Hoxton Failure?

Government report brands Hoxton regeneration a failure
A ‘scuffle’ has broken out between Shoreditch Our Way (ShOW) and the government’s Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).

A DCMS consultation paper written by London Metropolitan University has branded ‘culturally-led regeneration’ in Hoxton a failure. The report describes the area as ‘one of the most sought after in the city, with upmarket bars, cafes, galleries, clubs….’ It also describes the reality for local people: ‘1000 local jobs a year have been created, but the local unemployment level never seems to change… land values in the area have soared. So locals who get jobs often have to move outside the borough.’

The DCMS report just confirms what Hackney IWCA and local residents have known since the gentrification of Shoreditch began in the 1990’s. ‘The impact of regeneration and economic development generally can be divisive and create resistance/resentment.’

However ShOW’s chief executive Michael Pyner has hit out at the DCMS paper in the pages of the Hackney Gazette [July 8th, 2004], calling it “nonsense” and “unhelpful”. Pyner, who lives in Brighton, is quoted as saying: “It seems ironic that we had John Prescott touring Shoreditch not long ago and telling us what a success the regeneration of the area is and now Tessa Jowell [Culture Secretary] is producing a report saying it’s not working.”

(Incidentally, a few pages further on in this same issue of the Gazette, a group of Hackney artists are to be found bemoaning the high rents which forced them to move out of Hoxton where they had been living and working. More ‘nonsense’, presumably….)

ShOW, described in the Gazette as a ‘property company…run as a charity’, is one of 50 New Deal for Communities (NDCs) around the country set up by Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister five years ago to target resources at some of Britain’s poorest areas. Despite criticisms that NDCs have largely failed to make a difference, the government has announced that it plans to extend the scheme to other areas if it wins a third term. No surprise then that Prescott is prepared to overlook reality to defend his ‘baby’.

The fact remains that the £50 million that ShOW was given to spend in Shoreditch over ten years is a drop in the ocean compared to the financial resources wielded by the property developers and business investors currently transforming/gentrifying the area (encouraged by Hackney Council), and doing so at the expense of local people. ShOW’s practice of buying up property — sometimes evicting community users in the process — and selling it to developers, hardly exemplifies a community asserting itself in the face of the City’s greed and indifference, as it (ShOW) sometimes likes to present itself. Pyner is at great lengths to emphasise that ShOW is resident-led, but tenant and resident elected representatives are not in the majority on the board. The criticism often leveled at many other of New Labour’s arms-length government initiatives (usually referred to as QUANGOs under the last Tory government), that they trumpet community ‘involvement’ and ‘empowerment’ but are in reality consultant-led, is also true of the NDCs.

For example this recently appeared in the Guardian [1st July, 2004]:

‘The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, has attacked regeneration professionals and the government for failing to give power to the communities they serve. Bishop Jones, the former chairman of a New Deal for Communities scheme in Liverpool, complains[s] of a gulf between ministerial promises of community empowerment and the reality. “There is a chasm between the professionals who have the money and the power and the people who live in communities.” He highlighted the contrast between community leaders who attend hundreds of meetings for free, and consultants who charge large fees. “Professional regenerators are paid thousands to day trip into communities to devise solutions. That cannot be just,” he said.’

Not a situation confined to Liverpool…

Leaving aside the ulterior motives Pyner and Prescott may have for declaring Hoxton’s regeneration a success for local people — in the face of much evidence to the contrary (like the proliferation of yuppie flats amidst neglected council estates) —, the solutions proposed by the DCMS report go nowhere near far enough to giving the residents of Shoreditch a real say in what happens here.

The report concludes (in part) that cultural and artistic projects can ‘play a key role in community consultation, animation and empowerment in the fraught development process.’ This is vague, to say the least. And we are justifiably suspect of empty concepts like ‘consultation’ and ‘empowerment’, favourite buzz-words of the middle-class engineers of gentrification and thoroughly discredited in the eyes of working-class communities. However unlikely it is that Hackney Council or John Prescott or Michael Pyner or Tessa Jowell would ever welcome it, what is needed is for residents to have a real say in the process of redevelopment, not just involvement in some ‘cultural projects’ designed to make swallowing the pill easier. There is nothing wrong with art and culture, provided that it supports rather than substitutes itself for genuine democracy.