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A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain

Owen Hatherley
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Owen Hatherley writes with unrivalled aggression about the disarray of modern Britain, and yet this remains a book about possibilities remembered, about unlikely successes in the midst of seemingly inexorable failure.

Excerpted from the Introduction from A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain by Owen Hatherley. Published in July 2012 by Verso Books. Copyright © 2012 by Owen Hatherly. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Will There Still Be Building, in the Dark Times?

Gateway to New Europe

It is always difficult to return to Britain. One of the most painful places to arrive is via Luton Airport; or, to give it its full title, ‘London Luton Airport’, demoting a town of over 100,000 people to a mere adjunct of the Great Wen. It’s also one of the main places for processing the thousands of poorly-paid, poorly-housed East and Central European Gastarbeiter, those who largely constructed the ‘New Britain’ promised by the now defunct New Labour movement. The destinations from London Luton are overwhelmingly either the ‘transition’ countries, where it’s not usually holidays that are the purpose – Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and above all Poland – or cheap getaways to the south of Spain or Portugal. One of the operators here, Wizzair, had until recently as its slogan, as you enter the airport, ‘Wizz off to New Europe!’ This Donald Rumsfeld-inspired catchphrase was recently replaced, which is a shame, as Luton services quite precisely the European countries which have been most engulfed by the financial crisis, those that fully embraced in all its lunacy the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ of deregulated finance, property booms and deindustrialization, adding more recently the concomitant of ruthless, punitive austerity programmes. For these reasons Luton is, in its largely unspoken way, a very important place – a fulcrum of the real New Europe, where neoliberalism has created a new and bracingly unpleasant landscape, leaving far behind the attachment to making and crafting that still occasionally rears its head in France, Germany or Scandinavia.

Book: A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain

Author: Owen Hatherley

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2012-07

Format: Hardcover

Length: 288 pages

Price: $29.95


Affiliate: (Verso Books)

This is communicated especially sharply in Luton’s architecture, as here you can see that the UK is the very newest part of New Europe, in its total lack of concern for the built environment, in its heedless accumulation of exurban kipple. For instance, if you leave Okęcie airport in Warsaw – Poland being admittedly the ‘transition’ economy least affected by the crash, due to ‘old’ methods such as a strong industrial base and public capital investment – you’re leaving behind a reasonably clean, expensive, airy piece of design. Arrive in Luton, and you’re in a carceral, cheap, chaotic place, one that has happened seemingly entirely by accident. At the same time, no other European country, not even the Russian Federation, makes as much fuss about itself at its entrance as Great Britain. First, there’s the posters, designed to intimidate the guest worker and ‘reassure ’ the Daily Mail reader: ASYLUM (don’t even think about it). HUMAN TRAFFICKING (you probably are, or the friendly man next to you in the queue is). TERRORISM, too, is a constant visual presence. On little screens above the concourse, Sky News broadcasts a perpetual loop of horror – economic crisis, natural disaster, environmental catastrophe, helpfully subtitled in broken sentences so that you can read as you queue. The sign ‘UK BORDER’ is over the passport desk, again in another ostentatious gesture of reassurance/ intimidation. There is, in proper dystopian sci-fi fashion, a biometric passport gate through which the lucky few can pass, though the nightmarish future is postponed by the fact that it is seldom working. Get through all that, past a sign informing you that Alistair Darling MP opened the building in 2003, and you’re in a tin hangar where every available space has been crammed with retail. If you’re on your way out of the UK, it’s even more extreme; the waiting room is a cramped, low-ceilinged, badly-lit shopping mall, where the visual gestures – a curved, swoopy roof, Vegas light fittings – are just so much extra clutter.

