Climax City

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The 1970s: London and the Three-day week

The recession of the mid 1970s was the back-drop to my early teenaged years. When not blacked out by power cuts the television was full of stories about strikes and trade union militancy. The recession had been triggered by the 1973 Oil Crisis and the miners strike later the same year. In January 1974 the Conservative Government imposed a state of emergency. Very soon we were in the three-day week and the country was plunged into an uncertain world of power cuts and strikes. The British economy – already branded the ‘sick man of Europe’ – was struggling under the burden of 20% inflation, unemployment of more than a million and a huge national deficit. 1974 saw two elections, the first of which resulted in a hung Parliament and the second a majority of three for Labour under Harold Wilson. 

It is hard today to imagine, but there were very real concerns at the time that London was a city in danger of dying. The early 1970s saw the closure of many of the city’s docks causing the number of dockers to fall from 60,000 after the war to just 30,000. Unemployment in London doubled between 1970 and 1976 reaching 7.2% and the population fell below 750,000. 1973 saw a Labour administration elected in the Greater London Council but high inflation and the oil crisis forced them to raise rates by 200% and the Labour group eventually split with a radical left wing group breaking away led by the unknown figure of Ken Livingstone.

The 1970s were turbulent times in London full of political struggle and conflict. The Barbican was opened at the start of the decade and the political and professional view was that London’s fabric needed to be updated and ‘modernised’. The great battle of the era was fought in Covent Garden, a district laid out by Indigo Jones in the early 17th century on the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey. The Fruit and Vegetable market that had traded on the site since 1649 was widely agreed to have become impossibly congested and inefficient. A decision was taken in 1971 to relocate the market to Nine Elms and in 1974 Covent Garden was vacated.

Covent Garden MarketCovent Garden redeleopment

The old Covent Garden Market (above) was relocated and plans drawn up for a Barbican-style redevelopment. This is the only image I can find of what was planned.

The GLC, which had inherited the freehold beneath much of Covent Garden, started planning for the redevelopment of the area a soon as its closure was announced. Its plans were very much of their time and the aim was nothing less than comprehensive redevelopment of some 75 acres of land, with high-rise offices and grade-separated roads. It was a plan drawn up by the Conservative GLC but supported their Labour successors, by Conservative Westminster Council, by Labour Camden Council and by National Government of both colours. The only dissenters were ‘a motley vociferous collection of locals who had no evident power or influence’1.

This motley crew in the form of the Covent Garden Community Association chaired by the Reverend Austen Williams, was the lone voice of dissent at the 1972 public enquiry into the proposals. They were ridiculed by the barrister for the GLC as ‘fanatics standing in the way of progress’ and they faced an almost total political consensus ranged against them. Following their inevitable defeat at the enquiry, the campaign took to the streets, staring with a huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1973 followed by a campaign of civic disobedience. Protestors set up a picket outside the Mayfair home of Lady Dartmouth, the chair of the relevant GLC committee, they occupied offices, disrupted press conferences, squatted buildings at risk of demolition and generally caused as much nuisance as possible.

Many years later I was interviewing architects for the Homes for Change housing cooperative in Hulme in Manchester. One of the interviewees was MBLC Architects and their presentation, led by George Mills, opened with a black and white slide of a press conference of the Architects Revolutionary Council in Covent Garden in 1975. The ARC was a group of students from the Architecture Association led by their tutor Brian Anson. He had formerly been principle planner at the Greater London Council and had been sacked for ‘taking up cudgels’ on behalf of the Covent Garden Community Association in 1971. The ARC’s manifesto proclaimed that architects should immediately stop working ‘only for a rich powerful minority or the bureaucratic dictatorship of Central and Local Governments and offer [their] skills and services for the local community’. There amongst the committee arranged like the Last Supper behind a long table with long hair, sideburns, velvet jackets and sunglasses sat George. Needless to say MBLC got the job.

ARC CompositeThe Architects Revolutionary Council meeting in Covent Garden – George being the third from the right.

