A London utopia

This is roughly the text of a talk given on Friday 11 November at an Urban Geography conference called Alternative Urbanisms, held in UCL.  Comments, criticisms and suggestions very welcome. Main text follows  the abstract. Slide show not included because of some copyright problems. Email if you want to look. Very constructive review/ writeup by blogger George Carothers at http://www.thepolisblog.org/2010/11/sharing-city-on-knowledge-and-academy.html
ME at alt urbanism, Nichola Smalley photo.jpg

This paper tries to sketch an alternative future for London arising out of the current crisis (seen in broadly Harvey-ish terms), the need for some big jump out of the prevailing orthodoxy and the (relatively) mundane but stimulating experience of taking part in the Examination in Public of Mayor Boris Johnson’s slightly adjusted version of Ken Livingstone’s London Plan in alliance with a lot of citizen groups.

It is conventional in left circles to deplore utopias and instead to stress that a better future would and should be forged through dispersed innovations emerging from successive struggles and contradictions. No doubt there is sense in that, and I look forward to taking part.  But in the mean time there is a job to be done in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxy; stirring people to imagine alternative futures and to feel less anxious about letting go of the painful but familiar present.  Perhaps a debate on utopias might get more turkeys to vote against christmas. Like the interesting technique of backcasting in transport planning, it might help us think what we have to do now to get where we want to be later. The paper thus explores the kind of London we might imagine wanting, combining the following attributes: (i) major rises in wages and productivity in low-wage occupations (ii) securing housing tenure for all, not just fully-paid-up owners (iii) diversion of saving / pension strategies away from reliance on asset-price escalation (iv) radical reduction in how far / how often we need to drive to satisfy wants (v) a revaluing and expansion of the commons, of mutuality and cooperation. (Note that these last 2 might constitute a radical interpretation of ‘localism’) and (vi) some redress to London’s parasitic relations with other regions and continents. Inspirations for all this include William Morris’s News from Nowhere, Hugh Stretton’s 1976 Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Doreen Massey’s World City.

A London Utopia  (rough text of talk as given 11 November 2010.  Needs a lot more work.)

Michael Edwards, UCL Bartlett School

This paper tries to sketch an alternative future for London arising out of the current crisis (seen in broadly Harvey-ish terms), the need for some big jump out of the prevailing orthodoxy and the (relatively) mundane but stimulating experience of taking part in the Examination in Public of Mayor Boris Johnson’s slightly adjusted version of Ken Livingstone’s London Plan in alliance with a lot of citizen groups.

The current crisis can be seen as

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 workers’ consumption to grow while wages don’t (as shares of GDP).

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.

Market value of tangible asets in UK (from ONS data)
Market value of tangible asets in UK (from ONS data)

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 my deviant narrative on citizen participation in the London Plan into its recent little book (2). As universities become more and more focused on the international luxury market, our community-facing activity has to be treasured and expanded.

London Plan and Just Space

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. It seems to be out of fashion or left to await an authoritarian regime.)

(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 and capital accumulation.  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. That’s the real challenge. (Expand with reference to the massaging of the GVA/worker data for financial intermediation to bolster the weak case for Crossrail)

(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.

How to do utopias

It is conventional in left circles to deplore utopias and instead to stress that a better future would and should be forged through dispersed innovations emerging from successive struggles and contradictions. No doubt there is sense in that, and I look forward to taking part.  But in the mean time there is a job to be done in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxy; stirring people to imagine alternative futures and to feel less anxious about letting go of the painful but familiar present. Perhaps a debate on utopias might get more turkeys to vote against christmas.

In this context, how would we construct a utopia?  In particular should we go for some sort of ultimate or total utopia, presupposing all manner of transformations – what used to be called “after the revolution” – or something easier to reach, more likely to seem feasible?  There are pros and cons to both extremes and I’m going to lurch about in between.  Later perhaps it could become a multi-layer exercise with more- and less-ambitious versions, or a game with choices like a progressive SimCity.

