The Future of the British City? A review of Ground Control by Anna Minton

The reconstruction of Manchester’s city centre after the IRA’s 1996 bomb stood as the background to my teenage years and, as is often the case with such things, I never really scrutinised or questioned the direction it took. I was 11 at the time of the bombing and had been watching cartoons on a Saturday morning before driving into the city centre with my mother. I vaguely remember us being stopped in the car by a hastily erected police cordon on the outskirts of the city but it was only later in the day, while at my grandmother’s nursing home, that we found out what had happened. At the time the impact of the bombing seemed to be expressed solely in the immediacy of the destruction wrought; yet many years later, as I read Ground Control, it became clear quite how the events of that morning paved the way for a radical and, at the time, unprecedented experiment in city-centre governance.

Since 2000 the centre of Manchester has been run by a private company called City Co which, in its own words, “provides the vision, strategy and influence” necessary for “creating the trading conditions for business to prosper”. The Manchester city council describes it as follows:

Cityco is Manchester’s city centre management company. Cityco is an independent, member-based organisation, which represents businesses in the city centre, primarily leisure, hotels, retailers, commercial property and professional services. The company’s main objective is to help create the trading conditions for business in the city centre to prosper; a broad aim, which we work towards in a variety of strategic and operational ways.

We are well-networked within the city and our close links with the City Council, the Police, transport bodies and other organisations allow us to help members resolve security and environmental problems. We lobby on behalf of members, for example, to improve late night public transport and regulatory frameworks, and undertake initiatives, including research, to inform the long-term strategic direction of the city centre.

Cityco also promotes the city nationally and internationally as a leisure and business destination, running inventive and successful marketing campaigns.

Far from being an isolated case, Cityco was the prototype for a new mode of city centre governance which became the heart of New Labour’s urban  policy: the Business Improvement District (BID). It’s a policy imported from America, where it has spread quickly over the last 15 years. Businesses petition the local government to create a BID, the local government (in principle) determines that a majority of the businesses in the area want the BID and then the legislation enacting the BID is enacted. In the US, after the creation of a BID, all business property owners within the district pay a fee – even those who opposed its creation – while in the UK, in the absence of a property register, occupiers pay the fee. This fee pays, as in the case of Cityco, for activity intended to create good business conditions within the area.

Taken in a rather naive and literal sense this could be seen to practically amount to keeping the area clean, safe and attractive. However there’s a subtle but profound conflation at work here; good business conditions for the sort of retail and leisure outlets which usual dominate BIDs amount to circumstances which engender consumption and remove obstacles to consumption. As Anna Minton  reports a BID manager telling her: “high margins come with ABC1s, low margins with C2DEs. My job is to create an environment which will bring in more ABC1s” (pg 45). If you fall into the most desire socio-economic groups and are coming into the BID in order to spend money then the BID represents a proactive attempt to shape the area to your immediate needs. This becomes progressively less true as the people concerned become less socio-economically desirable and less intent on consumption to the point where those who are uneconomical, or even anti-economic, become subject to outright harassment.

The Loiterers Resistance Movement are a group influenced by psychogeography who attempt to foster the creative exploration of Manchester. In 2008 they attempted to organize a festival of talks, walks and performances in the city-centre but faced resistance from Cityco at every turn. They were told that flyering without a permit  would constitute littering and they would be fined. They were refused permission to pitch a tent as part of an outdoor art exhibition on the grounds that it might encourage homeless people into the city. An event about pigeons came under fire on the grounds that it might “encourage people to like pigeons”. Members of the group who were asking passers-by about their use of the city-centre were questioned and subject to “vague” threats by Cityco’s wardens. Obviously though this is only example when many more could be cited. Indeed many go unreported.

It’s great to be a wealthy consumer within a BID; quite the opposite to be homeless, flaneur, protestor, busker, young or poor. So the idea that certain public goods (cleaning, security, entertainment) are necessarily common goods is misleading when those specific public goods are pursued by business as a means to an end. Particularly when these de facto governmental bodies come equipped with private police (such as Cityco’s wardens and rangers) and vast CCTV networks. Likewise their ambiguous status, as can be seen in the growing outsourcing of policing functions to private security and equal involvement in policing operations, itself grants security guards de facto powers. Far from being private security guards, they are City Wardens who work with the police and increasingly have police powers; this leaves members of the public less likely to question them and individuals guards more likely to lie about or abuse their powers, at least when the individual would obviously be unlikely to take the matter to court. Likewise the extent of collusion between the police and private security (witness EON and EDO) elsewhere doesn’t inspire confidence in the accountability of these increasingly empowered and emboldened private security agents.

This is only one small aspect of the book but it stuck with me for biographical reasons. It’s also emblematic of the wider issues the book deals with, as market imperatives and the utilitarian individualism which goes with them literarly consume public space: gated luxury housing, gated social housing, BIDs, CCTV, ASBOs, ‘malls without walls’. The attempt to provide control and security, as a business driven effort to attract well-off consumers and as a well-off consumer driven effort to repel the dangerous outsider, are radically transforming the spatial politics of the UK in ways which have yet to be adequately conceptualised; anger and protest at individual symptoms have yet to translate into a general understanding of the underlying problem which could provide an effective basis for resistance. Ground Control is an admirable attempt to provide such a basis but one which, at less than 200 pages, was always bound to remain incomplete.