The Regeneration Railway Journey

With New Labour’s era of urban regeneration hitting the spongiform buffers of the Big Society, Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain surveys the train wreck it has left in its wake. Review by Neil Smith.

By Neil Smith:


The Cameron-Clegg coalition of naked convenience has little appetite for regeneration policy having cancelled the planned redevelopment of Blair’s ill-fated Aylesbury estate. With or without regeneration, the ‘Big Society’ represents just another phase of neoliberal destruction, with even fewer protections against large scale state-orchestrated displacement. If the Big Society seems vague, vacuous and pathetic, this is not an accident, and its vacuity distinguishes it from Blair’s regeneration initiative. Today in the wake of growing opposition, failed global wars and a worldwide financial crisis, neoliberalism is dead but dominant. It is dead insofar as it has no new ideas, bogged down in the brownfield site of its own effluent; it is dominant insofar as neoliberalism still has no system-wide challengers, Europe’s anti-austerity revolts and the revolutions of northern Africa and the Middle East notwithstanding. The Big Society hitches itself to stagnant neoliberalism but the engine is never in gear and can’t to drive forward a dead project.

Image: Will Alsop’s CHIPS Apartment Building, New Islington, Manchester

That might seem like good news, but it isn’t really. The beast of urban neoliberalism is made of sterner stuff than to die without a fight. And so the recent public scrum over housing benefits gathered around a rhetorical question, aptly summed up in one BBC News headline: ‘Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?’ We can learn two things from this debate. First, the moral cladding of ‘regeneration’ has done its work; thanks to state policy, the market with all its powers of cataclysmic abandonment and investment has been unleashed, resulting in the present housing crisis, in Britain and elsewhere. Second, the class-cleansing intent of urban policy, whether regenerative or socially big, is beautifully exposed by a magnanimous transposition of the question: ‘Do the rich have the right to invade poor people’s areas?’ (which may just be how so many poor people find themselves suddenly living in ‘expensive areas’ in the first place). What does an answer to that suddenly unrhetorical question say about the liberal equality of rights enjoyed by the poor and the working class? The residual Blairite swaddling of the question – ‘do the poor have the right …’ – camouflages the naked class politics of austerity.

If Hatherley’s language is vibrant, unbowing and his critiques sharp and well aimed, it is political melancholy that nonetheless hangs over the entire journey. A next railway journey therefore beckons. It seeks fresh shoots of political growth amidst the dereliction of the new ruins visible from Hatherley’s train. Much like its urban alter ego, political regeneration will surely involve creative destruction, the clearance of ideological wreckage and the nurturing of new brownfield sites in anticipation of greenfield political growth. That’s a railway journey I want to be on.

Read full article at Mute

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