Blue House and Green Equity

When the announcement was made that the Blue House Roundabout scheme had been called off, it naturally led to a great deal of rejoicing in green circles.

For those who weren’t aware of the scheme, it would have entailed the replacement of a small roundabout with a very much larger one, taking up areas of Duke’s Moor and Little Moor – open spaces with a thousand years of history. As well as its immediate impact, it would have been likely to lead to an increase in traffic, without making life easier for cyclists and pedestrians.

In this interconnected age, the protest movement began to mobilise very quickly. Thousands of people signed a petition against the scheme, and a protest march attracted two thousand demonstrators and the local media. A few days after the march, the scheme in its original form was withdrawn. It was, we said, a vindication of citizenship, a demonstration that, if the issues are clear enough and enough people engage in them, this may be enough to stimulate a change in institutional policy.

There’s another aspect to it, though, which was expressed by the comment: “It’d still be going ahead if it was in Benwell.”

The Gosforth and Jesmond suburbs which abut Duke’s Moor and Little Moor are the wealthy parts of the city. They contain spacious nineteenth-century villas and town houses, delicatessens and upmarket children’s clothes shops. People move into Gosforth to get their children into the High School and its excellent feeder schools.

People in Gosforth and Jesmond are articulate and educated. Nobody fobs Gosforth off. Whatever information you choose to impart to Gosforth, someone will have the expertise necessary to question and challenge it. Above all, people in Gosforth are used to being listened to.

Wealth and class and knowledge confer power, and the powerful accrue good things to themselves, and this has always been true with regard to living environments. Of course, to a certain extent this is inevitable: people who have the luxury of choice choose better housing in more salubrious areas. It’s not quite as simple as that, though.

The story of post-war slum clearance, and how it feeds into what became the study of “environmental equity” has been repeatedly told. In many cities, vast areas of housing were condemned, and the occupants moved into replacement housing of variable functionality. Although the houses demolished were often appalling, it was subsequently felt that the process disenfranchised people and broke up communities – particularly where people were moved into the sort of developments where street life could not happen, because there were no streets, or, indeed, any functioning shared areas. A few decades later on, many of the new developments, affected by crime, dilapidation and abandonment, were themselves demolished.

The process continues in certain places where demand for housing is low. In County Durham, successive administrations who have been unable to address the area’s economic woes have taken it out on the places affected. Nineteenth-century pit terraces were cleared out of the centre of some settlements, leaving only the later houses on the periphery. Later, many of these were also demolished. In some parts of the County, the pattern of settlement looks as if the villages have been chewed up and spat out again, leaving randomly-scattered patches of housing across the map.

(Going off the topic of environmental equity slightly, I think that current housing policy is a much more egregious example of social engineering than slum clearance, in which the authorities and at least some residents thought they were doing the right thing. A raft of policies and measures have been brought in whose effect is to reduce the amount of affordable housing available, and limit who is able to rent it. This is at a time when, in cities where wealth and power concentrate, market housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable.)

Poorer or disenfranchised areas are also more likely to be disrupted for the sake of roads or other infrastructure, and it’s always claimed that this is for the good of all. In Detroit, at least 17,000 people – mostly poor, disproportionately African-American – were displaced for expressways in the post-war era. This wasn’t a new phenomenon. The hero of G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” – referring to a Notting Hill long before the Carnival and even longer before Hugh Grant – starts pitched battles to prevent demolition for a new road. The point is, I think, that Chesterton didn’t expect a working-class area to have much clout when it came to opposing the bulldozers of Progress, and he had to invent a quixotic local potentate to imagine them doing so.

As well as housing, areas are defined by shared environmental goods – such as good transport links, parks and gardens, and pleasant views. The current “austerity” drive has tended to affect services such as environmental maintenance because social and other essential services are, quite rightly, prioritised. It remains to be seen whether this will end up having a disproportionate effect upon poorer areas. Theoretically it shouldn’t, but it seems likely that richer and more empowered people will be able to call on greater financial, personal and professional resources to ensure that maintenance is kept up. They are also likely to do more complaining about environmental shortcomings. Where middle-class articulacy and empowerment result in an unfair allocation of public resources, or where it means that undesirable development is displaced into poorer areas, they can be, unfortunately, a tool for reinforcing social divisions and inequalities.

Sometimes in discussions of power and privilege, commentators at least seem to argue that the way to even things up would be to curtail the voices of the most empowered. This, I think, is illogical. Empowerment and knowledge are good things, and, unlike land itself, their quantity is not fixed. It doesn’t, therefore, follow that curtailing them in the privileged would increase them in the less privileged; you might just end up with less empowerment all round.

It’s a great thing that thousands of people were mobilised to voice their concerns about the Blue House scheme. It’s great that they had the skills and knowledge to understand the issues, the eloquence to comment upon them, and the belief that their voices should be heard. The question is, how these qualities can be spread around, so that the relationship between income, class and empowerment with regard to the local environment may be broken down.

Brown, B. (2016?) Edsel Ford Expressway. Accessed at: http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/edsel-ford-expressway

Chesterton, G.K. (1904) The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

City of Detroit (2016)Detroit Demolition Program. Website. Accessed at http://www.detroitmi.gov/demolition

Hastings, A., Bailey, N., Bramley, G., Gannon, M., and Watkins, D., (2015) The cost of the cuts: the impact on local government and poorer communities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Minton, A.,(2015) Byker Wall: Newcastle’s noble failure of an estate – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 41. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/21/byker-wall-newcastles-noble-failure-of-an-estate-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-41

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