Urban landscapes

Issue: 106

Alex Law and Gerry Mooney

Cities are at the centre of politics in Britain today. More than 80 percent of the UK population live in cities and their suburban hinterland.1 New Labour has made the regeneration of urban spaces through an ‘urban renaissance’ a key plank of their mission to ‘modernise’ Britain. John Prescott, deputy prime minister, claims, ‘Many of our larger urban areas have begun to show substantial progress. There’s great new architecture, expressing a new confidence, and people are coming back to the city centres’.2

New Labour’s Urban Task Force, set up under the architect Richard Rogers in 1997, declared that it would ‘identify causes of urban decline’ and ‘establish a vision for urban regeneration founded on the principles of design excellence, social wellbeing and environmental responsibility within a viable economic and legislative framework’.3 Such laudable aims are therefore made dependent on the right economic situation. New Labour’s ‘urban renaissance’ is shot through with all the contradictions that mark their broader project—a historical contradiction between planning for social need and competitive accumulation. And it finds its most marked expression in the urban spaces where most of British society lives and works.

The state of UK cities

As they stand, UK cities are far from the utopian images of them. Capitalism faces the insurmountable contradiction that it is driven to destroy its own lifeblood in the city. Much of the urban fabric is dilapidated, with some 1.3 million buildings lying empty, and public spaces are turned into hostile surveillance zones. Capitalism also creates extreme uneven geographies of growth and decline.

London and its south east hinterland contrasts sharply with the rest of England in terms of changes in population, sectoral employment, labour productivity, inequalities and ethnicity.4 It is one of three ‘global’ cities, along with New York and Tokyo.5 Globalisation has not dispersed the need for the close physical proximity of economic activities. The control and command functions necessary for capitalism continue to gather around core areas like London. It has managed to sustain its base as the locus of economic and political power despite the loss of 250,000 jobs in the early 1990s. The logic of such spatial concentrations of corporate power brings in its wake a plethora of support functions not usually considered to be part of the so called knowledge economy. These include the routine and specialised tasks that produce, distribute, maintain, clean, equip and house corporate control capabilities.

Cities grow by sucking in new workers. While the number of ‘white’ people in London and the other urban areas fell by 1.17 million in the 1990s, cities were repopulated by 1.13 million people from ethnic minorities. London took nearly 50 percent of the national total of inward migration. Far from being a drain on local services or employment, the economic and social activity of ethnic minority groups often helps to rejuvenate urban spaces that would otherwise deteriorate even further.6

London has therefore continued to grow numerically in terms of in- migration and employment while cities in the north and west of England suffer from protracted decline. Financial services employment has grown by some 50 percent, faster than anywhere else. But London is also the most polarised city in terms of extremes of wealth and poverty. In terms of poverty indices, the highest proportions of adults claiming Income Support and Job Seekers Allowance benefits in 2003 were in Liverpool (18 percent), Hull (17 percent), and Birmingham, Hastings, Newcastle and Middlesbrough (13 percent). But London was not far behind at 10.3 percent. Its 19 percent growth in employment between 1991 and 2001 was mainly in part-time work, which grew by 47 percent, and, to a much lesser extent, self-employment. A skills audit of the Thames Gateway zone found that two-thirds of local workers did not have the qualifications to take up service-sector jobs.

Population change in UK core conurbations, 1995-2000

city Population in 1991 Change 1995-2000 (%)
Glasgow 631.7 -1.5
Liverpool 480.7 -0.8
Birmingham 1006.5 -0.7
Leeds 717.4 0.2
Sheffield 529.3 0.3
Manchester 438.5 1.6


Pollution and congestion hit the urban poor hardest. Congestion charges displace vehicle traffic from the core of the city and increase walking, cycling and bus use. But the wealthiest car users can readily afford to pay a levy that gives them less congested city streets to drive through. The health impact of urban car use typically falls on the poorest parts of town rather than on the suburban commuters who congest them. In the case of industrial location, polluting factories are twice as likely to be situated in postcode areas where the average income is less than £15,000.

