London: what kind of city do we want?
Pubs for the public, free childcare, no more Green Belt... Manifesto Club members offer some words of advice to the next mayor of London.
Inspired by the London mayoral elections on 1 May, the campaigning group I convene, the Manifesto Club, has been asking its members around the world to submit their plans for a new city. What are the ways in which metropolitan life might be improved in London, Paris, Sydney, New York, Prague, Shanghai, Mumbai, or any of the world’s great centres? How should we organise transport, cultural life, and urban spaces? How can we better organise urban democracy? What should be our attitude to immigration?
Cities have been places that have fired the imagination, offering their residents freedom to experiment with different ideas, ways of living, working and collaborating. All of the significant cultural and political movements of the past century have come from cities. Yet too much of urban policy is now about containing the city and its residents – whether it’s the regulation of drinking culture, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras on street corners or charging drivers to enter the city centre, as implemented by Ken Livingstone in London and proposed by Michael Bloomberg in New York. A rejuvenation of the metropolitan imagination is required.
Here is a selection of the proposals we have received so far. These are posted on the Manifesto Club Members’ Room, and will be debated and added to over the next few days. If you want to join the Club, you can do so online; or at our next London club night on Tuesday 22 April, ‘Talkin’ About A Revolution’, at which Frank Furedi, Maria Grasso and Lee Jones will kick off a discussion on the legacy of 1968.
Legal limits on drinking hours were introduced in Britain and several other countries during the First World War, bringing a measure of military discipline to civilian life. The subsequent, disastrous experiment with complete prohibition of alcohol in the USA between 1920 and 1933 was also born of a desire for social control, albeit justified in moralistic rather than militaristic terms. Even today, licensing laws constrain the public’s freedom. The one sensible restriction on the supply of alcohol – preventing its direct sale to minors – is a clue to the problem. Licensing laws treat us all like irresponsible children.
Any self-respecting citizenry should insist on the right to decide for itself how late we can stay out drinking. In those cities around the world where bars are allowed to open into the early hours, there is none of the chaos whose threat is implied by restrictions placed on drinkers in London, Glasgow or other cities where late licences are the exception, grudgingly granted by the authorities. In principle, there is no reason why landlords should not be free to decide on a night-by-night basis how late to stay open, depending on the wishes of customers and the willingness of staff to stay on. The simple principle of supply and demand would then apply, and no doubt some bars would become regular late-drinking venues, while others would keep the old hours, or even close earlier.
Drinkers are citizens as well as consumers, and might sometimes want to take deliberate control of the process rather than simply leaving it to the market, so that other factors such as disturbance to neighbours can be taken into account, and bars in particular areas asked to close at particular times. In theory, the public already controls licensing in the UK through local authorities, but, as is widely recognised, local democracy is far from healthy, and most of us experience local authorities as an anonymous ‘they’. This is a much wider problem than licensing but a presumption in favour of public houses being governed by the people who drink in them might go some way to reminding us what ‘public’ actually means. A meeting in the pub, of regulars and interested local residents, would enjoy rather more legitimacy than any high-handed committee.
All this is in stark contrast to the approach currently taken by the New Labour government (and the current London mayor), even in its notorious attempt to ‘liberalise’ drinking hours. The Licensing Act 2003 was promoted not as an expansion of freedom for its own sake, but as an attempt to transform Britain’s ‘drinking culture’ in the midst of a moral panic about alcoholic excess. The idea was that more relaxed pub hours would encourage Britons to adopt a ‘continental-style’ drinking culture – instead of knocking back several pints before last orders, we would linger over un demi, perhaps discussing theatre and the like. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. But for all the hysterical headlines about ’24-hour drinking’ and ‘binge-drinking Britain’, our cities did not descend into chaos either. In fact, what is perhaps surprising is that so few pubs have gone through the bureaucratic hassle required to take advantage of the change to the law: most continue to shut at 11pm, or sometimes midnight at weekends.
The reason for this is surely that a ‘drinking culture’ is not something that can be altered by government diktat; nor is it the business of government to mould the public in its own favoured image. Lots of drinkers in London and other British cities do enjoy sipping wine in pavement cafés and theatre bars, and would appreciate being able to do so without worrying about ‘chucking out time’. But if others (or those same people in a different mood) want to down a few pints between 9pm and 11pm and then guzzle a kebab on the way home, good for them. It is sheer snobbery to suggest traditional British drinkers, even of the youthful provincial variety, are by definition ‘antisocial’.