The second procedural problem is the need–I think–to avoid the leftist trap of concentrating just on righting material wrongs, concentrating only on redistribution of wealth and income, extending rights to the city in measurable ways only. That economistic approach leaves out two essentials: the relational or social dimension of the city, and our own ambivalence.

When I say relational I have in mind that aspect of the neo-liberal project which weakens the collective and the social aspects of urban experience and replaces them with individualised, atomistic relationships. It misses out the essentially social character of production and consumption and the management of urban space.  Doreen Massey has written about international dimensions of this, and Jamie Gough in the Brenner and Theobald book[i] and there are some useful papers in Soundings (39 2008).  The aim here must be to prioritise things which strengthen the commons, the collective, the mutal, the coop, or social or even democratic use of space, provision of services and so on. (Caveats are needed here, though.)

Note, in passing, that this is a kind of left version of the nostalgia which the coalition is undoubtedly tapping into with its ‘big society’ slogan. People’s satisfaction at forming a village shop committee and running services for the poor on volunteer labour.  The coalition version has a poor law flavour to it, rather reminiscent of the lady of the manor in the film about the Diggers who says “But Mr Winstanley, what would become of charity if there were no poor?” or words to that effect.

Finally ambivalence.  We just do have to deal constructively with the contradictions of capitalism: the fact that we can love it and hate it, and a lot of the contradictions get internalised.  We love some of  its products while we hate the social relations of its production. I’m on my 8th Macintosh computer and have loved them all, while detesting the environmental and social conditions of their production.  In London I enormously value the intensity of international activity, the internationalisation of our student body, the tendency of so many gradates to stay here afterwards and contribute.  But I know that all of that has a terrible carbon footprint and is enabled only through the amazing growth of an unregulated private rental market in housing which plays a part in the worsening of living conditions for low-income Londoners. They in turn remain low-income Londoners partly because of the continuing migration flow of skilled people who will work for very little and live in 10m2 or even less.

That’s enough preamble.  Inspirations for all this include William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) , Hugh Stretton’s Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1976), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Doreen Massey’s World City (2007) and David Banister’s Unsustainable Transport (2005).

A utopian London would…

(i) revalue work and find ways to change the productivity of low-paid work and get those low wages up. This is partly a technical problem of the kind tackled by the Lucas Aerospace workers in the 80s. (referred to Marge Piercy on selective use of technology to abolish only those jobs people dislike doing.)  But it’s mainly an organising problem of strengthening the bargaining power of those workers.  I’m sorry Jane Wills is no longer here to help on that part.

(ii) reduce the differences in school quality, environmental quality, air quality and noise, through which class relations are reproduced across the city, across the region – increasingly now mediated through the housing market – which enables you to buy better conditions if you are richer. (Move to after vii because it is an aspect of dealing with land.)

(iii) foster real investment in housing (new building, repair, upgrades) while minimising those flows of money (yours and mine, as well as institutional money) which simply inflate prices. [We need to discuss this in relaton to rent theory, and in the practicalities of tax, REITS etc.]

(iv) build better security of tenure into all housing strands (except perhaps lodgers).  If we could stabilise house prices convincingly then much of the appeal of owner-occupation would evaporate and a rich range of rental and cooperative forms could prosper…  (Bob Colenutt writing about Switzerland and other housing forms – see end).

(iv) disperse central functions, following the polycentricity nostrums of ESDP.  But it’s not a simple matter because, as things stand, people with homes and jobs in the suburbs tend to have trip patterns which require cars.  So you would have to link this with the taxation of workplace parking or region-wide congestion charging and try to develop linear networks and grids in the suburbs which begin to make public transport attractive for more of the trips. Absolutely  NOT simpy a release of more land to the market.

(v) similarly it will be important to maximise the micro-local availability of services (shops, post offices, medical and recreational services, child care), which means reversing the momentum towards concentration and conolidation of most of these services in the name of profitability or efficiency or agglomeration economies.

