Turning out the bright lights in big cities

Debating the UK government's dim vision for civic life.

Dave Clements

Topics Politics

The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics (LSE) describes civil society as the ‘arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values’ (1). In today’s individuated society, however, the notion that civil society is defined by its independence from the state is sadly lacking.

The London Civic Forum is perhaps more in vogue with its vague-sounding concern for promoting ‘civic literacy, civic space, civic cohesion, civic leadership and civic pride’ (2) – phrases that slip easily from the mouths of government ministers attempting to ‘connect’ with voters.

These different takes on civil society were interrogated at ‘Civil Society and The City’, an event organised by the Future Cities Project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, on 30 November 2004.

For David Petch, commissioner with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the ‘homogenising tendencies’ of government initiatives are actually more likely to stifle civic pride than to stimulate it (3). Though it may appear odd to hear somebody like Petch talking about civil society, he is by no means unusual among the crime-fighting fraternity in taking an interest in the subject.

‘Civil renewal is at the heart of the Home Office’s vision of life in our 21st century communities’, or so says its website. The Home Office has invited local authorities to volunteer themselves as ‘civic pioneers’, and Birmingham was the first to be granted the title ‘civil renewal city’ (4).

Significantly, it was the industrialist and mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain who transformed it from a mercantile to a municipal city – the first of its kind, according to historian Tristram Hunt writing in BBC History Magazine. The idea that new municipal authorities would concern themselves with the welfare of their citizens represented a profound political shift.

But today’s public spirit goes under the guise of the law and order agenda. Chairing the debate, Austin Williams, technical editor at the Architects’ Journal and director of the Future Cities Project, recalled the last Urban Summit, when prime minister Tony Blair was beamed in by satellite link to herald a new ‘urban renaissance’. Instead of boulevards, cafes and warehouse conversions, delegates were treated to a sneak preview of the ‘crime and grime’ agenda of abandoned cars, litter and spray-cans.

The Home Office recently announced the publication of its White Paper ‘Building Communities, Beating Crime’, with the emphasis on neighbourhood policing, local teams of police and community support officers, and a commitment to customer service (5). Soon after came the ‘National Policing Plan 2005-08: safer, stronger communities’, prioritising the creation of a ‘citizen focused’ service intent on reducing fear of crime (6).

Panellist Rob Allen, director of the campaign group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, argued for new ways of involving communities with criminal justice – the group’s recently published report, ‘Crime, Courts and Confidence’, advocates ‘community involvement in community based sentences’ (7). Allen pointed to schemes of ‘restorative justice’, where members of the public are involved in sentencing and offenders make amends directly to the community. Ben Rogers, speaking as associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) agreed, supporting anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) on the basis that they are ‘citizen-centred’.

Tim Donovan, political editor of BBC London, was more critical. ‘We are told, left, right and centre’ that participation is an inherently good thing, he said. However, rather than representing a ‘flowering of civic identity’, this is a patronising attempt to engage with ‘you lot’. He lambasted the growth of what he termed the ‘apathy industry’.

But Rogers was unmoved. As issues like unemployment have waned, people have genuinely become more concerned about their neighbourhoods and their quality of life, he said. In his pamphlet for ippr, ‘Reinventing the Town Hall’, Rogers made the case for ‘involving the public, fostering civic pride…building trust’ and creating ‘animated public places’ (8). He elaborated in the debate, arguing that as political parties, trades unions and other institutions of civic and associational life wither away, the state, he said with chilling understatement, must ‘occupy those spaces and intervene’.

And, in this sense at least, public space is all the rage. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is charged with ‘creating sustainable’ or ‘cleaner, safer [and] greener’ communities, and is committed to ‘liveability’ (9). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA’s) Clean Neighbourhoods initiative is similarly intent on ‘foster[ing] a sense of civic pride’ and ‘improving public space’ in communities up and down the land (10). Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has spoken of the improvements that a better environment will make to appreciation of the city, and launched London’s 100 public spaces programme (11).

According to panellist Dolan Cummings, research and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas, the cumulative effect of this is to encourage a sterile and parochial view of city life. While New Year’s Eve parties were once informal drunken affairs in which people paraded through the streets, in recent years they have been replaced by deflated official events put on by the powers that be, according to the whims of health and safety officers and the local constabulary’s concerns about loutish goings on. Today you just ‘show up and get shuffled around’, he said.

When you put this together with the Home Office’s rationale for citizenship ceremonies and identity cards, concluded Cummings, it becomes apparent that officialdom is busy ‘reconstructing the public as a membership organisation’.

