REF 2014 is dead, long live REF 2020...
For those working outside the febrile atmosphere of the higher education sector, the REF is unlikely to mean very much. Perhaps the most eagle-eyed will have spotted some headlines around about Christmas claiming that x-percentage of UK research had been determined 'world leading'. An even closer look might have revealed how different institutions/departments found ways of claiming that they were in the 'top 10' according to some measure or other. To outsiders, it matters little, but to insiders the REF brings with it the same kind of paranoia and bullying that an Ofsted inspection does for UK teachers, or an external audit of Swiss accounts might for senior managers in a global bank.
It's not my intention to get into the politics and procedures of the REF here except to note that 'impact' has become an ever more important part of what we do. Impact can be loosely defined as making some kind of change out in the 'real world' as a result of the research, whether this be through shaping policy, coming up with a new industrial process, facilitating the work of a charity or community group and so on.
On one level, this is a pretty noble aim. Why should academics spend their days only really talking to each other and doing research that makes no difference to the world outside the ivory tower? What's interesting, however, is the extent to which these demands for having more of a real world impact are coming at the same time as there is a wider assault upon the infrastructure of society in pursuit of short term goals.
I'm (re)reading some things at the moment looking at how we can conceptualise time, including a piece by Noel Castree (paywall link here). Castree gives a neat summary of how David Harvey sees two roles for time in capitalism. The first is the short term, where time is used to create a constant present, as capitalism seeks to generate surplus value through exchange. The second, more interesting, is where a proportion of capital that might otherwise be used for immediate production has to be diverted for medium/long-term investment. A practical example of this is re-investing some of your profits on new plant that will enable you to produce goods more efficiently in the medium/longer term even if it means your balance sheet takes a hit in the short term.
The state does - or rather did - this sort of long term spending all the time. You invest heavily building roads, airports, docks that provide the infrastructure for capitalists to make money doing other things - if you don't have this infrastructure in your country, capital will shift its activity to countries that do because they can make more money there.
If you want to take a reductive reading of human relations you can argue that things like education, art, caring/community work etc. can be seen as part of the infrastructure of society - necessary to the long term reproduction of capitalism, but not generating profit directly. Unfortunately contemporary capitalism seems to find the notion of medium/longer term investments problematic in a culture of short-term returns based on maximising share price by cutting costs. Thus those working in sectors that do not generate unambiguous fiscal earnings find themselves increasingly pressured to demonstrate how they 'add value'. Indeed, my colleague Dave O'Brien has been at the sharp end of thinking through how this 'value' can and should be measured within the cultural sector.
Both higher education and the arts thus get told "if you are receiving all this public money we want a concrete return for it". By assessing impact, the REF makes us complicit in a neoliberal agenda hostile to public spending that seeks to narrow the realm of justifiable long term investment to that which can be seen to show a clear return. In a nutshell, academia can't easily show us the money, so to justify its value it has to show us the impact. Longer term things around building an intellectual environment, creating a culture in which ideas can thrive etc. do not generate immediate value and are thus seen as problematic.
Knowing this makes me a little uncomfortable about the kind of work I'm engaged with at the moment, where we're trying to examine new ways of having communities determine priorities for public spending on arts/cultural investment. We were funded under a somewhat controversial funding stream, which was accused (somewhat unfairly) in the media of being politically motivated as it emerged in 2010. The allegation was that the funding call responded to a Conservative policy agenda relating to the 'big society', divesting local authorities of power and finding ways of managing a variety of complex issues at the 'community' scale (i.e. requiring people to solve their own problems rather than asking the state to step in to deal with inequality). Thus in doing this work I have to ask whether I'm complicit in a neoliberal agenda of short term shrinkage of legitimate public spending, hacking away at the infrastructures that are fundamental to keeping society going in the long term.