Then, you’re out, into the forecourt, where you can see some more architectural things; fragments of the earlier, 1970s Luton Airport, such as the concrete watchtower, some dour brick offices for the airlines, and most interestingly an orange hangar for EasyJet, which almost seems to have been conceived as a visual object, with its huge steel supports visible on the façade. One of the blanker hangars on the runway bears the Harrods logo. There’s no way to walk out of the airport, obviously, so you must take a shuttle bus (another £2, please) to the railway station in order to escape; on the way you pass under a heavy concrete bridge – this is here because the runway actually passes overhead, an impressive piece of heavy engineering. You also pass a factory – this is General Motors’ Luton branch, a complex of some size, a reminder that things are made here, after all. In the near distance is the skyline of Luton itself, with its Arndale Centre and its multistorey car parks. Then, the station, which uses the same architectural language as the airport – metal panels that are filthy with accumulated muck, despite the fact that they are designed to be wipe-clean. The small station has to hold many more people than it was planned for, and gets around this by a bizarre circulation system of multiple escalators, each with a barrier to ensure that heavy baggage is not dragged through. Here, you can wait for the most expensive, lowest quality trains in Western Europe to take you somewhere.

The End of the Urban Renaissance

We’re here as an appropriate entry into a country which, from 1997 to 2010, was supposedly going to create a new and better landscape, but produced instead the purgatory around Luton Airport, and the many places like it. In the near-decade-and-a-half of New Labour hegemony there were certain changes slated to be introduced, after the Thatcher-Major years of underinvestment in the cities in favour of out-of-town retail parks and exurbs, when entirely unplanned ‘Enterprise Zones’ were the vehicles for any new development. New Labour didn’t quite break with Thatcherism, but rather attempted to realize a version of the European social democratic city, fundamentally via Thatcherite means. Labour politicians like John Prescott, Richard Leese or Ken Livingstone, urbanists and architects like Richard Rogers and Ricky Burdett, all seemed to want to create Barcelona or Berlin using the methods of Canary Wharf. Rather than leaving everything to the market, there would be ‘public–private partnerships’ for directing the market into the places it had hitherto neglected – public services, inner cities – which it soon found were profitable enough in their way, especially when underwritten by the state. I wrote about the consequences in 2010 in a book called A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, in which it’s fair to say I was scornful towards the results. Even when writing the book, it was abundantly clear that New Labour and its peculiar form of ‘social Thatcherism’ was coming to an end, although it was not entirely clear what it was going to be replaced with. A new Keynesianism, as favoured by the likes of the current Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls? A new One Nation Toryism, under a Conservative leader determined to lose the bad smell associated with the ‘nasty party’? Or something else?

What we got was, as we now know, something considerably worse: a Tory–Whig coalition committed to an extremist revision of Thatcherism with the New Labour fig leaf stripped off as no longer useful. Yet it won’t do to present this, as Labour apologists are fond of doing, as a phenomenon which owes nothing to the outgoing government. What with the likely production of a double-dip recession by cutting off the stimulus programmes brought in under Gordon Brown, not to mention the ex-PM’s startling and passionate attack on Rupert Murdoch and News International, some act as if the man was the greatest prime minister we never had. Harriet Harman is reincarnated as the scourge of benefit-cutters (does anyone remember her first move as Social Security secretary, slashing disabled and lone parent benefits in 1997? Thought not). Though the Labour Party in 2010–11 briefly showed signs of actual life and debate for the first time in a decade, any amnesia is dangerous. Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms, moving towards an authentic part-privatization of the NHS, build on the Foundation Hospitals, Private Finance Initiatives and ‘market discipline ’ brought into the health service by Blairite fiat. The ‘free schools’ run by pushy middle-class parents are City Academies taken to their logical conclusion. The punitive cuts to disabled and unemployment benefits were anticipated by Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell, likewise in the face of rising unemployment. The Browne report on education that paved the way for the elimination of humanities funding and introduction of £9,000 per annum tuition fees may have been enforced and defended by Tory minister David Willetts, but it was commissioned by the Labour government. The slashing of Housing Benefit and the ending of lifelong council tenure on public housing estates, combined with ‘right to Buy Plus’, aimed transparently at emptying potentially lucrative inner-city areas of their remaining poor, are possible only because of New Labour’s refusal to build new council housing, its demonizing of estates and their inhabitants, and its attempt to break up ‘single class’ estates in favour of a ‘mixed tenure’, in which a mainly private estate would be, in the parlance, ‘pepper-potted’ with a tiny percentage of ‘affordable ’ flats for the deserving poor. The rhetoric of ‘austerity’, the ludicrous notion that a luxuriantly rich Western nation cannot afford its welfare state any more, was a staple of New Labour’s more macho ministers. Nevertheless there are real differences, and it’s in the governments’ respective attitude towards planning, the cities, and by association architecture, that many can be seen.