The political economy of housing

Housing is always a critical factor in the political economy of the city. In many northern cities, a vicious cycle has been under way for decades. Economic restructuring has cut the demand for housing for skilled workers in many neighbourhoods, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unoccupied homes and rock-bottom property values. As the population density of localities falls it becomes unprofitable for retail and services to operate there. By contrast the concentration of economic growth in other regions is creating acute shortages. Housing the working class in cities in the south, especially but not exclusively low-paid public sector workers, is creating huge tensions for servicing future rounds of accumulation. New Labour admits that another 200,000 homes are needed in London and the South East, over and above their previous estimates. The average price of housing in London is five times more expensive than Burnley. And the government estimates that an extra 3.8 million households will form between 1996 and 2021, an increase of a fifth, chiefly as a result of changes to household structure with more people living alone for longer. At the same time as around 730,000 dwellings, mostly privately-owned, are lying unoccupied, there are also more than 85,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation, most with children and disproportionately from ethnic minorities.7

State intervention in the housing market, albeit in the perverse form of ‘public-private partnerships’, has again become essential to the attempt to sustain the UK’s world city of accumulation, London. New Labour wants the local state to step back even further from taking direct responsibility for housing and to give a more central role to private uses of public money. Local authorities are being forced to abandon their ‘landlord function’, that is to directly own and manage housing tenancies, while £11.3 billion of public money is spent on ‘Arms Length Management Organisations’, Private Finance Initiatives and Housing Stock Transfers. Far from disappearing, then, as a political issue housing has been reignited as a matter of deep contention, with tenants’ groups initiating a succession of campaigns against such privatisation, most notably in Birmingham and Glasgow, but also in Camden, Kingston-upon-Thames and Wrexham.8

Planning for profit

Urban planners have often been cast in a heroic role, protecting the public from shoddy contractors and the short-term drive for profit by speculators.9 But town planning has been skewed historically by deeply undemocratic practices. It emerged as a profession in Britain, consolidated by the 1947 Town Planning Act, precisely in order to mediate the contradiction between the social need for liveable spaces and capital’s need for concentrations of labour power. It supported an ideology of spatial determinism, where antagonistic social relations could be tethered by how people are arranged in space. Democratic participation in planning for municipal socialism was always secondary to the technical expertise of the planners, architects and building contractors. Urban space was treated in an abstract, neutral way, with the overall goal to create an urban order divorced from class content. So, for instance, the dominant response to the inner city riots of the 1980s was for better ‘design solutions’ to control the social problems occurring within urban space.

The apparent class neutrality of planning has confronted a fundamental problem in recent decades. Landowners and developers actually need the legal, financial and political stability and predictability that planning provides, as the experience under the Tories shows.10 But urban policies are based increasingly on destabilising forms of competition between cities for scarce investment from both the state and private capital. Planning is deregulated as an adjunct to smoothing the activities of private investment funds. As the Urban Task Force put it:

The land use planning system is not attuned to the complexity and diversity of the urban condition. It often takes too long to reach decisions and there is too great an emphasis on controlling development. We want to see a more flexible approach to planning. Too many authorities adhere rigidly to employment and other non-residential zoning for sites with no demand.11

Local councils enter into partnership with developers and speculators to re-brand their city as a physically enticing place to do business and one that also, coincidentally, has pools of relatively cheap and skilled labour. Planning is made the subordinate partner to urban developers. It should ‘enable’ and ‘facilitate’ the market for socially desirable ends. As the Urban Task Force put it:

One of the most efficient uses for public money in urban regeneration is to pave the way for investment of much larger sums by the private sector… Our principal concern in relation to private finance is the market’s failure to provide the kind of medium and long-term risk capital that complex area regeneration projects require. Government can help to attract this kind of investment by enabling funders to spread their investment risk more effectively.12

