Saturday, 16 February 2008

the hidden cost of regeneration

joe moran’s thoughts on liverpool (see 8 jan) and the dwindling of much that was idiosyncratic about the city in the run up to its year of carnival/consumerism, sorry, culture, got me thinking the hidden cost of all this regeneration. never a day goes by without more announcements of investment and renewal in erstwhile declining cities and towns. these days the smallest conurbation has urban pretensions – even whitefield, a sleepy and somewhat unfashionable suburb in north manchester on the way to bury has been boasting of its city-living apartments – surely something of a contradiction in terms (can the suburb genuinely have city living?). it’s all part of the ripple effect – as prestwich, the ‘didsbury’ of north manchester, grows out of reach to the first time buyer and ubiquitous buy-to-let landlord, the carpet baggers search out the nearest potential investment goldmine, and so the merry go round continues.

this selfless bestowing of new life and opportunity to otherwise declining areas has long been the repost to killjoys like myself; the nostalgic anti-progress brigade that im mistakenly identified with. the official line is always that without investors moving in and rescuing us from inevitable slow death by neglect and decay, the whole country would evaporate or rot away. in this scenario a terminally ill backward-looking Britain is heroically rescued by brave entrepreneurs and visionaries of the future. but this isn’t the whole truth – perfectly well organized, vibrant and locally sustainable economies are in fact prey to the greedy clutches of outside profiteers and carpetbaggers.

take hebden bridge, long the haven of vegan hippie communes, ‘retired’ lesbians with kids from hulme and whalley range, and lefty lecturers craving the inspiration of the former residence of sylvia and tom, has sadly succumbed to the ‘march of progress’ with lofts and riverside warehouses springing up, buy-to-let landlords snapping up property for cash, and house prices hiked up more than double in less than 5 years. and of course its not just house prices that are affected, the whole local economy gets a boost or setback depending on your point of view, on whether you are a stock and shares speculator or a small local business.

hebden bridge was already a thriving community with an enviable high street of independent businesses - family run cafes, organic food stores, bakeries, butchers and fishmongers, several bookshops and second hand treasure troves, and a host of locally produced clothes, arts and crafts and jewelers, all providing a living for the indigenous and adopted community and adding to its regional status as a great day out destination. this hebden bridge was the result of just the kind of ‘pioneering’ gentrification way back in the 1960’s that joe moran so astutely deconstructs in his new statesman article, ‘the gentrification of 1960s London produced, albeit briefly, a genuine social mix. Many of the knockers-through saw living on "the front line" as a way of combining their left-liberal credentials with a bohemian cachet, and professed to relish encounters with "the locals". No wonder the likes of Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn found this such a rich seam for their comedies of manners. But the idea of a brave, groundbreaking group of gentrifiers was not simply a myth. They were less risk-averse than most professionals, buying and renovating their houses in the face of sceptical bank managers’

really, he could almost be talking about hebden bridge and neighbouring todmorden - that gentle and hands-on process by a generation of drop-outs and hippies created just the kind of idyllic retreat that ironically has become a victim of its own success. a couple of years ago the developers moved in, its hype plain for all to see, with its sudden surge of ostentatious hoardings on waterfront warehouses advertising the benefits of regeneration and investment to a community that genuinely didn’t need it; as moran puts it – ‘new-builds are emblazoned with logos, telephone numbers and a warning to the nervous buyer: "Only two apartments remaining" '- all the aggressive signifiers of new style regeneration, driven now by anonymous out of town conglomerates and investors rather than the previous post-war style individual pioneers with a genuine and long term stake in the area.

two years or so on, visit hebden bridge and most of the quirky little shops, thriving in equal measure due to cheap rents and actual local need, have disappeared – the craft shop is now an upmarket jewellers, part of a chain, the charity shop a fancy new restaurant, the junk shop long gone replaced by yet another restaurant, the antique centre now a glamorous wine bar, the bookshops shut up and replaced by interior décor shops to furnish the rash of new developments; all reflecting both a hike in rents and the bourgeois requirements of the incoming new ‘gentry’ with bigger incomes and fancier tastes, who attracted by the ‘authenticity’ of the place only hastened its demise, as they destroyed what initially attracted them in the marketeers’ brochure.

as moran concludes, ‘i doubt there is much liberal hand-wringing in Urban Splash refurbs. according to the new Identity in Britain atlas, produced by the academic geographers Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas, neighbourhoods in the UK are less socially integrated than at any time since the second world war. the idea of a frontier class, colonising up-and-coming areas, no longer makes sense when the housing market is largely sewn up by established homeowners. but people carry on talking as though they can control the market by deciphering it - as though it were about individual knowledge, rather than collective politics.’

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