Maybe. Certainly I find myself not knowing what I would be comfortable seeing as policy 'impact' from this project. Does this research legitimise the shrinkage of the state by highlighting inefficiencies and inequalities in spending by the public sector in the arena of culture? This project has all kinds of gains for my career in terms of hitting short term targets on inputs and outputs. Curtailing cultural spend would certainly be a major piece of academic impact that we could boast about in a subsequent REF. But... do I want that as my academic legacy in the medium term?
Castree N (2009) The Spatio-temporality of capitalism Time & Society 18;1 26-61
Over the last five years or so a certain cohort of geographers has been playing with the idea of ‘atmospheres’. Scholars often take words with commonly accepted meanings and then redefine these to something highly technical and not at all intuitively obvious. A good example of this is ‘affect’ (a verb meaning ‘to make a difference to’) which now sits at the heart of a set of debates about how bodies and worlds interact. I like to tell my students that if they understand affect then they probably haven’t read enough…
The idea of atmosphere has been captured by the same guys (and it is mostly guys) who write about affect. This has generated kind of writing that can provoke bafflement and irritation in equal measure – not just from civilians but, frankly, from a lot of my colleagues. For example:
‘Atmospheres are a kind of indeterminate affective ‘excess’ through which intensive space-times can be created.’ (Ben Anderson, 2009, p80)
Sometimes I get excited by this kind of thing, but more often I get frustrated because there’s interesting and useful ideas here, buried beneath a mountain of academic obfuscation. And, yes, it is unfair to take a quote like this out of context because there’s a lot of argument that’s built up to a statement like this, but even still, it’s all pretty hard going.
I’ve long been interested in how you can take some of these quite abstract ideas and use them to unpick how quite ordinary, everyday things work. This is why I’m less attracted to how the “affect boys” talk about ‘atmospheres’ and am becoming more interested in the French notion of ‘ambiances’. Most of the ideas on this have been developed by the team at Cresson (Centre de recherche sur l'espace sonore et l'environnement urbain), working out of the Grenoble school of architecture. Their work is often quite bonkers, but it’s very applied. So by trying to understand the ambiance/atmosphere/feeling of a place they are also interested in how this place-feeling can be manipulated/improved. This might be through changing lighting, altering the soundscape, changing how people move through a neighbourhood, to change how people feel about that neighbourhood.
The idea that a place has an ambiance (or atmosphere if you prefer) makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Ambiances are also something that is shared. We all experience spaces and places differently, but there can be some common feelings experienced by different people at the same time. “This place is crowded”, “I don’t feel safe here”, “This café is warm and cosy” etc. I’m quite interested in exploring this tension between when we as individuals experience places differently and when feelings about a place are shared. Why, for example, do some groups of people feel safe in a place while others don’t?
Which all brings us to the idea of sketchiness. This has come into the headlines recently with a pair of tech entrepreneurs launching their ‘SketchFactor’ iPhone app. The idea is that people should use the app to record the location of different ‘sketchy’ things that they see on the street – the man wandering around with no clothes on, the mugging, the kids hanging around on street corners. The app thus creates a crowdsourced map of ‘sketchy’ neighbourhoods within a city where such problematic things happen, presumably to warn visitors to those areas to be on their guard. Although, it has to be asked, if you feel unsafe wandering around a neighbourhood, why on earth would you start fiddling with your expensive iPhone to tell people about the fact?
Sketchiness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the app developers have been accused of fostering a kind of indirect racism. App users are more likely to be white and middle class and the areas that they’re more likely to feel are ‘sketchy’ will be those populated by poorer, ethnic minority groups – particularly in US cities. So we end up creating maps that say “black people are dangerous, say away from them” with the people who live in an area having a middle class reading of their lives imposed upon them.
What this comes from is a shared sense of the atmosphere of a neighbourhood which is shaped by social class and ethnicity. The people who live in that neighbourhood might well read its atmosphere differently. Indeed, some areas can be profoundly sketchy to those who live there, while this can be invisible to those passing through. Youth gang territories would be a good example of this – some kids know that they would be at risk of attack if they cross into a neighbouring area, whereas to an outsider the atmosphere of two neighbourhoods feels exactly the same.