This is a highly precarious way to plan the city, if it can be called planning at all. Not only is it a blatant form of using public money to subsidise private capital, but it also depends on a naive view, at best, on the part of politicians of how finance markets work. Take the much-celebrated 1980s London Docklands project. Its legacy is one of monumental folly. In less than a decade private speculation, constantly ‘pump-primed’ by the state, created luxury housing for the few but little in the way of new jobs. Instead, deregulated planning produced a mini-crisis of the overproduction of office space in huge glass-clad, white-collar warehouses.13 More recently, the Thames Gateway project, which has been called ‘the largest piece of urban regeneration and development ever proposed anywhere in the world’, is similarly premised on using state finances to bankroll property regeneration.14

Appearance over content

A renewed emphasis on architectural design fits well with the marketing of cities as classless places providing a quality lifestyle for the new middle class. Physical appearance is elevated way above other priorities such as decent working class housing. Waterfront sites are developed with culture, heritage and conspicuous consumption in mind, as with Bristol’s harbour, Leith’s dock area, Glasgow harbour, Dundee Waterfront, London’s Tate Modern, Liverpool’s Tate galleries and the proposed £400 million public-private redevelopment of the King’s Waterfront, or Newcastle’s Baltic gallery and Millennium Bridge. Retail is being used to revive city centres like Leeds, Birmingham’s notorious Bull Ring, and Glasgow, with its ‘Golden Z’ of lengthy, shop-lined city centre streets.

The appearance of city-centre building surfaces is now given heightened attention, perhaps unprecedented since the municipal civic pride of the Victorian bourgeoisie. It also parallels the development of ‘gated communities’ for the urban middle class. George Monbiot points to the Montevetro Tower built in the late 1990s by New Labour’s Urban Task Force chairperson, Richard Rogers:

The Montevetro Tower, on the banks of the Thames in Battersea, contains some of the most expensive apartments in Britain. The top penthouse suite costs £4.5 million. Residents enjoy one of the best views that any building in London affords. They can play tennis on the all-weather court, relax in the sauna and order theatre tickets, limousines and even maids through the porter’s lodge. Best of all, they don’t have to share any of these luxuries with their neighbours: a security barrier at the entrance to the grounds ensures that the hoi polloi in the council estates across the road will stay where they belong.15 Here, as Walter Benjamin recognised, the parading of ‘cultural treasures’ is only made possible by the labour of a working class which is kept concealed at all times.16

At the same time, the physical appearance of many UK city centres and public spaces belies the new metropolitan enthusiasm for architecture, design and heritage. Green public spaces like urban parks are being lost or left in a poor state of upkeep, where they are not being sold off to private speculators. The New Opportunities Fund, the main funding source for urban parks, play areas and civic squares, only managed to allocate £3.8 million out of a budget of £125 million between 1998 and 2002.17 Between 50 and 60 percent of people in Scotland view urban green spaces like parks as unattractive, unsafe, and poor places for children to play.18

Identikit high street retail units are flattening out the distinctiveness of city centres. Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Starbucks and Gap stand at the expensive end of every city while at the bottom of the pile are found McDonald’s, Ladbrokes and Blockbuster. As one architectural journalist put it, ‘Tesco branches are breeding like shrink-wrapped rabbits. Where once we had a church in every village, town and city, now we have Tesco with its Extras, Metros and Expresses’.19 This is leading to a shift from abandoned city centre ‘ghost towns’ to what some call ‘clone town Britain’.20

This strategy of edge of town retailers re-entering the city centre takes advantage of the deeper concentrations of mainly white-collar workers gathered in city centres. Single-person and dual-worker households are doubly exhausted and harassed by the intensification of work and the foreshortened time economy of living and working in the 24-hour urban economy. The built environment becomes a blurred backdrop for such workers, and the creeping standardisation of cities often goes unnoticed.

