on expanding the social rented housing stock. All the government announcements since the election further add to the crucial importance of planning for more social rented housing. If that, or something equally radical, can’t be done then all the fine words about equalities will need to be removed because it will be a plan for rapidly worsening social and health polarisation.

Author: Editors


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