One of the neighbourhoods we’re working in as part of the @cultintermed project is Balsall Heath here in Birmingham. It’s a fascinating and very lively area of mixed ethnicity, though predominantly Muslim, not far from the city centre. As a white middle class scholar, who lives a broadly white middle class life, Balsall Heath has a particular feel that is quite different to neighbouring Moseley – the epicentre of white, liberal Birmingham. I notice this very strongly in my own behaviours within Balsall Heath – doubtless a manifestation of my own low level racism and fear of difference – that I can feel a little edgy walking along the Moseley Road to the Printworks (a local art venue). Once inside the Printworks, however, I generally feel fairly relaxed. Outside the doors is a working class, broadly Muslim area. Inside the Printworks is a middle class and broadly white space.
One of the interesting things that this throws up is how the presence of an institution like Printworks manipulates the atmosphere of this part of Balsall Heath. It produces a reason for a white middle class person to visit and as such starts to change the nature of the space. A certain kind of arty/educated ambiance is radiated outward from Printworks. This is significant because in manipulating the feel of a location you can set in train other urban processes. There’s a well-established literature (e.g. Sharon Zukin) on how artists and different cultural businesses can be used as agents of gentrification. Artists are attracted into cheap (‘sketchy’) neighbourhoods. Their presence attracts middle class people who are interested to feel like they’re part of an arty/edgy vibe. Eventually the middle class people start to displace the original residents and you end up with a gentrified middle class district.
One of the drivers here is the feel of the place, its atmosphere. Middle class white people by and large don’t live in Balsall Heath and part of this is in the neighbourhood’s sketchiness – a white middle class construction imposed on that space. Reducing an area’s sketchiness in thmeans altering it to suit the white middle classes. If you manipulate the atmosphere/ambiance/feeling of the place, capitalist mechanisms of land and property development can start processes of gentrification. But gentrification begets displacement and thus it becomes a social justice issue to think about how atmospheres are manipulated in urban policy.
But a big warning point to end on. There’s a danger here of saying, don’t try to tackle problems in an area lest the middle classes turn up, kick everyone out and take over. Balsall Heath has all kinds of socio-environmental problems (litter, rats, drug dealing, anti-social behaviour) that comprise some of the many factors that shape the ambiance of the neighbourhood – why should people living there have to put up with these? Similarly, the idea that there are ambiances suitable for middle class white people and those suitable for working class Muslims gets us dangerously close to old fashioned racist divisions. Generating a shared sense of ambiance can be driven by a large number of different factors – gender, taste, fashion, age etc. etc. – what’s interesting is how that shared sense is generated and what would be the consequences for society if you started to manipulate that ambiance.
The title here is a phrase I’ve had written on my whiteboard for a while now – generally causing confusion when people walk into my office. Obviously using this title in a blog post runs the risk of getting this site blocked by various overprotective search engines and/or my being put on a mailing list for an online pharmacy. Oh well.
The whiteboard is a place for ideas that aren’t quite ready yet and this is definitely one of them, so please bear with the unfinished thoughts. This posting comes out of trying to think through my reactions to the new Library of Birmingham. Now on many levels, the LoB is a great civic triumph. It’s a fantastic looking building. It’s always busy. It gives views across the city that are free for anyone to enjoy – you’d otherwise need to go to the top of the Cube and buy a ludicrously expensive drink to access a similar viewscape. Public space matters.