And arguably, nor do we need more of the ‘small-scale, do-able, viable, publicity-friendly projects’ that were promoted by one member of the audience. We are already surrounded by these ‘projects’ and they fail to – as David Petch noted – ‘inspire [us] with a more wholesome vision’. Perhaps the civic buildings of the Victorian era give a sense of what we’re missing.

The elusive ‘vision thing’ plays its part today in the service of illiberal campaigns. In the run-up to the ban on smoking in public – as proposed in the recent Public Health White Paper (12) – local authorities competed with each other to impose their own bans. Their eagerness to appear modern (in the New Labour sense of the word) and look like trailblazing, smoke-free zealots, betrayed an acute recognition that they desperately needed a cause of some sort, an issue behind which to rally the troops and engage their respective constituencies.

In Scotland, first minister Jack McConnell presented the passing of the anti-smoking law as a matter of national pride and progress, insisting that tobacco is a ‘cultural trait’ that ‘holds us back’ (13). Welsh secretary Peter Hain soon after pledged to follow suit. Manchester’s representatives, following a fact-finding mission to smokeless Dublin, were moved to rhetorical flourish in a report agreed by the council’s executive: ‘The smoke-free city is an idea whose time has come: Manchester should be in the vanguard of this change.’ (14) Liverpool City Council, determined to put Manchester in its shadow, was set to petition parliament following a landslide vote in favour of a ban and a £1000 fine for transgressors (15).

London’s ever-liberal mayor wrote asking that the government allow him to impose a smoking ban in the capital, claiming the support of 65 per cent of Londoners (16). On another letter-writing campaign he ticked off 300 companies for allowing their workers to huddle outside smoke-free offices (17) – and in the spirit of his anti-congestion campaign, pledged his support to put-upon cabbies intoxicated by the spiralling fumes from their inconsiderate passengers (18).

Yet there was little resistance to this barely restrained moralising, beyond the inconsequential gestures of a few pro-smoking lobbyists. The appeal to the patronising notion that we need protecting from ourselves and each other trumped the urban ethics of anonymity and personal freedom. The smoking issue is emblematic of the rise of the suburban curtain-twitching perspective on cosmopolitan life and those of us vulgar enough to enjoy it.

The chaos, fumes, and bright lights of the big city are out and a new decaffeinated smoke-free miserabilism is in. There are some lone voices, though, and in the case of Tom Oliver of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), almost literally in the wilderness. Speaking from the floor at the debate, he was surprisingly enamoured of the ‘blissful anonymity’ that comes from living in London.

Dolan Cummings argued that the concern with ‘fixing communities’ rather than ‘transforming society’ betrays a politics of low horizons. The narrower terrain of defending the neighbourhood and local community are a poor substitute for the bold and transforming visions that characterised past ideological conflicts. Anyway, you can’t rebuild a sense of community feeling around ‘tenants with a grudge’, he said.

The crusades against envirocrime and anti-social behaviour in the name of building a new civil society, are sanitising city life. Fundamentally, what lies behind all this is the instinct to re-legitimise government, and other state institutions, by finding a new role for itself in society. For all the talk of involvement and participation we’d do well to keep out of it.

Dave Clements is social policy editor at the Future Cities Project and is coordinating the session ‘Sanitised Cities’ at the Future of London Festival.

(1) Introduction, on the Centre for Civil Society website

(2) Policy and projects, on the the London Civic Forum website

(3) Civil Society and the City

(4) Civil renewal, on the Home Office website

(5) Building Communities, Beating Crime: A Better Police Service for the Twenty-First Century (.pdf 2.93 MB), Home Office, 9 November 2004

(6) National Policing Plan 2005-2008: Safer, Stronger Communities (.pdf 1.96 MB), Home Office, 24 November 2004

(7) British public keen on role in sentencing finds new poll for rethinking crime and punishment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment, 16 November 2004

(8) Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook, Ben Rogers, institute for public policy research, 2004

(9) Cleaner, safer, greener communities: further background (.pdf 14.9 KB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(10) Clean neighbourhoods consultation, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 24 September 2004

(11) Mayor announces next phase of his 100 public spaces programme, Greater London Authority, 16 December 2004

(12) Public Health White Paper, BBC News, 16 November 2004

(13) First minister’s speech in full, Jack McConnell, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(14) Manchester blazes smoke-free trail, Helen Carter, Guardian, 14 October 2004

(15) First city votes for ban on smoking, Helen Carter and Sam Jones, Guardian, 21 October 2004

(16) New poll shows huge support for work-place smoking ban, Greater London Authority, 2 November 2004

(17) No butts, says mayor. Put your fag in the bin, Hugh Muir, Guardian, 30 September 2004

(18) New move to stop smoking in cabs, BBC News, 2 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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