Ground Control

Issue section: 
(338)

Anna Minton, Penguin; £9.99

Over the past 20 years cities and urban spaces in Britain have been remodelled in the interests of profit. "Regeneration" has brought private, corporately managed and policed spaces, from which working class communities have been excluded.

Policy-makers and property developers say that there is too much affordable housing in Peckham or Tottenham or wherever they wish to put new private developments. Instead of housing people in need, they claim to improve communities by bringing in upwardly mobile apartment-dwellers as role models for existing tenants and residents.

Anna Minton's book burns with righteous anger at such socially divisive policies. She points to the hidden but ever-present objective of driving up property values, in a world where profit always comes before people. She shows that when lifeless spaces are created, fit only for shopping, more "security and safety" only has the perverse effect of increasing the fear of crime. She examines ASBOs and the "respect" agenda, which stigmatise people who have real issues rather than providing the support and local services that they need.

Minton is describing neoliberalism, although she does not use the term. She sees the new urban policies as imports from the US, and looks instead to the supposedly more balanced policies of the "Europe" of Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

However, her book does not take into account the ways that people can and do resist. The private ownership of public spaces such as shopping centres is not new, and "public-private" spaces have always been contested. Think of any club, bar, café or bus station. Also, public authorities are not always marvellous. They can pass restrictive laws or by-laws, or deploy the police to control ordinary people. Class divisions and class struggle cut across any simplistic categories of "public" and "private".

Minton does not write about transport, with its problems of prices, access, pollution and safety, but also with "Critical Mass" bike rides and its bus and rail strikes.

In urban policy, the outstanding case of ordinary people standing up to politicians and privatisers is Defend Council Housing, which has prevented or delayed housing privatisation for more than a decade. But Minton has not interviewed a single tenant activist.

Dazzled by the jargon of planners, consultants and developers, Minton even suggests that ordinary people cannot understand the term "compulsory purchase", and, bizarrely, this comes after she has interviewed homeowners who fought against the "Pathfinder" mass demolition schemes across Northern England.

To make a better future, we need more mass struggles from below. This book is a useful account of the neoliberal onslaught on urban areas, but it is much weaker on solutions.