So why Viagra architecture? Well, there’s something about projects of this kind that trouble me a little. Accompanying the achingly slow economic recovery in Britain, we’re still undergoing a series of deep and painful cuts to public spending. Projects like LoB are the product of New Labour era (1997-2010) thinking, when public spending was directed towards large infrastructure projects. You see them across Britain – the Sage in Gateshead, Edinburgh’s parliament building, FACT in Liverpool – flashy buildings dropped into urban spaces that declared in a loud voice “We are doing something here! Look at this monument to our interventionist activity!”. The building became, as Jonathan Meades put it, a 3D logo. A statement that something was being done. Of course the problem with such activity is that there’s a real danger the ‘something’ that was done didn’t actually do very much. Middlesborough, for example, is still the site of major economic and social problems, notwithstanding the presence of the MIMA art gallery (opened 2007).
Of course, asking a flashy building to solve deeply rooted structural economic problems is unrealistic. They were baubles, in some cases they were vanity projects, that could never be more than a tiny part of solving a socio-economic puzzle. The creative and cultural economy has been loaded with the expectation that it can solve post-industrial decline; things are rarely this simple. The irony is that these spaces, charged with revitalising local economies, are now in many cases under real threat from the huge cuts in public expenditure that have been imposed under the Coalition Government since 2010. Skilled curators are being replaced by unpaid volunteers. The buildings are still open by and large, but the organisations housed within them are struggling to deliver their core mission. Hence the Viagra metaphor – the edifice is there, but the fundamentals aren’t quite operating properly.
An optimistic spin on this would be that if such organisations can hang in there for a few years, eventually the public sector taps will be turned back on and these spaces will be filled with even more dynamic activity – with the bonus that it’s all happening in a still-relatively-new building. Maybe. Perhaps rather than Viagra as the metaphor, we could talk about the hollowing out of these buildings as the staff and activities designed to animate them are whittled away in order to support the business of keeping the building open. And hopefully at a later date it'll be filled up again. In the meantime, the building becomes almost an end in itself.
And, of course, this doesn’t always work. The death of the Public gallery in West Bromwich happened in part because the council leadership just didn’t feel it could justify continuing to pour money into the organisation to keep the business of art afloat – and given the hostility in some quarters to the arts/cultural sector, it’s not terribly surprising. This means that some other use has to animate that space – and there’s still money for sixth form colleges, at least for the moment.
The New Labour period left us with a great many 3D logos scattered across the country. They still stand up and proud. But they offer a challenging legacy for medium- and long-term management as councils look at their budgets and their core responsibilities and wonder what they will have to cut next. Most of the buildings will still be with us in 10 years’ time, but how many of the organisations?
One of the nice things about being an academic is the diversity of the job. One day you can be crawling around the floor barking and trying to get into the mindset of a dog, the next you’re having a serious meeting with the city council about cultural policy.
On Thursday I was in London for a ‘townhall’ meeting run by the Economic and Social Research Council. They’re the big funder of social science research in the UK and are in the midst of drawing up a new agenda for research on cities. So a bunch of bigwigs connected to research on cities got an invitation in their inbox to come down to a hotel in London to spend a day talking about what the priorities for research should be. I felt a little bit out of place in this august company (which featured a great many grey heads) but the presence of a key player from the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme suggested that I was there because of the large grant I hold out of that call.
Regardless, nice to be invited, makes me feel almost like a grown up (now that I’m 38). The ESRC are at a preliminary stage with their thinking on this new research agenda and we were there to look at a document that their expert panel had drawn up – in particular the six themes that animated it. I’m paraphrasing slightly but these were:
If this sounds bitchy or pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. It’s very interesting to have reached the career stage where you start to see how agendas are formulated rather than just responding to whatever 'they' have set up. It was something I certainly noticed at Connected Communities meetings, where an idea discussed at one forum would suddenly find itself becoming a major theme of the next round of funding. So it’s great to get a chance to take some of the ideas that ESRC are playing with and have a chance to feed in to shape the final call. Aside from resilience (which received an almighty kicking) there was general enthusiasm for the broad topic areas, although a lot of calls for more practical, grounded things to be included (i.e. housing, property, retail, liveability) that practitioners and policymakers (as well as urban communities) could really get their teeth into.