Rather than the government using licensing laws to shape our behaviour, any rules or regulations concerning drinking should reflect the wishes of the drinking public itself. Similarly, it should be up to drinkers in a particular pub to decide whether to allow smoking in that pub. Or indeed children: again, it’s an attractive idea to adopt a more relaxed attitude to kids in pubs, and inculcate them into grown-up culture, but if drinkers sometimes want to escape to an adult-only environment, that’s fair enough, too. Live music in pubs and other venues is another thing that’s currently over-regulated, and ought to be left to the public as drinkers and music lovers.
A city is made by its people, not by bureaucratic diktat. Pubs and bars ought to be hubs of conviviality where we come together as a public rather than mere consumers to be shepherded in and out according to a set of rules inherited from the First World War. Abolishing intrusive licensing laws would not only make drinking more enjoyable, but would be a vital assertion of adulthood on the part of a public that has been patronised for too long.
CHILDCARE: MORE MONEY, MORE IMAGINATION,
London is a city of endless possibilities. Yet for families with young children, life is often confined to the suburbs, with parents channelling hard-earned wages into scarce, inflexible childcare and having little time or money left over to explore the parks, zoos or galleries, or wander the streets of the West End.
According to the Daycare Trust, the typical cost of a full-time nursery place for one child under two in London is £200 a week in England – £10,000 a year. When you consider that many families have two children under school-age, this is hardly loose change. Nurseries are great places for children to socialise, develop and have fun; but there are not enough of them, they are too expensive, and many only provide childcare over a standard working day. Burdensome health and safety regulations about everything from children’s common illnesses to adventurous play and risk-taking often leave nurseries unable to be as imaginative and caring as they want to be, and parents out-of-pocket for childcare that cannot meet their needs.
A drastic re-think of childcare in the city is needed, in order to free families up to appreciate London life in all its layers. The following suggestions are a start:
- Properly subsidised nursery care, which pays childcare workers more and costs parents less;
- A scheme to provide ad-hoc childcare, including out-of-hours and overnight, for when children are sick, when working hours take priority, or when parents want a night out or some time to themselves;
- A city-wide collaboration for a school holiday club that takes children to all the biggest and best attractions in London, meeting children from other schools;
- An evaluation of the burdens placed upon childcare workers by risk-averse regulation and centralised bureaucracy;
- An annual London-wide picnic party, where parents and childcare workers can relax together and enjoy their children in the company of other families.
Every day in London is like a major international festival – we are spoilt for choice with excellent and affordable cultural experiences.
The Greater London Authority (GLA) has done some worthwhile things to help promote the public spaces and culture in London. Even though the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square has made life hell for drivers, it has (along with the removal of the pigeons) made it a much nicer space, opening up the front of the National Gallery in a way it rightfully deserves. The GLA’s programme of outdoor events and the redevelopment of street areas in the city has also helped enliven a number of public spaces.
However, the GLA could do much more to support cultural experiences in London. The first is to push harder for cultural education services, particularly for young people. The provision of music instrument teaching remains very patchy in the Greater London area, particularly in state schools. Could the GLA work with local authorities to support the expansion of peripatetic music teaching? Could the London Development Agency (LDA) give funds to arts and music organisations that deliver high quality educational programmes to young people (and not just dj workshops, either!).
Also, it’s worth remembering that much of London’s cultural wealth is concentrated in Zone 1, which means that while our city is a goldmine for tourists, its cultural offerings are less accessible to the majority of city residents. This is why there should be an effort to support the galleries, libraries, archives and museums in the outer boroughs. The financial cuts to the William Morris Gallery in Waltham Forest, the Battersea Arts Centre and Wandsworth Museum were all indicative of a general slide in funds for the arts in less sexy parts of the city – could the GLA intervene and voice greater support for these valuable institutions?
The GLA has also spent a lot of money on weak cultural projects that have yet to prove their worth (eg, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham or Rich Mix in Bethnal Green). The motivation seems to be political, in that they appeal to ‘ethnic communities’. In truth, I doubt that they appeal much to any community at the moment. The quality of output is poor and local residents are resentful that big capital projects land on their doorstep from nowhere. The LDA/GLA should demand that these projects raise their game and put quality of provision as the top priority – above labels, targets and policy rhetoric. The mayor has been too keen to fund Soviet-style propaganda art which promotes his agenda (anti-racism, citizenship, green issues, disability rights etc), but it would be much better to just support good art and let artists work out politics themselves. The audience will be thankful for it.
Which brings me to the final point: the Cultural Olympiad. Let’s learn the lessons from the Millennium Dome and get some decent content rather than focusing relentlessly on social inclusion, regeneration and ‘empowerment’. The public hates to be patronised and treated like children. Even children hate to be treated like children. Forget the emphasis on ‘yoof’ and let’s go for something grown up. Let’s also ditch the faux ‘diversity’ that really just means ‘black’. Let’s go for genuine diversity, which is really about stretching people beyond the familiar so that they experience something fresh. Our greatest cultural institutions have proven that is entirely possible to programme entertaining events along with intellectually challenging and difficult works, or to commission innovative experiments in form, whilst supporting high quality cultural experiences that are more traditional. Kick politics out of the Cultural Olympiad and put some culture in.