Glasgow’s widely acclaimed culture-led regeneration programme is the pre-eminent example of enticing back middle class consumers and service-sector jobs to restore the fortunes of a city beset by long-run industrial decline, unemployment and slum housing. Glasgow shed 197,000 manufacturing jobs and acquired 145,000 in services between 1971 and 2001, and now has a much lower proportion of manual workers than the UK as a whole. It has become the subject of an incessant marketing campaign, emphasising art, culture and architecture, designer shopping and luxury apartments in the restored bourgeois residential quarter, the Merchant City. Last year saw the risible promotion of the city as Scotland’s fashion answer to Milan: ‘Glasgow: The New Black’ or ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’.

Left behind are the working class of Glasgow’s large peripheral housing estates, which are in an acute state of decay. As a recent study puts it, ‘Working class residents of the core city have lost out from this shift in the composition of Glasgow’s economy, while better qualified suburban commuters have prospered’.21 The city has some of the worst poverty and the highest mortality rates in Europe. Seven out of the top ten UK constituencies for premature deaths are in Glasgow, with life expectancy actually declining in some districts like Shettleston, the UK’s poorest constituency, where men have a life expectancy of 63 years, ten years less than the Scottish average and 14 less than the UK as a whole:

‘The Glasgow model’ has contributed to the worsening levels of poverty and deprivation and to the deepening inequalities that characterise the city today. It has done this primarily by constructing Glasgow’s future as a low paid workforce, grateful for the breadcrumbs from the tables of the entrepreneurs and investors upon which so much effort is spent attracting and cosseting— and by marginalising and ruling out any alternative strategy based upon large-scale public sector investment in sustainable and socially necessary facilities and services.22

When Liverpool assumes the mantle of European City of Culture in 2008 it will find that, as in Glasgow, place marketing and flagship cultural boosterism offer no panaceas for the deep-seated class polarisation in that city.

Communities and capitalism

The physical proximity of different classes in the city often only reinforces their social distance. Urban planning is now virtually synonymous with security and control. ‘We will put “planning out crime” at the heart of the planning process,’ says New Labour’s ‘sustainable communities’ policy.23 This is part of a more general effort to ‘design out’ of the city potentially disorderly spaces. Hence the one way to do this is through designing of public space with a full range of the technologies of urban control, such as the ubiquitous CCTV apparatus. The Home Office hopes personal identity cards will blend seamlessly into these controlled spaces. Urban design becomes another weapon in the arsenal of a middle class resentful that the utopian promise of ‘gentrified’ inner cities has to confront the dystopian realities on the ground nearby—vandalism, violence, drugs, homelessness, begging, and generalised impoverishment. Many categories of crime, especially street crime, are in slow but gradual decline. Yet the perception of dangerous crime-ridden streets persists, particularly among affluent groups. Meanwhile the state keeps in reserve a range of punitive measures like Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) as well as the regular forces of law and order. All this chimes nicely with New Labour’s reconstitution of the idea of morally listless poor communities.

New Labour sees communities, based on local neighbourhoods, as the basic building blocks of social order and cohesion. The state and capital undertake to enter a ‘partnership’ with them as a pragmatic route to ‘social justice’. ‘Community’ is narrowly conceived as a self-regulating organism overseen by volunteer ‘community leaders’, with no place for struggles from below or any sense of ‘communities of resistance’.24

As the Urban Task Force put it:

Persuading people and organisations to care for their urban environment is partly a matter of re-awakening civic pride. Community involvement needs to be supported by strong enforcement action to deal with vandalism, graffiti, intimidation, noise pollution and other anti-social behaviour.25

Individuals are supposed to overcome the atomisation of market relations by acquiring ‘social capital’ through developing a strong sense of cultural belonging, civic responsibility and mutual co-operation through localised networks.26 There is a strong nostalgic appeal here to a lost golden age of ‘respectable’ working class communities—although in so far as these ever existed they tended to be organised around the routines of the local workplaces that have mostly disappeared.

