Such is the allure of London protest politics for media of every type and size that the city is now routinely depicted as a place where venal politicians, rich foreigners and grasping property tycoons conspire on a daily basis to destroy neighbourhoods and “push out the poor” against the wishes of “the community”. From this crude simplification of a vastly more nuanced reality – one often perpetuated with the greatest fervour by, of all people, academics and journalists with supposedly “quality” news organisations – flow populist fatuities about so-called “social cleansing” and the iron certainty, often found among people of truly good intentions, that the word “regeneration” can only ever stand for unalloyed evil that must be resisted at every turn.
It was then, a relief as well as a pleasure to chair the recent sold-out On London/London Society event about regeneration and “good growth” at the office of architects Squire and Partners in Brixton with a panel of people who are daily immersed in the practicalities, challenges and dilemmas of making this fast-expanding city grow in the best possible way for the largest possible number of its inhabitants. From them, we heard a rather different version of London’s recent evolution and the barriers to making it proceed in ways that secure and sustain public support and better serve the common good.
Lisa Taylor, chief executive of Future of London, spoke of the struggle faced by boroughs and other “placemaking” agent to mobilise the involvement and optimism of residents in processes of change they often end up welcoming when mistrust, frustration and anger can be more intense and conspicuous – a struggle made no easier when local government cuts are resulting in overwork and the loss of experienced staff at a time when energy and know-how are particularly needed due to a greater reliance on private finance to get things done. Colin Wilson, a former senior GLA strategic planning officer now with Southwark, spoke about that borough’s Old Kent Road project and the value of planners getting out more to meet local people, even if those encounters can sometimes be uncomfortable.
Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forest, expressed bold ambitions for her Outer London borough: “There is no option to stand still. You have to decide if you’re going to be part of active change, or don’t bother. If you’re in politics, particularly if you’re a Labour politician, and you just want to defend the status quo, then frankly you should have a word with yourself.” And Tim Gledstone from Squires, our generous hosts, spoke about developing the company’s own building in Ferndale Street in a way that married past and present with as much local support as possible.
There was no sidestepping the tensions that regeneration projects can create or the nature of some attacks on them. The articulate audience saw to that. Bill Linksey, chair of the Brixton Society, expressed the familiar concern that too much change is to the detriment of current residents, especially with regard to housing. From another point on the compass, one victim of the Momentum-driven campaign to de-select Labour councillors in Haringey characterised it as the work of just a handful of people and a national newspaper, and therefore not remotely representative of the communities who would have been most affected by the previous administration’s regeneration programme.
Both of these contributions and others on the night underlined how regeneration has become a political minefield. At its most extreme it produces an account of the city that reduces a complex weave of local and global factors and social and economic forces to placard-friendly slogans that casually depict anyone and anything that questions it as corrupt, lying and out for themselves. It is the internal manifestation of modern day London-hating, as ignorant and reactionary in its way as the loathing of the capital inherent in Nigel Farage’s Little England view of what is wrong with Britain.
But perhaps some good can come of this. At a time when cynicism about politicians and their actions is running high, the only proper response is to work harder at dispelling it. As London’s population rises toward 10 million, more and better homes, offices, other kinds of workspace, shops, transport capacity, health care facilities and schools are going to be needed, not only for today’s Londoners but for tomorrow’s too. Those things have to go somewhere and they do not pay for themselves. Clare Coghill was right: the status quo is not an option. But now, maybe more than ever, building that bigger, better city requires winning Londoners’ hearts, minds and consent.
The next On London/London Society joint event is The London Brexit Debate on 13 September. Buy your tickets here.