Commodifying communities


On the corporate takeover of communities in a Cambridge context

This post links back to the privatisation of public spacesAt the same time, I also want to make some anecdotal observations comparing out of town shopping centres versus town centres – making an [emotional rather than evidence-based] case for town centres.

Cambridge doesn’t really have an out of town shopping centre on the model of Gateshead, Bluewater and Lakeside. I remember a few years back when I lived in London making the trek out beyond Dartford by train to see what Bluewater was about…and came back utterly depressed by what I had seen.

What was completely lacking in the out-of-town shopping centres were large community facilities that did not require big or regular monetary transactions. Town halls, libraries, community centres…when we talk about the decline of the high street, it’s not just the shops that we lose. Community facilities that rely on people being there to function suffer too. One of the other things I noticed was the number of brands that had more than one shop. Clone-town Britain? Can’t we bring in laws that restrict the number of branded shops & franchises in any one area?

The leisure park model

What Cambridge has is one of these – Cambridge Leisure Park. It’s in my childhood neighbourhood. I’m old enough to remember when it was once a functioning agricultural cattle market. I still refer to it as the cattle market because of this – force of inertia. Given the amount of time the land around it remained derelict during the 1990s & early 2000s, what Cambridge got was something that makes someone a fair amount of money but something that doesn’t really serve the community in the manner it could do. A massive missed opportunity. I have used some of the things on it – whether the convenience stores, the cinema or, as when I used to work in what was the regional government office close by, the much-demanded bowling alley.

So what went wrong?

My childhood neighbourhood got commodified. In one sense ‘we’ allowed it to happen, but at the same time such was and is the growing might of finance being targeted towards Cambridge that the corporate big guns can bring in such firepower that the community – and the local authorities simply do not have the resources to match. Corporate interests know how to game the planning system. That’s why we have so many architecturally bland and uninspiring box-like buildings going up in Cambridge that could have been sited almost anywhere else in the world. There is nothing ‘local’ to the style – whether in terms of the materials used to the designs of the buildings.

Not only that, the homes that were demolished to create the new apartments and flats around Hills Road Railway Bridge – in particular on the south side – are not aimed at local people, but for short-term tenants. Student flats and gated communities – in an area that is/was otherwise a stable community has been somewhat destabilised. As a result, the amenities that are on Cambridge Leisure Park are as such designed to meet the needs of people that have little incentive (or even capacity – especially in the case of the younger students) to invest anything in the local community. I’m not blaming the short term language students – I was one of them when back in 2006 I spent a month in Vienna. I’m looking at how my childhood neighbourhood has become commodified to make money for big investors – at the expense of a stable community.

How do financial investors make money from this model?

For somewhere like Cambridge, private institutions that can make money from the brand that is the university will be more than happy to do so. Whether it’s the corporate house builders that have images of university college gardens to the language schools that do the same on their brochures to unsuspecting parents thinking that these are the grounds their children will be learning in, brand Cambridge is a key selling point.

You only have to look at the numbers to see why investors are interested in Cambridge. From Cambridgeshire County Council’s economic impact assessment of tourism in Cambridge, the key figures include:

  • Nearly 15million day trippers
  • Over 2million overnight visitors (the vast majority UK – perhaps reflecting parents of UK-students)
  • Overseas visitors staying for 1 or more nights spending £210million
  • 10% of people living in Cambridge working in or around tourist-related functions

When you look at those numbers, it’s almost inevitable that investors will want to get a piece of this. The problem is that Cambridge doesn’t have the administrative or political structures, nor the resources to handle such powerful interests. As top academic Dr David Cleevely (pictured here with Puffles) put it:

“We need to have enough local political ambition to match the world-beating technology here, the ability to promote Cambridge on the world stage in a way that is appropriate for a world-class centre, and we don’t do that.” [Cambridge Evening News, 26 March 2013]

It’s not a case of simply blaming local politicians and activists – many of whom do huge amounts of unpaid work in communities despite the mud thrown their way. There is a huge imbalance in the power relationship between the firepower that large financial interests can bring to bear against the council’s executive portfolio holders who themselves are not (so far as I am aware) full time. They are also dependent on the advice of an increasingly shrinking number of council officials – people who again have to face down interests who are able to call upon expert legal, financial and other sources of advice to make their cases.

Contractual vs democratic accountability & flexible labour markets?