Those sections of the working class worst hit by decades of capitalist restructuring are to somehow pull themselves out of the circumstances they find themselves mired in. A moralising rhetoric about community is invoked precisely for those communities most damaged by capital and reviled by the state.27

Even the term ‘community’ is suspect. Community has been made to bear all manner of ideological inflections from the ‘community charge’ to ‘care in the community’. Community is a category usually reserved by policy-makers for the poorest neighbourhoods. Typically, these are cast in terms of ‘social pathology’, where the poor are blamed for their own predicament, allowing the structural inequalities intrinsic to capitalism to be neatly side-stepped. Working class activity is frozen in the form of classless ‘community’ action, subordinated to reform experts whose object is to bleed dry the class content of urban movements.28

Community-friendly urban design fills up a vacuum created by the absence of sustained urban regeneration and widespread prosperity. Good design in prestige projects is assumed to be a stamp of social progress and urban renewal—in a manner similar to Tory urban policy from a quarter of a century ago.29 ‘Quality’ design solutions are provided by private consultants who have little territorial or social connection to the working class whose everyday space they aim to govern by managing the appearance of the urban environment.

There are those who see the ‘urban renaissance’ in terms of anti- modernist design values. Here the post-war reconstruction of British cities was a brutalist failure of architectural ideology: ‘the root of all this was the dominance of modernist ideology among the architectural elite’.30 It was less ideology, modernist or otherwise, that produced the crisis of mass housing for the working class, than the role of urban planning in different stages in the development of capitalism. The post-war creation of deracinated housing estates, tower blocks and New Towns was an orderly reformist response to the ‘slash and burn’ clearing of inner city slums. That reconstruction of the urban landscape was integral to the wider programme of national accumulation under direct state supervision and management. Today’s urban planning has to fulfil the contradictory demands of neoliberal capitalism by flexibly reconciling economic competitiveness and social cohesion.

Thus the launch in 1998 of the National Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (in England) was about combining area-specific programmes for ‘zones’ as in Education Action Zones, Health Action Zones, with New Deal programmes, which are about tackling ‘worklessness’ and increasing labour force participation. There is a constant emphasis in New Labour social policies and area-based programmes on the need to include disadvantaged areas in the drive to enhance national competitiveness. Social exclusion and a lack of social cohesion in run-down inner city areas and peripheral estates are regarded as a source of economic inefficiency, hindering economic competitiveness and flexibility.

Whose city?

Cities are permanent sites of struggle and potential places of emancipation. The uneven development of UK cities means that they are caught up in a contradictory bind. All the possibilities of communal life present themselves but only in highly distorted ways. Town planning does not plan the productive activities or consumption needs of the city. It simply rearranges the scraps left behind in capitalism’s disruptive wake in narrowly specialised technical and legal ways. But planning need not mean uniform rows of boxes, varied only by some cheap ornamental quirk:

Order and some degree of regulation do not mean turning London or Manchester into a vision dredged from the notebook of Albert Speer, the Nazi architect. London County Council housing estates from the turn of the century, designed by young socialist architects, still surprise with their gentle and civilised order. Here were not just so many soulless ‘housing units’ as we have learnt to call the homes for the poor, but a celebration of the ideals of John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement: formal, ordered, yet not without beauty, designed to be a decent home to the poorest Londoners, the cockneys of yesterday, the Bengalis of today, and a far cry from either Broadwater Farm or their free-market successors.31

We don’t have to accept the wistful nostalgia for Victorian socialist- architects as a model, just as we have no need to accept modernist plans uncritically either. But at least they pose an alternative vision to the impoverished one offered by New Labour. And it is here that the communities of resistance need to be couterposed to the New Labour image of communities of competition and cohesion.

