If you live in a large town or city, it’s easy to walk, drive, ride on a bus or train without knowing how the space you’re in was divided up, shared out and indeed goes on being divided up and shared out.
It often seems as if it’s just there. For years, not a lot happens – the odd shop changes hands, old buildings get knocked down and a new one goes up, the road gets dug up and filled in.
But then suddenly something big happens – there’s a plan to build a major new shopping centre, road or station. For a moment, the real owners and controllers of the places we live and work in become visible.
And yet, though they are for a brief moment visible, it’s often as immoveable giants, mystically connected to vast tracts of invisible land that lie beneath the buildings and roads.
Great hulks of derelict factories, churches or cinemas sit about for decades in the heart of communities that are hard pressed for space for kids to play in, health centres, libraries and schools. Then suddenly they have owners who are able to call the shots on what’s to happen to the space you live in or walk through.
All over the country there are meetings going on between people who call themselves “partners” about what they call “regeneration” or “renewal”.
Usually these will involve some or all of the following – locally elected politicians, local full-time council officers, hired experts, representatives of major building companies, local property owners and transport companies. In short, deals are struck between the people we elect and people who make money in order to transform our urban centres.
There’s not much that’s new about this. There have been many major fights between what have been called “community activists” and some massive development plans of the past.
If you ever drive on the Westway out of London, you might sometimes be curious about the lives of the people whose houses seem to lean right up against the edge of the road. The same goes for similar roads all over the world.
Again and again the people who lived in those houses, and in the ones that were demolished to make way for the road, did all they could to prevent it being built. In the 1960s the centres of many towns in Britain were suddenly demolished, and a mix of car parks, offices, supermarkets and malls were put up.
We now have the experience of these developments in our recent collective memory. We can see that building roads that deposit thousands of cars into the middle of towns was crass.
Smashing up old houses in order to shove up buildings with a shelf life of 40 years was great for the firms that did the demolishing and the building and will again do the demolishing and rebuilding.
But it was awful for the people who got kicked out and solved none of the basic problems of life in cities – there aren’t enough affordable well-built homes within safe walking distance of parks, swimming pools, schools, libraries and a variety of shops.
Sometimes these redevelopments focus on a large old building – a disused church, cinema, covered market or the like. Activists trying to demand that our inner cities should be planned for use by the people who live and work there, are joined by those who want to conserve old buildings because they are old.
On occasions this enables the developers to claim that these conservers are posh stick-in-the-mud cranks, while they are the modernisers who will deliver a bigger and better Tesco on our doorstep instead of a dirty old derelict market.
Meanwhile, the real cloak and dagger stuff involves our councils, aided and abetted by central government, easing the path for giant corporations to make millions out of constructing buildings that will house the offices and the retail outlets of giant corporations.
Where I live in Hackney, east London, deals have been struck between the council, landowners and transport companies to sell-off rows of old shops and flats, flatten a Victorian theatre, all in order to build buy-to-rent tower blocks and chain stores.
The deal has been sold as providing a train service to the area, even though it was cabals of bureaucrats and capitalists that closed the service 25 years earlier.
The number of affordable homes in the whole development continues to go down, and the “new” library will replace the old “new” library that was built when the council pulled down some shops and flats not so long ago.
Meanwhile, other roads in the area have seen old houses taken over by the council in order to make them derelict before flogging them off to property developers. These people have no interest in providing good cheap homes with a full range of facilities nearby.
Wherever you walk in towns and cities, our locally elected politicians are cutting deals with capitalists who have no interest in improving our lives.
Once, not so long ago, being a local Labour councillor could mean fighting to provide good cheap homes, near to good local schools. Now it means reciting some slick nonsense about regeneration and handing over our localities to sharks and profiteers.