One of the things I don’t like about Westminster’s ‘narrative’ about local government is how it separates the role of community champion and service provider. As I’ve mentioned in Contractual vs Democratic Accountability, my view is that the latter is undermined by the former as the focus moves from roles of public office towards what is in a contract – one where (as we have seen all too often in Whitehall) there isn’t an equal relationship between local authorities and contractors. (Especially if the contractor is a profit-making multinational with an incentive to make as much profit as possible from the contract).

In areas where you have a high population turnover, it makes it very difficult for local political activists and local councillors to establish deep roots in communities. I explored these in The hidden costs of flexible labour markets. If you have limited time and are not getting paid to help pay the bills, why bother reaching out to parts of your community that may not be there tomorrow? Or those that have chosen to lock themselves behind security gates? (In an area of high crime rates – esp burglaries, living in a gated community is an understandable response to such symptoms, but it doesn’t solve the wider causes).

Helping local government and communities fight back?

In the context of Cambridge, there are a number of new residential developments that are being built or that have just been built. The challenge here is integrating the new long term arrivals. This is where both the local authorities and wider ‘civic society’ for want of another phrase can play a key role in reaching out to people moving into the newly built homes and inviting them to become part of the city. There are some that might say it’s not the job of ‘the state’ to do such things, and that people should be left to their own devices. But the problem with that – especially in the context of flexible labour markets is that it makes communities more vulnerable, not less. That mindset suits the big financial interests because it means they can get hold of more properties to rent out on short-term leases – whether for students or academics on short term contracts or whoever. People buying homes to live in for the long term don’t suit those interests. There’s no money to be made in transaction fees if no transactions are being made.

What things might help in any ‘fightback’?

A number of things can only be changed at a Westminster and Whitehall level, because that’s where the legal and financial powers are vested. That requires one immense culture change – one that I cannot see the current generation of senior politicians in all parties delivering. Hence that strand is something that people need to be in for the very long haul – one that starts with trying to educate people about how politics and those in & around it function. (One of the purposes of this blog). There are other things too:

  • Larger employers resisting pressure to move away from permanent, and towards fixed-term contracts. This goes for Cambridge University and related institutes. If someone is on an 18 month contract, the uncertainty created means there’s little incentive to get involved in the community beyond university circles or to put down roots. Longer term contracts or even permanent contracts increase that incentive. How can you get the balance right for what is right for the employer, employee & wider community?
  • University and student societies looking outwards beyond university circles & engaging with resident communities – and vice versa. This is something I’m intending to get some traction on in the autumn now that I’ve met what feels like a critical mass of individuals from a number of groups, societies & organisations.
  • Local political parties working together to help organise events that help increase people’s knowledge and awareness of how to get involved with tackling local issues. I don’t see this as just a two-way process either, with councillors at one end and residents at the other. I see it as one where residents can engage with and even challenge each other (such as at this event), creating more continuous conversations. That way, come election time people might feel they have more of a stake in the issues, an awareness of the people standing and thus have a greater incentive to turn out.

“You’ve not mentioned social media yet Pooffles”

Social media can be a useful tool, but it’s not the be-all and end all. The challenge is finding social media’s place in all of this – in particular asking how social media can be used to overcome the barriers that we face.

Food for thought.


One thought on “Commodifying communities

  1. As a Cambridge resident I found this post interesting. I tend to agree with you that I find some of the activities at the leisure park a bit naff. The restaurants are all a bit rubbish and I don’t use the gym, I do use the cinema and small supermarkets, and occasionally the bowling. However the place generally seems always fairly well used; sixth form students sit on the grass in the summer, the cinema is usually busy of an evening, and apparently other people disagree with me on the restaurants, because they aren’t usually empty. So overall I’m not sure I agree with you that the space is a missed opportunity, it provides something that Cambridge was previously lacking i.e. the bowling, and something that the south of Cambridge was lacking.

    Also I’m not sure what you mean by housing of ‘local style’, not defending some of the boxy stuff going up, but a lot of existing housing in Cambridge isn’t distinctively ‘Cambridge’ either. All the semi’s and detached housing in Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton built in the early 20th century, could equally be anywhere.

    I do agree entirely about the problem of properties being bought up by by-to-let landlords, meaning that local families cannot by the properties, and also the impact that the increased demand has on house prices. I’m not sure what the answer is though; you can’t stop someone buying a home, based on what they are going to do with it after they’ve bought it (even if you could, how would you know?). Maybe, you could build less flats and more houses, but even if the flats are being filled by people who rent, that surely shows there is still a demand for them. So building less flats, will mean that people who would have lived in them will instead start house-sharing in homes Cambridge impacting on homes that would otherwise be available for families.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s