I was pretty pleased that a couple of the things I was pushing ended up in the end-of-day summary, in particular the importance of looking at urban planning and the need to consider interdisciplinary datasets that already existed (e.g. pollution data from NERC, transport data from EPSRC, material on communities from AHRC) to do some kind of meta-analysis (to be pretentious).
Otherwise, these events are quite nice in that you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while and meet people who work in similar areas to you – even occasionally people who are fans of your work (yes Jonas, it was really nice to meet you too!). So it was grand to have a gab/debate with Phil Hubbard, who I’ve not seen for ages and is now doing some really interesting work looking at displacement/outmigration caused by gentrification in central London. I was also very impressed with Adam Greenfield’s work on Networked Urbanism. He gave a very compelling critique of the Smart City discourse which neatly undercut a lot of the technofetishism tangled up with debates in this area. It was also very nice to meet Katharine Willis, an architect working out of University of Plymouth, who has being doing some really intriguing things with geocaching as a tool for engaging communities in imagining their neighbourhoods differently – an intriguing parallel to the MapLocal project, which she was already aware of (yes, it’s all terribly incestuous). Likewise it was great to finally meet Mike Batty out of UCL, whose work has impressed me for many years. He led the technology & urban living subtheme of the main report, humanising what can otherwise be a somewhat heroic story of technological progress.
Quite what will happen in terms of a definitive call for funding emerging from this we’ve yet to see, but it’s going to the ESRC’s decision making panel in April, so it’s a case of watch this space. Nonetheless, the fact that urban issues are being taken so seriously is excellent news for Geography at the University of Birmingham as we’ve real strengths in urban research so, wearing my very natty ‘research group leader’ hat, there’s some really exciting opportunities on the horizon.
Sir Frank Price, Lord Mayor of Birmingham 1964-5 and former Chair of the Public Works Committee during the period of the post-war reconstruction, has been demolished. Or, rather the building on the University of Birmingham’s Selly Oak campus that was named after him has been. It was a nondescript design, pulled down earlier this year as part of campus redevelopment. There is a fitting irony that one of the people who saw fit to pull down much of Victorian Birmingham to build its Modernist future has now been a victim of the same fashion that seeks to erase a ‘failed’ past.
Ever since I moved to Birmingham back in 2000 I’ve noticed its deep seated habit of trying to erase its history. You saw the same with the Victorian buildings removed in the 1960s and 1970s – beautiful structures being removed with the same carefree abandon as terrible slums of the same era simply because that period was tainted with the brush of being failed. Many years ago I wrote my PhD on a particular form of 20th century architecture, the high-rise social housing block. Birmingham originally built 464 of these and today a very large proportion of these have been demolished, mostly without tears. But the discourse of mid 20th century buildings being ‘failures’ is very strong, so when nice examples go you do worry slightly for the collective memory of the city. Although, to be fair, in some cases, the experimental building materials pioneered in the mid twentieth century can make it impossible or prohibitively expensive to save them. Still, some can be saved and it’s strange to tear them down without reflection.
Cycling into town last week, I noticed that the Central Synagogue on Pershore Road was being pulled down. This was a source of great sadness for me, as it was one of my favourite buildings in Birmingham for its understated elegance, as well as being a good example of design from the period.
Built in the early 1960s, it had echoes of post office architecture from the time, restrained and simple, with lovely thin banded columns. With new facilities having been built, the site has been handed over to a developer erecting a new care home and the building torn down. While one can’t shed a tear over every building lost (and doubtless the new facilities will be more amenable to the community) it’s always a shame to lose nice examples from the period.
A less clear cut example would be the Holliday Street car park which finally came down this summer A very simple, stark structure, with echoes of Le Corbusier’s Domino House – not a line out of place. But the guard rails between the second and third floors, jutting out like the top of a medieval castle and the wonderful period signage hint at something more playful. No great loss to the city, in many ways, and doubtless expensive to save structurally. Nonetheless, the proposed 18 storey Holliday Inn Express on the site won’t really add anything in its place – another piece of forgettable corporate building.