The Tory–Whig coalition declared, very early on, an end to the ‘Urban renaissance’ that allegedly characterized the New Labour era, with the production of new inner-urban space and the apparent favouring of spectacular or expensive architecture. Michael Gove has made a series of specific attacks on the architect most associated with that movement, declaring: ‘We won’t have Richard Rogers designing your school.’ This he linked to the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, one of the ambitious late New Labour stimulus projects, which he declared was just a machine for enriching architects, though as ever the real beneficiaries were the consultants brought in to manage the labyrinthine Private Finance Initiative contracts. BSF, as it is called in the trade, entailed a massive expansion of the two-tier state education system, with most of the money ear-marked for the transformation of ‘bog-standard’ comprehensives into City Academies; its preference for wholesale destruction over refurbishment of serviceable Victorian board schools or 1960s steel-and-glass comprehensives was not driven by any particularly educational motives. The new schools, when they emerged, were mostly bland, mock-modern structures which on occasion had major structural flaws; a few were allowed to be ‘exceptional’, such as the steroidal Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, designed by Zaha Hadid for ARK, the educational charity run by Hedge Fund manager Arpad ‘Arki’ Busson. But the cancellation of BSF was unconditional – no serious school-building or refurbishment programme would replace it. And what of the coming Free Schools, what might they look like? A clue can be found in the fact that Gove’s advisers on their design were former chairmen of Dixons and Tesco. Richard Rogers will be replaced with strip malls.

There are many similar stories. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the state-funded body that assessed new developments on their architectural quality and planning coherence, was wound up by the coalition with all funding cut off – a rump was merged with the Design Council, its already limited powers further circumscribed; at the time of writing, it plans to become a private consultancy, for the local authorities that can spare extra cash for ‘good design’. CABE was a quango of a deeply cliquey sort, with little ability to enforce its advisory role, but it was also regularly critical of developers, especially in the last years of New Labour, when the ‘Kickstart’ stimulus programme threw money at the worst kind of volume housebuilders. At the same time, the regional Development Agencies were abolished. These were not, it must be said, particularly noble institutions. They were quangos set up to administer what would once have been the province of the elected Metropolitan District Councils (Merseyside, Tyneside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Greater London, all abolished in 1986 as a threat to central government); state-funded bodies that threw money at redevelopment projects in depressed ex-industrial areas. They were an inadequate substitute, with no public accountability – but their abolition leaves a near-total vacuum, filled only by the dozens of competing, inimical and underfunded local authorities. The list goes on and on – Pathfinder, the highly dubious ‘housing market renewal’ scheme that demolished acres of decent, viable housing in northern cities in order to engineer a property bubble in areas without one, was discontinued, and a good thing too; but the cities thus scarred have no major source of funding to replace or reconstruct what was needlessly destroyed under New Labour. The more general funding squeeze on local government, hitting poor and inner urban areas disproportionately, means that cities will be left to do what they did throughout the 1980s and 1990s – contract, decline, and slowly die.