THE PUBLIC LIBRARIES WE NEED
What kind of public library do we need in our towns and cities? There is no shortage of thinking being applied to this question currently. Librarians tell us that we need public libraries that will serve as community hubs and attract visitors throughout the day. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) tells us that we need libraries to provide training and information to the socially excluded. Architects tell us that we need visibly striking library buildings that put the town or city back on the map, and which lead to the regeneration of the surrounding area. The common theme in all these visions is of a highly social and sociable public library, dedicated to re-establishing relations between neighbours, between service providers and service users, between voters and politicians, between the cultural sector and the business sector, and between the private life of man and his public life.
Should we buy into this vision? No. Broken social relationships – in communities or political life – cannot be mended as easily as some of the more enthusiastic public librarians imagine. In the meantime, though, as the vision of the sociable public library is relentlessly pursued, that most important of relationships – between writer and reader, via the printed word – is being inexorably undermined. And if this personal relationship is not allowed to grow, then what hope is there for reinvigorating the whole network of society-wide relationships?
Readers are having a hard time of it in public libraries today. Once the core users, they are now being squeezed out as libraries introduce computer equipment to attract internet users; training courses to attract job-seekers; health and legal surgeries to attract the community at large; and coffee bars to attract just about anyone. Above their heads, the steel-and-glass architecture invites potential readers into the library to admire the spectacle, but does little to encourage them to engage in extended reading. The opportunities to find an important book (free of charge) and a quiet carrel in which to read it are in decline. This is one aspect of privacy that is not protected.
Does all this really matter when so much knowledge and information can be found on the internet, which is freely available (although wholly inadequate) in all public libraries? Of course it matters. The internet may be a good source for finding out up-to-date information and for referring to past works, but not for reading a book cover-to-cover; not for tracing the formation, transformation and reformation of an idea over time; and certainly not for forging a long-lasting and fruitful relationship with an author across the centuries.
Society has its problems, not least of which is the failure of many individuals to forge sustained relationships with others. We must therefore demand of the custodians of public libraries, especially in busy city centres, that they provide a silent, book-filled space in which the writer-reader relationship can again blossom. Without giving this personal relationship a fighting chance, the wider public ties are liable to remain undone.
In his ‘City of the Sun’ utopia, written in 1602, Tommaso Campanella imagined murals throughout the city presenting discoveries in the arts and sciences, from mathematical figures to poetry, to the arrangement of the Earth and stars. His book inspired the Bolshevik revolutionaries to set up a public monuments programme of key philosophers and political figures, with the aim of turning streets and squares into enlightening places.
Ours may not be an age for grand monuments, but public art should still feed the mind and stimulate the senses. Public art plays an ever-growing role in urban policy across the world, and the cost and mass of artworks is growing steadily. Some of this new public art works to good effect. London projects such as Poems on the Underground and Platform for Art have brought art into the often-alienating environment of the Underground, giving commuters a pause for thought or another angle on the world.
But too much public art in the UK is produced by worthy committees, with their staid and paternalistic ideas of public identity and the role of art. These committees tend to fund art for a variety of political reasons – to help create public identity, ease social fragmentation, or to tie people to place. This has produced a new genre of bland ‘community art’, where – for example – every seaside town or city ends up with sculptures of fish and sea birds, or inner city areas get children’s handprints or representations of the community ‘coming together’.
Another problem is that too much public art is delivered to order, as a bureaucratic part of urban development that is not justified or questioned. For example, many UK councils have a ‘per cent for art programme’, which means that a percentage of all money for development must be set aside for art. Under this system, art is made not from political will or passion but as a rubber-stamping exercise.
For public art to be lively and good it should be contested, with more public discussions about artworks, and with artists and architects putting their case for their work and explaining their aims. The Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square – with a rotating series of artworks and ongoing debate about what should be on the plinth – was a positive development in this respect.
Here are a number of suggestions for how public art might be improved:
- Continuing support for the more successful public arts programmes, such as the Fourth Plinth project and Platform for Art; and looking for new ways in which art can be shown in public.
- Ending obligatory public art funding, such as the ‘per cent for art programme’. Public art should be argued for and justified, rather than waved through as a bureaucratic measure. Also, cutting back on the money distributed through established committees, such as the Arts Council, local councils and Lottery Fund.
- Instead, public art policy could encourage new alliances of people to discuss and decide which art ends up in public, for example: ad hoc committees of artists; public debates and votes for public artworks; calls for public subscriptions to fund public art.