The Victorian era Central Library was demolished in 1974 shortly after John Madin’s brutalist-style replacement was built over the city’s modernist ring road. Now that Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham has opened, Madin’s building is on borrowed time. The city is determined to demolish this architecturally significant period piece because it’s ‘ugly’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘in the way’ of new development. Will LoB suffer the same indignity in the face of the whims of fashion in thirty or forty years time? Well, trying to erase the past is very much the Birmingham way...
When the media write about academic work, one of the most common themes is “look at the crazy things these academics are doing” like examining correlations between biscuit eating and political affiliation, or the economic and social geography of strip clubs. These kinds of articles generally contain an implicit critique of people who are too clever by half wasting taxpayers money with frivolous indulgences. Of course, there’s often highly serious work behind these stories, or – like the biscuits and political affiliation notion – they’re just a whimsical afterthought in a much larger project. Of course, you can always find some examples of academic work that is a frightening waste of public money, but no one in the university sector has yet spent £10bn on a failed computer system, so it’s not as if we’re the worst offenders.
The point of this rambling introduction is by way of a slight nervousness about a project I’m a co-investigator on. I sometimes ask myself how the right wing media would write it up. Last week I was in the Forest of Dean for one of four workshops we’re running as part of the ‘More than Human Participatory Research’ project. Michelle Bastian, the project lead, explains the project aims much more lucidly than I ever could here. Essentially we're trying to find ways of asking things that can't talk back to us what their priorities for new scholarly research are. Back in the summer I organised a workshop on bees and last week it was time to talk to the trees.
In trying to engage trees in ‘conversations’ to find out what they ‘want’ from a research project we were experimenting with a particular kind of performance based methods. So in addition to reading about trees and talking to experts, we also had a group of us out in the forest engaging physically with trees. If this sounds odd, it was. But my view with this sort of thing is just dive in, it might confirm all your prejudices about, in this case, tree hugging, but at least if you’ve had a go you can critique from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. Hence I found myself sitting on a log carving a spoon (and cutting myself on various sharp implements) and later lying underneath a tree with my feet in the bare earth feeling the rain gently drip onto my face.
Did this performance-type engagement do much for me? No, not really. But it was only two days out of my other projects and, frankly, I work enough time at the weekend to justify this kind of thing to myself now and again. And the workshop itself (time to sit and think and read and chat to a bunch of very smart, thoughtful people) was very productive.
I’d never actually been to the Forest of Dean before, a place just over an hour’s drive from my home. It’s a fascinating place, touristy yet quiet, open yet exclusionary. Before heading down, I’d read Christopher Stone’s ‘Should trees have standing’ an essay from the early 1970s about law and the environment. I’m going to apologise here for dumbing this down and, indeed, any misinterpretations of Stone’s words. Among some fascinatingly nuanced ideas, my non-legal mind fixed on his argument around giving legal status to abstract entities. An example of this would be a government or a corporation being an actor in law, with rights that need to be protected. Stone argues that there’s a case for giving these same rights to environmental assets – landscapes, watersheds and so on. This wouldn’t be a case of saying that a tree could never be cut down, or that attempts should be made to preserve the landscape in aspic, more that there should be some consideration of the intrinsic value of the landscape in and of itself, rather than just its economic value to a human actor. If a stream is being polluted, this might have a negative effect on someone’s tourism business located in a picturesque spot downstream, hence the owner of that business might sue the polluter for the economic harm caused to his business. Stone suggests that there should be some capacity to consider issues beyond the economic rights of humans or corporations in environmental destruction, to consider the right of the landscape to be a landscape, with intrinsic value beyond the economic.
Of course, the intrinsic value of landscape is somewhat abstract. Stone suggests, however, that we have already given concrete power in law to the abstract value of copyright. Why should a piece of text or music be given the kinds of protection guaranteed in copyright law? – we as humans have decided that these creative outputs should have agency within law. Why then can we not give the same agency to the environment?
