Monday, 26 October 2009

The Bigger Picture

The New Economics Foundation ‘festival’, 'The Bigger Picture' this weekend lived up to its name, with literally thousands of people queuing for hours to get into the Bargehouse on the SouthBank, to the point that sessions transferred outside. I was speaking with Stacy Mitchell, American author of ‘Big Box Swindle’, in a session called ‘Tales of how it turned out right: How communities in the US fought back and won.’ Much of Ground Control is based on the premise that we have imported one divisive American policy towards the city after another so how is it that Stacy Mitchell was asked to speak about how it turned out right? To my surprise, a key theme which emerged while I was writing the book is just how much more engaged Americans are with what is happening to their cities. Stacy talked about how local business alliances of independent shops were successfully working against the ‘Walmart economy’ to change federal government planning policy. She also talked of the success of local campaigns such as ‘Keep Portland independent’ and ‘Keep Austin weird’. In contrast to UK trends, 400 new independent bookshops have opened in the US over the last five years. Although American trends towards private government, gated communities and high security are so much more advanced than ours in many ways their federal structure offers more opportunities to revive local democracy.

The structure of the day – and the Bargehouse - was that people wandered from one packed session to another. Oliver James, speaking with Stewart Wallis about the myth of progress, described the atmosphere as akin to a 60s protest. For the thousands who attended, the idea of a politically apathetic voting public couldn’t be further from the truth.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Stokescroft and Cabot Circus

Highlight of the week was my visit to Bristol, where I was shown round burgeoning artists quarter Stokescroft, before making my way down to the monolith that is Cabot Circus. Run by a collective, the ‘People’s Republic of Stokescroft’, the area is becoming an artdoor gallery, distinguished by beautifully hand painted street signs, murals and street art. Stencilling street names onto council signs is illegal but it is hard to see how this can be an offence. Chris Chalkely, a leading light in the ‘PRSC’, was a wholesaler in the potteries and he bought the old lithographs, setting up in a warehouse and creating a local industry, with handpainted china on sale in local shops.

Five minutes walk away, the concrete roundabout complex cuts through and provides a boundary line between Stokescroft, the old modernist shopping centre and Cabot Circus. This gleaming ‘mall without walls’ of private streets, CCTV and security guards was more reminiscent of an airport than a part of Bristol and reminded me exactly of the identikit anonymity of Liverpool One.

I was in Bristol to give a talk at the Arnolfini, with Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City, a great book which shares many themes in common with Ground Control.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

CCTV gameshow

Just come from the Jeremy Vine Show where I was asked to talk about the latest crazy CCTV invention, which really is unbelievable. ‘Internet Eyes’, a new business which launched today, is to pass on live CCTV footage to members of the public who can win up to £1,000 a month if they spot crimes being committed.

Suspecting the police would find this as ridiculous and disturbing as I do, before I went on the show I called a police contact who used to run a CCTV network. “I can’t imagine any public body in their right minds would get involved in something like that. Transferring responsibility for policing to a game-show has to be a complete no-no,” he told me.

Public bodies are not involved in this, only businesses which are gullible enough to pay for the so-called service, creating a steady stream of income for the businessman behind the idea, apparently a former restaurant owner. While I was on the show it was clear that the idea was unravelling and it was almost universally panned by callers.

What I find most disturbing about the scheme, quite apart from the fact that anybody would actually sign up to it, is how it illustrates the link between the growing commercialisation of security and technology, which is an important theme in the book. It is also distasteful that this cross between reality TV and vigilantism is dressing itself up as civic responsibility. I can almost imagine late night cable TV channels interspersing CCTV footage with over-excited adverts about how ‘you too can win £1,000.’ Fortunately, I think privacy issues and questions over putting this type of footage in the public domain would restrict this. They may well fell this outfit too.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cuddly pacifists...and local democracy

So, here’s the latest instalment of photographer Lee Garland’s removal from Manchester’s Spinningfields, by an abusive security guard. According to Crain’s, Manchester’s business magazine, Garland is described – and dismissed - as a “cuddly floppy fringed pacifist”. I suppose that’s called writing for your audience.

Crain’s writes: Lee Garland, a professional photographer and lecturer at The Manchester College, was on the wrong end of the rather over-zealous security team at Allied London's Spinningfields development the other day. Garland said he was quickly approached by a security person from Warrington-based Westgrove Security Services. “His first words to me were "Pack that up now and get the f**k off Allied London land'. He then grabbed my camera lens in an attempt to stop me photographing Spinningfields. What surprised me most was the thick air of aggression given out by the security guard.” The security man also asked Garland, a cuddly, floppy-fringed pacifist: “Have you always been a dickhead?”

My own visit to Manchester last week went much better, with Cathy Parker at the Institute of Place Management organising a very good debate. On the panel was Steve Shaw, from Local Works, which was behind the Sustainable Communities Act, an interesting, if unfinished, piece of legislation. The discussion about the pathetic state of local democracy, as a result of current mechanisms which exclude rather than apathy, is an area I want to do a lot more work on.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


Welcome to my blog! The book was published three months ago so I feel it’s well overdue. The idea is that it will provide a place to talk about the wide range of issues raised by Ground Control.

I thought I’d kick off with this email I received the other night from a photographer acquaintance called Lee Garland:
“I decided to come down to Spinningfields to take some photos this evening, and lasted 10mins before the security guard descended upon me. Some of his choicest phrases so far: (he's still standing in front of me) "pack that up NOW and **** off" and my personal favourite "have you always been a dickhead?" whilst he held his hand over my camera lens. What I find most ironic is the fact I'm standing outside of the Guardian's Manchester office!”

The spread of private security in privately owned places has been one of the themes which resonated most with people since the book came out. When I was interviewed about this on Broadcasting House Paddy O’Connell could not believe the way security guards ejected the BBC from the South Bank, as you can hear here.

Right now, I’m about to go and talk about the book to a community group in Walthamstow and tomorrow I’m off to Manchester, to talk to the ‘Institute of Place Management’ at Manchester Metropolitan University. It should be interesting as they’re a business school and I suspect some of the audience will vehemently disagree with my take on the private management of cities. I’ll blog and let you know.