Friday, July 04, 2008

The Streets You Have No Right To Walk Down

Yesterday afternoon I spoke at a session of the 'Capital, Culture, Power: Criminalisation and Resistance' conference organised by the University of Liverpool and John Moores University. Here is a transcript of my speech. A recording of the event will follow.

There are now thirty-five streets in this city's centre that you have no formal right to walk down. All of the others, you are officially free to stroll at your leisure, providing you do not break any law. Though the legality has not yet been tested, you have no such freedom within the 42 acres – or 60,000 square feet – that comprise the Liverpool One development. Instead, you are effectively a guest of the Duke of Westminster – Britain’s third richest man. He owns the Grosvenor corporation, and they own those streets, on a 250-year lease!

About a year ago now, I wrote an article about the Duke of Westminster…or ‘Gerry’, as I called him…for Nerve, because I thought it would be interesting to examine his biography, since he’s a man of such influence in this city. I had a bit of fun with the piece, and pretended to lavish praise on him for the tiny, pathetic kind of public things he does in an effort to seem generous and therefore somehow worthy of his billions. So he’s patron of a group that sends ‘novelty items’ to soldiers in war zones at Christmas…although that just seems to involve putting a letter on a website every year…and as far as I know he doesn’t understand html coding. He also hands out military awards and is occasionally photographed in uniform speaking to people back from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He’s REALLY keen on the armed forces. Which is kind of ironic since after leaving Harrow school with a single O-level, he failed the entrance examination to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. I also discovered that the government paid him £37.33p every single hour of every single day for nothing, as a subsidy on his massive farmland. Nice work if you can get it. For some reason there are no media campaigns calling him a 'workshy scrounger' though.

A few weeks ago, the Duke was on TV, telling comedian Alexei Sayle how much he cares about the poor people of Liverpool. Well that’s nice for him. Although I’ve worked out that if his wealth was divided equally between everyone in the city, it would come to £16,051 each, based on the 2001 population figure. But…that’s not going to happen.

All this personal stuff doesn’t really matter though. It’s not about which specific individual owns 35 Liverpool streets; it’s the fact that an individual does. The city council wanted to privatise what they called the ‘Paradise Street Development Area’, and they did. The person they sold it to happened to be this Gerry character, but in theory it could have been anyone. Well…anyone with a billion pounds to spare anyway.

The problem is that nobody allows people on their property who cause them problems; who are adversely affecting their interests. If you start adversely affecting Gerry’s interests, he has a private security force, monitoring four hundred CCTV cameras.

In a recent Guardian article, Grosvenor project director Rodney Holmes told the reporter that: "The street will be continuous, and they certainly won't pass through a line saying you are now entering Liverpool One." ‘He said they wouldn't exclude hoodies, genuine Big Issue sellers or Netto bag carriers’, the article continues, and "Public rights remain just the same."

Now so far I haven’t heard of anyone being chucked out of Liverpool One for wearing a hood with intent, selling a magazine whilst homeless, or carrying a bag from a shop that the Duke himself wouldn’t go to. If it has happened, it hasn’t made the local papers. Mind you, they’ve been busy salivating over the whole thing, with Echo and Daily Post headlines like ‘We’re top of the shops’, and ‘All aboard on the bus to Paradise’. It might be that the people running Liverpool One genuinely don’t want to exclude anyone for doing those things. But perhaps this is a red herring.

What if someone really rattled the cage of the place they're calling the ‘wall-less mall’, in a way that shook shoppers out of their nice exciting shopping moods and confronted them with some brutal reality? What if someone were to protest at one of the shops? What if some workers went out on strike and formed a picket line?

As someone who’s been on quite a few protests and demonstrations, I know it’s very hard to escape harassment from people in uniforms even on streets you have the legal right to walk down. Police work hand in glove with business to intimidate, arrest, and even physically assault people who are in some way standing up against the profit motive. When this gets put to the test in Liverpool One – and inevitably it will be – I’ll be very interested to see how the private security force react. In theory, regular police are employed by the state 'to enforce the law and to effect public and social order' (or so it says on Wikipedia). In so-called ‘representative democracies’ like the United Kingdom, the police are – again in theory – subject to control by representatives of the whole population. The security forces in Liverpool One must remain loyal to the business that pays their wages if they want to stay in work. I can’t imagine they’re going to be more open to protests and demonstrations, they may well prove to be less.

The effect the new gang in town has had on business in the rest of the city centre has been already quite dramatic, particularly in Church Street and Bold Street. The big name brands like John Lewis, Gap, Disney Store and WH Smith have decamped and taken up residence in Liverpool One. Others may soon follow, and smaller businesses will no doubt be harmed, because people who used to visit the Disney Store on Church Street will no longer visit the chip shop down the road, and so on and so on. I understand that Bold Street may soon join Church Street in becoming something called a Business Improvement District Gold Zone. This means that if 51% of the shops in Bold Street agree, all the shops will have to pay towards extra cleaners and extra street crime wardens. This will no doubt be another nail in the coffin for smaller businesses who can’t afford the levy, but more importantly for everyone else, it is a further stage in the arms race within and between cities, about who can make their patch the most safe for massive corporations and their investments.

If the Liverpool experiment is successful – by which of course I mean that the Duke of Westminster and big name brands make a lot more money, you can be sure that there will be pressure for other UK cities to follow suit. But just how successful is it going to be?

On 13th June – only two weeks after the Queen opened Phase One of the development – it was announced that a million people had visited it. Are they going to come back though, and how often? As we all know, Liverpool is a European Capital of Culture this year, which means an explosion of tourism. Next year, simply because it will be 2009, there will be far fewer tourists to swell Grosvenor’s coffers. And that’s not taking into account the unfolding economic crisis, which is seeing practically everyone cutting back on their spending. Just last night, the BBC reported that UK business confidence was at its lowest level since 1992. Not a great time to be opening a sprawling new shopping destination then, in a city that already has so much poverty. Might Liverpool One become Gerry’s own private ghost town?

Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: capital, culture and power intersect in the 42 acres that no one in this room has the right to be in. Criminalisation will follow, but so must resistance. What this case shows – like the brutal action underway in Edge Lane, Granby and the Welsh Streets – is that campaigners must unite and organise on the basis of taking our streets back from those who treat them as squares on a Monopoly board.
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