While the state strengthens its coercive arm over working class areas it retreats from the provision of basic services—public transport, council housing, health services and leisure facilities. The closure of local swimming pools, for example, can rouse local people into action—as evidenced in the intense protest movements in 2001 at Manchester’s Neptune Kingdom, known locally as the Gorton Tub, and Glasgow’s Govanhill pool—and help create an active community of resistance:

While New Labour is keen to celebrate certain types of active communities who engage in ‘approved’ forms of local action, it is also prepared to use the full coercive force of the state to deal with active communities who challenge the authority of local government. Indeed, the experience in Govanhill demonstrates the revanchism of New Labour’s project for an urban renaissance based around active communities: an iron fist lurks with the velvet glove of New Labour’s urban regeneration agenda.32

Unspectacular local resistance is an in-built feature of the urban environment. Much of this takes place at subterranean depths, around concrete issues (sometimes literally). At times, urban struggles burst beyond the banks of local issues and put into sharper relief the wider forces shaping British cities. This now hidden, now visible struggle therefore continually poses the question, ‘Whose city?’


1: Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Our Towns and Cities: Delivering an Urban Renaissance (London, 2000).

2: J Prescott, Foreword, State of the Cities: A Progress Report to the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit (London, 2005). Prescott, as New Labour’s deputy prime minister, has responsibility for delivering the urban regeneration programme.

3: Urban Task Force, Towards an Urban Renaissance: Report of the Urban Task Force—Executive Summary (London, 1999), p2 (our emphasis).

4: See State of the Cities, as above.

5: S Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, 2000).

6: New Economics Foundation, Ghost Town Britain II (London, 2003).

7: Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future (London, 2003), p11.

8: See the Defend Council Housing: //www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk/dch/ campaign website for campaign updates:

9: S Howieson, ‘Out of the Dead Zone’, Socialist Worker, 22 January 2005.

10: P Allmendinger and H Thomas (eds), Urban Planning and the New Right (London and New York, 1998).

11: Urban Task Force, as above, p17.

12: As above, p23.

13: A Coupland, ‘Docklands: Dream or Disaster?’, in A Thornley (ed), The Crisis of London (London and New York, 1992).

14: P Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1996).

15: G Monbiot, ‘Drawbridge Society’, The Guardian, 24 June 1999.

16: W Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (London, 1992).

17: New Economics Foundation, Ghost Town Britain (London, 2002), p21.

18: R Edwards, ‘Urban Green Spaces are “Wastelands”’, Sunday Herald, 6 February 2005.

19: J Glancey, quoted by A Simms, ‘The Gaudy Sameness of Clone Town’, New Statesman, 24 January 2004.

20: See Ghost Town Britain, as above; New Economics Foundation, Clone Town Britain (London, 2004); and Ghost Town Britain II, as above.

21: I Turok and N Bailey, ‘Glasgow’s Recent Trajectory: Partial Recovery and Its Consequences’, in D Newlands, M Danson and J McCarthy (eds), Divided Scotland: The Nature, Causes and Consequences of Economic Disparities within Scotland (Aldershot, 2004), p54.

22: G Mooney, ‘Cultural Policy as Urban Transformation? Critical Reflections on Glasgow, European City of Culture 1990’, Local Economy 19.4, 2004, p337.

23: Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, as above, p21.

24: A Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (London, 1990).

25: Urban Task Force, as above, p11.

26: See the statement by John Prescott, Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future, as above.

27: A Cochrane, ‘New Labour, New Urban Policy?’, in H Dean, R Sykes and R Woods (eds), Social Policy Review 12, 2000; A Holden and K Iveson, ‘Designs on the Urban: New Labour’s Urban Renaissance and the Spaces of Citizenship’, City 7.1, 2003.

28: See Sean Damer’s critique of planning in Glasgow in From Moorepark to ‘Wine- Alley’: The Rise and Fall of a Glasgow Housing Scheme (Edinburgh, 1989), and Cynthia Cockburn on Lambeth in The Local State: Management of Cities and People (London, 1977).

29: Department of the Environment, Urban Renaissance: A Better Life for Towns (London, 1980).

30: S Howieson, as above.

31: J Glancey, ‘Exit from the City of Destruction’, The Independent, 23 May 1996, p20.

32: G Mooney and N Fyfe, ‘Active Communities of Resistance: Contesting the Govanhill Pool Closure in Glasgow, 2001-2002’, paper to Social Policy Association conference, 2004.