Unthinkable as it had seemed in 1972, the campaign was eventually successful. By the mid 1970s the national mood had changed and in 1974 the Conservative Secretary of State Geoffery Rippon was persuaded to List 250 buildings in the Covent Garden area forcing the, now Labour, GLC to rethink its plans. There followed a difficult period of cohabitation with the Covent Garden Community Association and the GLC sitting together on the Covent Garden Forum, a body that lasted until 1978 when the community withdrew their support. However an Action Plan was agreed in 1978 to renovate rather than redevelop the district with the old market being converted to a speciality shopping area that opened in 1980 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Covent Garden Can Make itThe story of Covent Garden is however not just one of political strife and community action. The battle for Covent Garden was won not just through marches and occupations.  What also happened was that the area was colonised by creative business in the years following the closure of the market. It was a neighbourhood that had become vacant during of one of the bleakest economic periods that the UK had ever faced, yet it filled up rapidly with small businesses and creative industries attracted by the cheap rents, the heady atmosphere of dissent, alternative culture and an increasing concentration of like-minded people. It was this burgeoning of economic activity as much as the political campaigning that the argument about demolition. A debate that started as a discussion about the demolition of vacant building evolved into one about extinguishing a thriving business community.

My company, URBED was founded in Covent Garden at this time. Two former management consultants, Nicholas Falk (McKinsey & Company) and Christopher Cadell (Boston Consulting Group) set up URBED to apply business ideas to the process of urban regeneration. With help from John Worthington on the design side and Ronnie Lessem on enterprise development, they used Covent Garden as a source of ‘action research’ and as a testbed for ideas such as the adaptive reuse of old buildings, and training for entrepreneurs. One of the first initiatives was to set up a Space Exchange to put creative businesses in touch with building owners, and an exhibition revealed what was really going on. Today these would be called Meanwhile (or ‘Pop-up’) Uses. Our research discovered some 1500 businesses employing 30,000 people in eight or nine clusters. We pioneered the idea of ‘working communities’ an idea that David Rock pioneered at 5 Dryden Street which developed into the ‘managed workspace’ movement. The businesses that populated the shabby staircases and vacant floors of Covent Garden were the vanguard of a creative economy that would eventually transform the whole of London.

The story of Covent Garden is shared by other districts that emerged through a similar baptism of conflict in the 1970s. The North Laine in Brighton was a humble neighbourhood of terraced houses threatened with demolition to build an urban motorway. The area was occupied on a temporary basis prior to demolition by another ‘motley collection’ of radicals and creatives who, having fought off the road scheme, became the nucleus for a creative quarter that thrives to this day (in a way that Covent Garden, struggling under the feet of tourists and buskers has not quite managed to do).

However perhaps the best example of a creative quarter to emerge from the dark days of the mid 1970s is Camden Lock. Like Brighton this was the ‘victim’ of a proposed road scheme. There were plans in the 1960s to complete a London motorway box by linking the Westway through north London on the line of the Grand Union Canal. The canal would have disappeared as would much of Camden under a motorway junction. In the early 1970s the canal wharfs and railway arches of the area were blighted by the prospect of this scheme so that British Waterways were happy to grant a seven year lease to Northside Development Ltd. a company formed by Peter Wheeler and Bill Fullford initially to do up vacant houses but which was looking for a commercial opportunity. They gambled that the road scheme would be dropped opening up the prospect of a proper redevelopment. However in the meantime they had to make a return from the site with uses that could be easily removed if the motorway scheme materialised.

To do this they found (or were found by) a 27 year old called Eric Reynolds. As he says; ‘there was an explosion of arts and crafts in the Sixties and Seventies, but there were few places for people to sell their wares. I walked round London looking for an open space and came across this yard. In the week, it was a printers’ delivery yard, we got a short lease and on Saturday, March 4, 1974, we opened. There were 40 stalls, which we let out at £3. They were mostly craftsmen and artists – silversmiths, people selling home-made buttons, knitted children’s clothes, plus a woman who sold decorated traffic lights and milk churns. But the weather was appalling and we only got a few hundred people. Later that year, the canal was opened up. Then Sunday trading became legal, so the market opened on Sundays as well.’ The rest again is history, Camden Lock today includes a series of markets with more than a thousand stalls and has changed forever the character of Camden. It is now one of the most visited attractions in London and while it has been accused of selling-out and losing its authentic edge it remains a lively, boisterous place full of independent businesses.