(vi) a pet enthusiasm of mine here is the local working place. I and another young planner Mike Macrae tried it on when we were juniors in the team planning Milton Keynes in about 1970.  We had just dicovered computers (and would carry our punch cards round to the ‘time-sharing bureau’) and thought how good it would be for each locality to have one, probably linked with the school and the library.  People could work there if they wanted, rather than travelling to the office, or while the children were in school. [Our idea was rejected then by our elders and betters.] It could resolve many of the problems people experience working at home – the distractions of laundry, of the other people, of the lack of space – and greatly reduce the need to travel.  Now it sort of happens in Starbucks, if you can afford the coffee.  Regus has commissioned my friend Ziona Strelitz to work on the feasibility of it as a new kind of commercial development aimed at the staff of  corporations. But it could be done as a low cost public or collective space.  How about trades unions doing them, so they could double as recruiting grounds?

(vii)  Most important of all, deal with the land question.  Joon Park assures me that, with social ownership of the land, we could eliminate absolute rent, leaving us to deal with differential rents to whatever is a desirable extent through reducing some of the differentials underlying it. [  All of that doesn’t supercede captalism as I was reminded earlier this week when one of our students described her native Singapore: bouyant capitalism with state land ownership. And Massey and Catalano pointed out in 1978 that land nationalisation might be a boon for capital. ] But it reduces the sphere within which capitalist relations operate and I’m convinced it is the right way to go.  In the short run we probably have to focus on – literally – the commons, establishing some common land for common purposes.  Next, rediscover the magic of new town development where we can acquire farm land at agricultural prices without upsetting too many powerful interests and then construct demonstration projects which could certainly be self-financing even under current social relations.  We can hugely enjoy ourselves in sketching out these schemes, and trying to do it in ways which minimise the need to use cars. (A man from Copenhagen challenged my use of ‘nationalisation’ and he was right:  we would need a variety of collective forms…  and that is something to be worked on in the reports I’m doing with Bob Colenutt.)

(work in somewhere)  Like the interesting technique of backcasting in transport planning….. (Banister)

[i] Gough, J (2002)  Neoliberalism and socialisation in the contemporary city: opposites, complements and instabilities, in (eds Brenner, N and N Theodore) Spaces of Neoliberalism: urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe, 58-79, Oxford: Blackwell

(2) Michael Edwards (2010) Do Londoners make their own plan? in K Scanlon and B Kochan (eds) London: coping with austerity, LSE London Series, paperback, 978-0-85328-459-8, chapter 5, 57-71. Eprint http://eprints.ucl.ac.uk/20241/ Whole book is a free download at http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/LSELondon

Author: Editors


11 thoughts on “A London utopia”

  1. I suppose the obvious question is whether those attributes you list can really be combined, and what might be lost in the attempt.


  2. (by email) I just finished to read your A London Utopia (on your blog), and I found it great. It is the kind of things that we need.
    Can I ask you to have a look to the proposal of the new categories for NMM?…..


  3. (by email) As I said this evening, your presentation yesterday was a really nice and in style.
    it’s really impressive presentation many may dream about once.
    listening the presentation, I became to think about the purpose and direction of my study again.
    thanks indeed.
    have a nice weekend !


  4. …Your utopian sketch for a future London is very interesting – I wholeheartedly agree with you on greater (functional) polycentricity, dispersal of local services and tackling the affordable housing question through new towns built on cheaper agricultural land (as opposed to ex-industrial, contaminated land as much of the Thames Gateway is). How likely any of this is going to happen any time soon though is another question, under the current government at least. My thesis at LSE… looks at whether, and if so, how, patterns of urban containment influence travel patterns and choices (in terms of commuting and trips to school). It is a comparative study (Greater London green belt, Randstad ‘green heart’ and ‘five finger plan’ of Copenhagen). The provisional title is ‘Urban containment, polycentricity and travel patterns: investigating the development and persistence of ‘planning doctrine’ in a European context’. My supervisor is Dr Fran Tonkiss.


  5. Your thesis, David, sounds excellent and truly useful. I would vote for the finger plan but am fully aware that the prosperous classes will jump in the SUV and drive to golf / french classes / shopping (or even to work as 20% of their trips) so none of it will work very well without road pricing or something similar. Am I wrong? I wait with baited breath.