Planning, and not just of the urban sort, has been a major Tory–Whig target. The planning reforms of the new government aimed to finally cancel the remains of the 1945 Labour government’s still-just-sometimes-extant attempt to create a vaguely humane city and country. In the process, the coalition have found themselves attacking some of their natural allies – conservationists in the shires, alarmed by the imminent presence of Barratt Homes on the green belt, this being among the few areas now where developers can build and make a safe profit; or the National Trust and its supporters, exercised by the putative sell-off of state-owned forests. The extent of their disdain for any attempt to think about, or design, or care for the human environment can be seen in the government’s declaration in 2011 that they were considering withdrawing funding from UNESCO. This multinational body has a tendency to side against developers, in its protection of heritage sites like Liverpool Pier Head or Greenwich Market. Anyone standing in the way of laissez-faire is being taken on, in a startling, deliberately shocking assault on what remains of a planning system or safeguards against perverse development. In a telling phrase, one adviser to the Prime Minister publicly claimed that in local government, ‘chaos is a good thing’.

The reasons for this are straightforward enough. In order to at once conform with the increasingly psychotic free-market ideology and cut the deficit (even though it is not particularly large historically), all possible restrictions on development must be removed, in a desperate attempt to get one of the few still lucrative departments of the British economy – that obsessed-over property market – back to speculating, building and selling, irrespective of the fact that it was a housing bubble that triggered the current worldwide crisis in the first place. The same logic underpins their one real alternative model of development – the Enterprise Zone. These were a major feature of Thatcherism, brought in across various former industrial areas – zones where taxes, planning regulations and such did not apply, where the ‘non-plan’ once favoured by lefty urbanists would be deployed in ultra-capitalist conditions. The results did little but lead to the relocation of some offices, malls and houses to ex-docks and steelworks; the counter-example which ‘worked’, London’s Docklands, succeeded largely because of two unusual factors – first, the City of London expanding to the point where it needed a second centre, and second, a large degree of public investment, including the construction of a light railway. Even then, the radically inequitable landscape created on the former London Docks can only be seen as a success in a very limited fashion. The main result of Enterprise Zones in the past was the likes of Luton Airport; there ’s no reason to think it will be different this time.

The existence of a Tory–Whig coalition is apt, because ever since Thatcher the genuinely conservative, traditionalist, ‘One Nation’ breed of Tory has been conspicuous by its absence; she remade the Tories into Manchester Liberals, ruthless, modernizing free marketeers. That the old Whigs, especially their Orange Book neoliberal wing, should join with them finally reunites the two split fragments of the nineteenth-century ruling class. The entrance, however circumscribed and compromised, of the masses into British politics, via the Labour Party, no longer forms a real part of the political landscape, Labour having long since thrown in their lot with the new Manchester Whiggism. However, it is not a simple matter to run a country in so unromantic a fashion, especially a country so obstinately traditionalist as the UK. To use the useful phrase of Deleuze and Guattari, the Tory–Whig coalition has to always ‘reterritorialize’ in order to make up for the radically ‘deterritorializing’ effects of laissez-faire; its bonfire of old certainties, destruction of communities, and creation of new and hideous landscapes. So there are other ideas doing the rounds, aside from the total assault on the public sphere; the ‘Big Society’, or the ‘localism agenda’, both remnants of David Cameron’s brief, pre-crisis ‘One Nation’ phase. One entails the voluntary running of public services in theory, with Serco or Capita running public services in practice. The other is a directly reactionary appeal to the old ways of life that neoliberalism destroys, via Housing Minister Grant Shapps’s advocacy of ‘vernacular’ designs using local materials; an attack on the ‘garden grabbing’ that allegedly occurred during the urban-based boom of the 2000s, where densification policies ostensibly caused overcrowded, overpacked environments; and an apparent withdrawal of central government edicts from local government – something which might have more genuinely democratizing effects were it not combined with drastic central government cuts to local government funding. These two sops aside, the Tory–Whigs have no ideas. No ideas about the city, no tangible notion of the sort of country they want to build, no conception of the future, no positive proposals whatsoever. By comparison, the dullards of New Labour start to look like the visionaries they all so evidently thought they were.

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