Liberty MillsThis scheme in Merton South London was done by Eric Reynold’s company Urban Space Management and URBED. The scheme involved the conversion of the old Liberty Silk Printing works to a market and creative workspace.

Today when we use Camden Lock as an example of what could happen in some northern town, the response is generally, ‘ah well that’s different’, ‘it was never as run down as we are’ and, ‘in any case, it is in London’. The lessons from the 1970s suggest firstly that London as bad if not worse in the 1970s than many northern cities are today. But more importantly it tells us that it was this decline that created the conditions for Camden Lock and indeed Covent Garden to emerge. If the development market had been strong these areas would have been smothered glass and concrete. Space for diversity, and time to grow things incrementally wouldn’t have existed.

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4 Recessions

This piece was originally written as a chapter for an Academy of Urbanism book. The format of the book has now changed so that the chapter will not be included. I therefore thought it was at least worth posting the material on this blog before it becomes too out of date. It was originally called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ and was inspired by our work in Stoke-on-Trent in the depths of the recession. A much shorter version appeared in the first issue of the Academy of Urbanism’s journal also called ‘4 Recessions and a Pottery’ even after the section of Stoke was edited out so that the title mystified many people. The piece includes case studies of the recessions of the 70s, 80s and early 90s focussing on London, Manchester and Bradford respectively – these are included as separate posts. This introductory piece sets out the central idea that the seeds of urban regeneration are almost always sown during times of recession. The final post tries to apply the lessons to the recent recession.

It has not been easy working as an urbanist in a time of recession. In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were plenty of people who wanted to build things, land values were positive and change seemed possible even in the most deprived urban neighbourhoods. The job of the urban designer was to mould and shape this development pressure into successful urban areas. It was therefore quite a shock in the autumn of 2008 to see this development pressure evaporate overnight. Suddenly no one wanted to build anything, and the notion of masterplanning seemed slightly absurd. The question became not, how can we shape development, but how can we make something, anything happen? However a lack of demand to put up new buildings doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Just as the harshest eco-systems often have the richest ecology so in the depths of recessions all sorts of community and economic activity can grow and develop in a way that is impossible during economic upturns.

The sustained economic upturn in the fifteen years leading up to 2008, a period when we had apparently abolished ‘boom and bust’, means that many planners architects and urban designers had never experienced anything different in their professional lives. However for those of us who are a a little older, the frustrations of working during a time of recession have been reminiscent of our formative years as professionals. For me I am reminded of the dark days of 1979 when I moved to Manchester to study planning and again of 1990 when I started working for URBED. Rather that the grand masterplans and iconic architecture of the 00s the 1980s and early 90s were all about working incrementally, stimulating grassroots activity, bring buildings back into use bit by bit, promoting ‘meanwhile uses’, working with artists and independent businesses and using festivals and events to generate interest. There are many parallels with what we and many others have been doing for the last five years. It is difficult and messy work and much harder to do in today’s risk-averse world than it was in the early 1990s. However it goes back to the roots of why I got involved in urbanism.

So in October 2010 when I was asked to present a paper to a conference in Bradford being organised by Beam on the theme of Creativity & Regeneration in the New Economy it seemed a good opportunity to explore the link between recessions, urbanism and diversity. Once I started looking into it, it occurred to me that many of the urban places that I most enjoyed, and many of the organisations and businesses that I most respected had started life in the recessions of the 1970s and 80s. Received wisdom suggests that these recessions ripped the economic heart out of urban Britain as industries went to the wall leading to mass unemployment, dereliction and urban depopulation. Without wishing to diminish the pain of these recessions, it also became clear that they created space for new ideas to emerge, for diversity to flourish and for values other that the maximisation of profit to take root. Were it not for those recessions we wouldn’t have the cities that we have today.