  6. I’m sure you’re right about how people would travel if the finger plan was transplanted to London without massive changes to the housing market. I did some analysis of travel patterns in and around the green belt for my MPlan project and the results all pretty much pointed towards longer journeys, increasing house price:income differentials, increasing divergence in method of travel to work between different socio-economic groups and vastly increased car ownership/use in the green belt compared with London or the rest of the South East/East of England.


  7. I think the Utopian project is a legitimate one if conducted in the spirit of Bacon’s original intent – that is, to imagine a better future, better to reveal the nature of the present. The present is, as Michael says, characterised by a profound and oppressive ambiguity, sustained and reinforced by the interests of internationalised capital and a tiny privileged elite.

    The ‘land question’, which Michael describes as ‘most important’, is certainly close to the heart of things: but I would go further and consider ‘assets’ in the broadest possible sense. I would argue that we have lost sight of the true function of the value that flows from the ownership of assets, since that value has been fully monetised by the neo-liberal system. I save for a pension, for example, in the expectation that I will receive future monies – but what I will really want in older life is to know that I will be looked after, cared for; I want to own a home, not in-and-of-itself, but because it provides an underpinning platform of security; I want to have some possessions because they anchor me as a person, they tell my self-story back to me.

    If I were able to fulfil these deeper needs in some other way, then perhaps I would not need to turn my pension contributions into the financial assets being abused by speculators, I would not need to cling desperately to the housing ladder, I would not need so much consumerist ‘stuff’.

    Such an ‘other way’ will, I think, reside in a suite of community-owned and locally-managed assets (housing, green space, shops & cafes, office space, health centres etc etc) , the purpose of which would not be to maximise a financial return but to be able to meet citizens’ evolving needs. Echoes of the co-operative movement, the TU movement, the work of the DTA etc, certainly: but extending more broadly and re-designed for the 21st century.

    Utopian? Definitely.


  8. For what it’s worth, I fully support the spirit and aims of your sketch. I believe it is such sincere and ambitious alternatives to the prevailing planning orthodoxy that are altogether missing from the sphere of institutional politics. On the one hand, there is much, here, that could be derivative of a think-tank, albeit one yet to exist, and quite some way to the left of the political spectrum; but, on the other hand, meaningful, idea-driven discussion almost always falls outside of the payroll of lobbyists and political party policy budgets. We can’t rely on everyone else, or, more importantly, those with authority, to, create, decide and select that which will be enshrined in the places we inhabit.
    The conservatism that belies the un-tenability of ideas, and decays the reason inherent in the recognition and value of credible alternative strategies, cannot be rewarded with silent support. Nor can we support small social gains as an alternative to small-state market-led politics, when there are so many ideas and strategies, with so much potential, that never make it on to the table.
    Thousands of Londoners now stand to be disinherited from a foothold in the economically thriving city they have made their home. It is not because there is no money to build the infrastructure and services that could help them out of poverty, but, I believe, because social and affordable housing is not profitable, and the stability of secure tenure removes exploitable surplus labour from the workforce. The result from such a shift from a ‘national insurance’, will, if crime and social unrest result, move that investment over into private insurance and associated investments. It is currently the poorest that are denied access to the now necessary financial services of credit; and with shrinkage of the State, those people are likely to suffer increased economic polarisation and penalisation.
    So, as there are, indeed, credible alternatives, we shouldn’t be afraid to imagine them.


  9. i m really not a utopia kind of guy bcos often such trajectory do not account for the external influences as well as emergent factors that would arise later on. how much of the problem are really problem that can be solve optimally. we are too far down the road of int’l interdependency, what more London being in the centre of action. until we grasp the rationale of the dynamics of development we are aiming in evolving a ‘better’ civilisation and confronting the hard reality of limitation and constraint of our resources, not denouncing possibilities of any path less travelled with utopian vision, any solution proposed need to grasp its intervention not on the physical solution level but along the evolutionary dynamics that shape its form. (I don’t find this clear, but it’s not spam so I approve it. Michael)


  10. Apologies to David and [anonymised] for ignoring your November posts: I thought I was getting email prompts for new posts, but must have switched that off. So I hadn’t noticed them sitting there in the queue for approval, among all the spam. Anyhow thanks for the support.