- The aim of public art funding should be much more exploratory, and less driven by the ideological needs of a moribund bureaucracy. Public art can serve a range of functions – to be beautiful or visually striking, to make us laugh or think, or to make a political point. Whatever its motivation, this should come from the ground of social life – the style and conviction of the artist; the views and character of the people who live in the area – not from committee bureaucracy.
- To put on free public tours of urban spaces – for example, talks by architects or historians – so that residents can learn more about the styles and history of the buildings, monuments and artworks. Access to this knowledge could enable city residents to enjoy and gain more from their journeys through the city, and develop their own artistic views and tastes.
A walk around a city such as London is already an aesthetic experience – and if public art was less clichéd and more vibrant and surprising, it could be a lot better.
ABOLISH THE GREEN BELT
There is something very quaint about being asked to draft a policy for a new city, rather like writing up the ‘future for steam power’, or ‘what next for patriarchy?’ The truth is that British people do not live in cities, but suburbs. Over time, better roads, cars, trains and trams have increased the distance people travel to work. That in turn has let them spread out over the countryside. The effect is quite marked. Population densities have fallen over time, so that most of us live further from our neighbours than our grandparents did to theirs.
That fool Lewis Mumford thought that we always did live in cities, and always will (The City in History, 1961). But the link between Babylon and today’s built-up areas is just a word, ‘City’ that tells us almost nothing. The nineteenth century saw the creation of the City that we recognise as such, the industrial city, whose template still persists today, though it, too no longer describes the way people live.
In the nineteenth century it made sense to divide the land between the town and the country. Industry had to be concentrated. Labourers’ wages did not allow big commutes. They lived at the pithead or by the factory. Also, every acre of countryside was farmed extensively – to feed horses, mules and men. Progressives knew that the antagonism between Town and Country was not just a technical necessity, but a trap that held people back. They looked forward to the day when the divide of Town and Country was abolished.
The nineteenth century city has been superseded. In the interwar years, working-class people bought up cheap land in Kent and Essex and made their own ‘plotlands’ that grew into towns like Pitsea, Jaywick Sands and Canvey Island (see Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward, Arcadia for All, 2003). Or they moved to the new ribbon developments growing up alongside main roads.
The ruling elite always hated the way that the plebs kept moving further out of town, slowly breaking down the boundary between Town and Country. They had relied on the aristocracy to enforce the monopoly over land, but impoverished, they had leapt at the chance to sell up under the 1882 Settled Lands Act – leaving an opening for ordinary people to buy land to farm or live on.
Today’s Green Belt policies are an outcome of the apoplectic reaction of the Tory Shires to ‘ribbon development’. The (then) Council for the Preservation of Rural England was founded in 1926 to halt the ‘blight’. It lobbied for a Green Belt around London (1938) and across the country (1955).
The Green Belt has been a huge problem for house building. Under the 1947 Planning Act, ownership of land is no longer enough to be able to build there. Instead, you have to get permission from the authorities. In areas called ‘Green Belt’ around towns and cities, permission is generally refused.
In the long run, the policy is like Canute, trying to hold back the waves. Farmland is so productive by comparison to 1900 that we need much less of it grow our food on. Farmers are selling up. Land is going begging. Naturally, more people want to spread out into the countryside. In time they will. Policymakers call it the ‘counter-urban cascade’.
But in the meantime, the policy of hemming us into the cities is straining against that positive trend. Tory shires and urban Stalinists are united in their wish to hang on to the old geographic division. Ken Livingstone does not want his Council Charge payers to drift off to Essex – walled into the City, they are the source of his power. Nor do the Bufton Tuftons want to share their precious Home Counties stockbroker belt with common oiks.
We should abolish the Green Belt. It is no help to anyone. There is no shortage of land. Nine tenths of Britain is not built up. Lifting the artificial constraints on growth will let people build where they want. As people move towards lower-density living, and conurbations extend along communication lines and coasts, it will become obvious that the City has long been superseded.
Already it makes little sense to talk about ‘London’ as if it had a common identity. Since 1965, in fact, it has not been London, but the Greater London Conurbation. Right now, Tory candidate Boris Johnson, canvassing in Enfield and Finchley, is taking advantage of the fact that Ken Livingstone has ignored the populous outer boroughs because he is fixated on the tourist/retail/financial/media/governmental complex that is inner London.
Understood fully, the Greater London Conurbation extends from Brighton in the south to Oxford in the west and Cambridge in the north-east. It is not one city but a part of the new combination of dispersed living alongside concentrated cultural and administrative centres. The Green Belt legislation is an anachronism that is stopping us from building where we need to. We should abolish it and get used to the fact that there is no city called London.
spiked is hosting a debate on the future of the Green Belt in London on 30 April. Click here for more details.
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