And I mean that in a strictly economic sense. Because the media and blog reaction to the Police Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report, co-authored by our own Dr Tim Leunig, has been totally unhelpful to anyone trying to gather what, precisely, is the case for the defence against the charge that top-down regeneration in northern cities hasn’t worked well enough.
Because, surely, it hasn’t. (I stress that my essential agreement with this is purely personal perception on my part; there is some more informed commentary in and around James’ and Paul’s posts, and Jock has a fantastic write-up).
Obviously, some broadbrush flat-vowelled backlash was only healthy and natural, because it’s hard for anyone not to hear denigration of the place of their birth, however objective and well-meant, and not feel slightly like their soul is under attack. It’s a bit like when Kirstie & Phil decided that my hometown (Epsom & Ewell, borough of) was the Best Place to Live in Britain in 2005, except that I was cripplingly embarrassed rather than righteously furious.
But somewhere, you’d expect someone to be saying something rather more sophisticated than “Fluff fluff fluff! Waffle waffle! Nonsense, nonsense! Ears are closed! Look at the regenerational docks/factories area and their many penthouse apartments! Look at the fantastic cultural, er, thingummywotsits that I will definitely, definitely visit as soon as I have, ooh, about a century off from work and my toenails are as clean as I can possibly make them! Look at the amazing Community Enterprise Development Entrepreneurial Urban Living Spaces Start-Up Workshopping scheme! And just LOOK at the trendy wine bars!”
It really would help if someone just pointed me towards figures which directly related e.g. rising employment rates to a single bean of input from regeneration funding. I’ve worked on the fringes of the public sector, and I know that throwing up an arts hub/community centre/housing development doesn’t constitute a measurable improvement to the life of the location unless there are also the cold, hard jobs there to support enough people to use them. I also have no patience whatever with any organisation or project or “initiative” with more than three words in the title (extra points are lost if one of those words is “community”), because in my experience the people who are “driving” them, or similar, don’t really know what the hell they’re doing or why, and bring as their biggest contribution to the UK economy the ability to put “actually” in front of every verb construction.
Moreover, while we’re on this daring regionalist interlude, I’ve recently spent a decent bit of time in Liverpool and Manchester, and I can say without fear of contradiction (though almost certainly with fear of abuse) that though I came to both eagerly and quite prepared to be swept off my feet, I’m afraid I’d still rather sit in a decent London pub, of the sort to be found literally on every street corner, than some chrome-infested spray-tanned temple to Diageo any day. And yes, I’m sure there are honourable exceptions (recommendations of good Manc pubs particularly welcome), but to be honest I suspect the best ones are in the smaller northern towns I haven’t been to, and which the report isn’t really talking about.
Mind you, it’s not an intrinsically northern thing – it’s just that the north has always been the unfortunate victim of early experiments in urban improvement – in the 1960s as now. It really does get the sharp end of every brown ale bottle. When will architects, planners and government departments learn that regeneration is not a synonym for “cover it all in artily-shaped concrete and hope for the best”? I mean, does anyone else remember stepping outside the conference centre in Liverpool back in the spring? Is your hair back to its normal shape yet? Whose insane idea was it to “regenerate” a blowy seaward dockland half-acre into a great big wide concrete boulevard with the exact physical configuration of a wind tunnel? Who does that help find a job, exactly?
Mind you, at least there are houses and shops at street level in Liverpool. There appear to be whole section of Manchester where you can walk for miles without ever actually encountering a doorway in the sheer walls of stern red brick, much less a passable pub. In places it reminds me of nowhere so much as the Tommy and Guys’ hospital complex round the back of London Bridge, except without the charm. What you can find in Manchester, however, is bucketfuls of one- and two-bed executive flats without so much as a cornershop nearby to support the residents who are, accordingly, mostly theoretical.
But I digress. In my defence, I was positively embarrassed to discover that this is how I felt about The North. I was born in the south, went to university in the south, and went on holiday in the south, and perhaps because of that absorbed the self-doubting southerner’s belief that northern cities are this amazing promised land full of wonderful pubs, restaurants, museums, galleries, shops, cultural riches and economic energies etc, except that you can buy a three-bed terrace for 24p and some beans from whence you can walk to work. And then you get there and… well, where are all the decent pubs? Oh, so that’s the only museum. Right. Been there now. Why am I the only person sitting in this entire streetful of slickly interior-designed restaurants? Who, exactly, is going to buy the two hundred executive apartments in the thirty-seventh housing development (usually called “The Green”, “The Locks” or “The [old-fashioned substance] Factory”) to be built this year, and where the hell are they all going to get their food?
And why are you getting so fricking uppity just because I’m asking you a simple question?
So, to return belatedly to the point, I bad-temperedly wish someone would explain what northern regeneration is actually producing which is so wonderful without employing any of usual flimsy guffspeak. And I wish people would calm down about the admittedly gloomy prognosis in the Cities Unlimited report for the north’s future development (just because some bunch of southern pansies reckons you might have to move, doesn’t mean you have to do what they say, non? – so why the vitriol?). And for the love of god, can no-one direct me to a decent bloody pub?