Clearly a forest can’t come to court and sue a company that’s polluting a river running through it. So Stone suggested nominating some kind of guardian to speak for the forest, much as a lawyer might go to court to speak for a corporation or a government. This notion really chimed with me reflecting on our discussions at the bee workshop where we spoke to the human guardians of bees (i.e. bee keepers) to start our ‘conversation’ with bees, to help us understand their issues and think about ways of co-constructing research agendas with them.
Our two days among the trees brought these issues to mind for me. Are the Forestry Commission / other officially appointed ‘guardians’ of landscape in a position to speak for the trees or do we need some other kind of engagement? As I lay in the forest getting midge bites, I didn’t find an answer to this, but it was soothing and I had some time to think about things other than the next immediate admin crisis or email from a student upset about their module choices. The trees reminded me that I’m still a scholar, not just a mid-level manager...
[This is a longer version of a post that appears on the More-Than-Human Participatory Research blog]
‘Space... is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space’ – Douglas Adams
I’ve been reading quite a lot lately about the Localism Act, 2011. This is a hugely significant piece of legislation in the UK which represents a major refiguring of how local government works. There’s lots of really interesting stuff in the Act, much of which can be read through the lens of a broadly neo-liberal Conservative party talking a good game about handing power back to communities, while in practice making deep cuts to the resources available at local government level and below. Communities, in effect, are supposed to fill in the gaps of a state rollback. A more cynical mind could also see the Act as having the potential for a mass privatisation of local services – the Act gives ‘communities’ the right to bid to run services in their neighbourhood but, having expressed an interest in doing so, competition law kicks in and the private sector can bid to take over those services. There’s no guarantee, therefore, that a community that says it wants to take over a service will actually get to do it. Doubtless Serco are rubbing their hands in glee.
At the moment I’m trying to think through some of the issues that the Act throws up in terms of planning. The old regional spatial strategies, which set housebuilding and other planning targets at a regional level, were scrapped when the Coalition came to power in 2010. Planning power moved up to the national level and down to the local authority level and, in a new experiment, to the neighbourhood scale.
Groups of 21 or more people living or working in an area now have the right to apply to become a Neighbourhood Forum. Once you’ve created a Forum, you then have the right to access a whole series of powers through the Localism Act, including the right to draw up a Neighbourhood Plan. If you do this and it passes a simple majority referendum at neighbourhood level, then your Plan gains the force of law and you’ve determined the spatial destiny of your neighbourhood (for a somewhat fuzzily-defined period of time).
Except that it’s not quite so simple. Let’s say you draw up a plan and want to designate an area of brownfield land in your neighbourhood for housing. This will probably be okay. But what if you want to, for example, say that you don’t want any more chain coffee shops in your neighbourhood, or that you don’t want a windfarm built? Well, that’s the point where you run slap up against the general drift of national planning, codified in the National Planning Policy Framework 2012, which says that there should be a general presumption that development should go ahead wherever it is deemed ‘sustainable’. And sustainable here is defined by the UK Treasury, i.e. it’s a pro-growth agenda. So while it’s okay to say you want to build ‘x’ in your neighbourhood, it’s absolutely not okay to say that you want to prevent ‘y’ from being built there.
Your plan won’t even get your draft Neighbourhood Plan to the referendum stage if it is in conflict with either the plan for the wider local authority or national planning priorities. In effect, therefore, you get to fiddle with the details of what happens in your area, but you certainly can’t use the local scale to challenge the primary assumptions of national planning – i.e. growth at all costs (so long as it’s ‘sustainable’).
