The Neoliberal City

A talk at an Architectural Fringe Event on The Neoliberal City 9/7/16 – Anna Minton and Andy Wightman

Anna Minton has rightly been critical of the way our public spaces have been turned over to the private sector, becoming no go areas for photographers, picnickers, young people and the democratic public. We see it everywhere. Local authorities divesting themselves of responsibility in exchange for getting comprehensive development. In part, this is due to the austerity agenda which seems to be aimed at dismantling local authorities and providers of social housing.

The fact that the UK has more than 6 million CCTV cameras whereas Denmark banned them is rarely discussed. Anna explained how CCTV cameras remove personal responsibility from society.

We all know that Linwood became Tesco town after Tesco bought over the failing shopping centre owned by Balmore. What we don’t always know is that Balmore Holdings jacked up the rents for the shops to make them unsustainable, so they closed. Andy noted that Balmore Estates was an arms length company owned by Tesco.

Knowledge of who owns land or buildings is essential in ensuring we maintain a democratic ownership of our cities and not hand their management over to corporations. Did you know that Charlotte Square in Edinburgh (where the book festival is held) is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site but is owned by a Ukrainian company and registered in the British Virgin Islands?

Anna was particularly critical of what’s happened in London, with over 100 estates of local authority social housing being demolished (like the Heywood Estate) and replaced with expensive and very unaffordable flats, pushing families out of London.

Place has become a product for investment and speculation, not a democratic place which can be shared by all. The whole square mile of the city of London estate is largely private apart from the patch at St Paul’s, so you can’t have a political protest here or a gathering. Private security simply increases our sense of fear and tends to be justified by the terror agenda.

In Germany, housing costs have been kept in line with people’s ability to pay for rent. Investment is made in new social housing. In this country, people have to invest all their income in mortgages or rent to pay for the high cost of housing, whereas in Germany, with low housing costs, the extra income is invested in companies on research, design and improvements.

In Scotland, there are Business Improvement Districts sometimes run by arms length companies set up by local authorities. In Edinburgh, “Essential Edinburgh” appears to manage the process, although finding who the members are is not possible from their website, so it’s hardly democratic.

At the moment there is much concern about changes to the flightpaths for Edinburgh Airport. Andy Wightman went through the ownership of Edinburgh Airport which seemed to be hidden in companies based in the Cayman Islands. People controlling it also appear to have a strong interest in pushing for flight path changes which would increase their profits but at the expense of people’s comfort or indeed control. Such a national asset needs to be controlled democratically, but often local authorities and Scottish Government support corporations with money rather than the public they should be standing up for.

I think the main lesson from the two talks is that we need to be crystal clear about who owns the land and ensure they are registered in this country and not in a tax-free zone. That it should not be just the company name but the individual’s names and this should be listed.

In those areas that were ‘public’ but are now deemed ‘private’, the public should be given back the space and if there are to be rules of conformity, these should be set democratically and not corporately.

John Gilbert