4 Recessions

In the following blog posts I explore legacy of previous recessions; the ‘double dip’ recession of the mid 1970s and the way it transformed London, the decimation of the north in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and the way it created the city that Manchester would become and the negative equity slump of the early 1990s and how it almost revived Bradford (but not quite). It is a personal story because the London of the 1970s was where URBED was founded, the Manchester of the 1980s was where I studies planning and the Bradford of the early 1990s was where I worked when I joined URBED to work in Little Germany. The message from these  recessions is that they held within them the seeds of recovery.

To understand this process let us start by making it personal. What would you do if you were made redundant next week? In the last five years it is something that most of us have had to think about and many have experienced. It’s not something you would wish on anyone, but it has happened to thousands. People react to redundancy in very different ways. To some it is a blow to their self-esteem and financial stability that they never really recover from. To others it is an opportunity to do something different. In a world where new job opportunities are limited this ‘different something’ might include voluntary or freelance work. If that goes well, who knows it could grow into something bigger? Maybe this is the chance to write the great urban novel, to focus on that long-neglected hobby, to do a PHD, to learn how to play the guitar or to get fit. Maybe it is an opportunity to take a lease on that vacant building and let it to people selling alternative clothing (which is how Urban Splash started). People respond in very different ways and while no one welcomes redundancy, for the lucky ones redundancy it is an opportunity to do something new rather than the end of everything.

This has economic implications that are relevant to the economy of our urban areas. If you look back into the history of many of today’s successful small and medium sized companies, I suspect you may find a disconsolate person clutching a redundancy cheque.  If not this then you might find a graduate unable to get into their chosen profession and dabbling with computers or indulging their passion for music or graphics. When I was first writing this first my son Luca was working 12 hours days for no pay on an independent feature film with a crew of 40 people all in the same position. This is not something that would have happened if they had all been sitting comfortably on the first rung of the career ladder. Many of them today – including Luca – are making a living in film and media in Manchester, most are self-employed or have set up their own businesses and while they may not yet be prospering, they and thousands like them, are at the heart of the city’s future economy.

Recessions are incubators of new ideas and business. Figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that while the total number of businesses registered for VAT and PAYE fell by 2.4% between 2009 and 2010 in England and Wales the number of new business registrations per month rose from 32,412 in March 2009 to 40,748 in March 2010 year, an increase of more than 25%. You would think that the best time to develop a new business would be in a time of economic prosperity. It is true that there are advantages in buoyant economies; expanding markets, customers with disposable income and available credit. However the entry costs for new business in boom times can be very high. Premises and employees are expensive the competition is well-established and difficult to dislodge. What’s more, people in well-paid stable employment need a lot of balls to give it all up and strike out on their own. By contrast, someone with a redundancy cheque, time on their hands and few other prospects has little to lose. Gaps are created as established companies contract or fail, and customers shop around for cheaper alternatives to established products and services. Maybe innovation needs the occasional downturn, a brush fire to clear away all the dead wood and allow new shoots to grow.

The link between urban decline and innovation has of course already been made. Jane Jacobs wrote that new economic activity can only be created in old buildings. New buildings are too expensive and too regulated in how they can be used, whereas new business needs cheap, flexible, low commitment space. There is also a well-understood cycle in which city quarters that fall into decline attract artists and creative people. These urban pioneers help bring the area back to life but tend to end up being squeezed out by the upsurge in values that they create. The process documented in the 1960s by Jacobs, has recently been updated by Sharon Zukin in her book Naked city: the death and life of authentic urban places. In this she plots the decline, creative colonisation and subsequent gentrification of six New York neighbourhoods and laments their loss of urban authenticity as affluent incomers displace the very independent local businesses and ‘funky restaurants’ that attracted them in the first place. However unlike Jacobs, Zukin sees this as an unhealthy urban process. It is always sad to see a lively creative quarter such as Covent Garden become gentrified, but provided that there are other parts of the city that can be colonised by young creatives the process will roll on, regenerating the city as it goes. The following posts explore this process both spatially and over time showing how recession and urban decline create conditions in which new activity can take root. Just as cities are often regenerated by the activity that comes out of their run down neighbourhoods so city economies are refreshed by activity that starts in times of recession.