Why the Douglas Adams quote at the start of this post? Well, partly there’s the terrible cliché of academics trying to make their work seem cool by association with elements of popular culture (cf. Zizek’s analysis of The Matrix), although frankly a Douglas Adams quote simply shows my age. But it’s more about my trying to think through issues of scale here. There’s lots of interesting stuff written about how the local scale is constructed as being more authentic, more genuine, more reflective of everyday feelings (see Mark Purcell’s paper on the local trap). And, of course, this is hugely problematic. Doreen Massey has written some much cited stuff about how the global scale is just as constructed through the intimate relations of individuals as the local – the global is built somewhere, it doesn’t just float up there out of the reach of mere mortals. The thing that I’ve been musing on is that the global scale is just so damn big that it seems terrifyingly incomprehensible. When you start thinking about just how much stuff (ideas, objects) moves around the globe every day – the extent to which we are enmeshed in a deeply complex set of interconnections – you can start to get a touch of vertigo. Hence the old saw about ‘think global, act local’, attempting to break down the complexities of the global scale by taking control over your own life at a local level, which seems a lot less scary than confronting the sheer bigness of the global.
Of course, this is a fundamentally conservative strategy as it means that you’re not challenging the way that the global operates – i.e. a neoliberal privileging of the already rich at the expense of the already poor. Hence why the Occupy movements were so interesting, as they were attempting to make that challenge, rather than just trying to do things within local communities and ignoring the injustices that a neoliberal global system perpetuates.
It’s taken as somewhat of a truism in geography now that different scales – the home, the neighbourhood, the local, the regional, the national, the global – all intersect and overlap. You sit at home and video chat with someone in Australia, you buy locally grown veg from your nearby organic market but you also buy the latest smartphone made in China. Scales and territories overlap. Similarly planning isn’t arranged neatly into hierarchical units – not every neighbourhood needs a nuclear power station, but major pieces of strategic national infrastructure have to be placed somewhere and that’s going to be in someone’s back yard. So the boundaries between local, regional, national are very porous.
One reading of the Neighbourhood Planning powers embedded in the Localism Act is, therefore, that they’re a distraction, a smokescreen of participatory democracy. You can have some control over your neighbourhood so long as you don’t try to challenge the fundamentals of how planning is supposed to operate in UK Plc. – i.e. to generate a very particular kind of neoliberal infused ‘growth’.
As you can tell, my thoughts on this are at an early stage. I need to focus some of this down into something coherent using the material generated as part of the MapLocal project. And, with the start of term just five weeks away, time is running out to think this all through...
A thoroughly intresting meeting last week down in Southampton as part of the AHRC-funded HESTIA 2 project. Elton Barker of the OU is leading this one and I got involved through my former colleague Stefan Buzar, now at Manchester.
In HESTIA 1 they took the Histories of Herodotus and created an interactive website where you could look at the places mentioned in the text on a map of the region and start to think about the geographic relationships within the texts. A lot of this was based on linked data principles, using different kinds of online geocoders among other things, to build the spatial relationships with the text.
The purpose of HESTIA 2 is to take the ideas developed as part of the first project and refine them and last Thursday's workshop, run by Tom Brughens was the first event in the process of doing this. It was quite a mixed, interdisciplinary audience, with mapping specialists, coders, archaeologists, ancient historians, even the odd physicist. So there were some presentations that I found truly terrifying (Maximilian Schich on Topography and Topology in network analysis for example) and others that were really fascinating if somewhat outside my area (John Goodwin from the OS talking about linked data in contemporary mapping). For me some of the most interesting things came through listening to the archaeologists from local authorities/English Heritage, thinking about how linked data practices can help join up the different data sources used when creating, for example, a Historic Environment Record (HER - the modern replacement for the old Sites & Monuments Records).
The day got me thinking about some of the work I've been doing on crowdsourced community asset mapping and whether this needs a much clearer framework using linked data principles to allow the data to be pushed in and pulled out for different needs. Hmm. Well, there is money available from the AHRC at the moment for follow up projects and lots of people at the Edinburgh Showcase event (4 July) who seemed interested. Hmm. Maybe if there were 30 hours in a day I could do more with some of these ideas...
Phil Jones, Geographer