    On David’s point about wider classes of asset (beyond land) and the monetisation / commodification of everything: I agree. And I like the examples you give. As (now) a pensioner I prefer to think I’m living off some of the value created by the not-yet-retired out there, in the same way as so much of the value I created when working was supporting the pensioners of that period. I hate it all being monetised and financialised via the Universities Staff Superannuation Fund and their huge investments in Stockley Park, shopping mall and other bits of real estate.

    But I do insist that land (and perhaps a few other things) are distinctive in that they are not just in short supply (like gold or Picassos) but things we all must have, so the booming demand from the rich pushes up the price all must pay. Then on top of that there are all the restrictions on housing production, extracting further rent. In the jargon there is lots of absolute rent….

    {Anon]: your comments are refreshing and, when I (or perhaps there will be a “we”) get round to more work on this, your stuff about “removing exploitable surplus labout…” needs expanding.


  11. This is also a very late response. Sorry, I thought you hadn’t put my comment up!

    To take a different tack:

    Personally, I have a distinct lack of cash flow, assets and securities. I expect, once I have a cash flow I’ll be able to borrow against securities to create assets. But, I won’t be able to do this without lining the bank’s and lawyer’s pockets. Pensions are no different. It will be some years before I will be able to pay into a pension scheme (other than the national type), and when I do, I will accept that I will be making others richer (and others poorer in the process) because I have few other choices for long-term security – the other options offer me less gains, in fact.

    An example of pension funds making others poorer can be understood by looking at the relationship between pension funds, real estate and investment. I have made a very basic analysis of UK pension and trust investment trends before and after the recent crisis. There are some interesting correlations between reduced monetary flows and asset acquisition, particularly home repossessions. These are lucrative contractual positions for trust and pension funds. But those unlucky enough to be bankrupted receive little compensation.

    I think pensions are, in theoretical terms at least, potentially egalitarian and fair – when the majority of people are generously funded in retirement. When pensions are run more like private insurance schemes – pensions essentially based on personalised portfolios – then the significance of questions about personal trajectory and assets, wealth and relative opportunities in life, becomes even greater.

    To illustrate an example: I was recently working at a well known London University (Michael an I recently bumped into one another in the cafe of said institution). Despite numerous national and European policies in place, I and a number of others were exploited to sign away our rights to fair pay and pensions one and a half months into the job (and strategically in days before we were submitting our pays sheets after over a month of working full-time without pay). We were forced to be complicit in forgery and to overlook misrepresentation, lies and the like, whilst adding our signatures to a legitimate (but grossly inaccurate) paper trail.

    I am well educated, experienced and capable, but I am completely exploitable. Documents, with my signature on, will infer that I am choosing not to pay into a pension scheme and that I am only working 10 hours a week. In reality, over a period of two months, I had accepted worsening contractual conditions and 100% performance based pay. I, like the others I was working with, am reliant upon references and my reputation as a fledgling employee in HE.

    In other sectors the problem is even worse.

    However, personally speaking, if I had affordable rent (i.e. a disposable income at the end of the month) like the Guinness Trust or council housing residents nearby, I wouldn’t be nearly as likely to accept such terms of employment. So, from a wealth and profit position, the city is only as profitable as it is filled with people willing to accept worsening terms of employment (being that employees make up 80% of typical business expenses). This is true for the global market share of business as well as positions of maximum profit for investment and diversification of already established businesses.

    This is the sort exploitation of labour that I was referring to. Labour, which, of course, is kept close to poverty and in surplus of numbers as a means to the ends of lessening labour rights and, ultimately, companies operational expenses.

    Clearly, there are more humanistic and less polarising ways of achieving many of the market-led goals. Perhaps we could bring back the social capital of giving a stuff? Or, credit people with ambition and intelligence, and the potential to achieve as empowered/self-determining entities. But then this is probably what most scares the die-hard asset owning capitalists…

    Apologies for the indulgent self-reference. Do you see what I am getting at, and do you think I should expand this more?



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