:: Article

Ballard as Public Policy

By John Houghton.


Anna Minton, Ground Control, Penguin, 2009

Ground Control is an incisive and sharply written survey of the rubble left by the collapse of the Thatcherite housing policy consensus.

Anna Minton cuts through policy jargon and arcane legalese to expose how significant but largely undiscussed changes in the rules governing the ownership and use of land and public space allow unelected agencies to “treat the city as a private business, accountable to property developers and retailers rather than local electors”.

The consequence of this reliance on market mechanisms, operating through weakly-regulated and highly-leveraged deals, to provide everything from housing for the very poor to private security for the very wealthy is a more divided society, a more unstable economy and a chronically under-housed populace.

By design or fortune, Ground Control has arrived at the just the right moment. The policy assumptions of recent decades are starting to be challenged, although Minton points out that some of the current government’s apparent shifts in direction, such as freeing up councils to build new houses, are not as significant as they may first appear.

The growth of gated communities for people who want to cocoon themselves from society is matched by an equivalent but involuntary process of exclusion at the other end of the market. Minton shows how the severe under-supply of social housing, despite the government’s evermore ambitious construction targets, and the destruction of swathes of decent stock in a misbegotten attempt to boost prices in areas of lower demand has fuelled the growth of insecure and hazardous private renting in the poorest parts of our towns and cities.

Minton’s style is reminiscent of Penguin’s popular social science classics, and she deserves credit for presenting housing policy dilemmas and controversies, so often cloaked in obscure terms, in clear and resonant English. At the same time, she’s not afraid to draw on the theories of a wide range of thinkers including Zygmunt Bauman, Henri Lefebvre and Mike Davis (author of the essential Planet of Slums) to back up her arguments.

At other points, the reliance on individual anecdotes and personal accounts – “a friend of mine, who is now a poet and artist, described to me…” – can be frustrating, especially when they are not backed up by independent evidence or tested by an opposing analysis. A few too many arguments are based on individual conversations with taxi drivers, campaigners and case lawyers (of whom the latter two groups presumably have a vested in the argument they are making).

Away from housing policy, Ground Control is less effective as a thesis on the cultural and civic impacts of the changes in the ownership and use of public space. At the start of the third and final section of the book, which focuses on this theme, Minton creates an average but imaginary family who have been affected by the personal and social maladies she describes – depressive alienation from their neighbours, a paranoid fear of crime, insecurity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this technique of creating illustrative characters, but it does suggest a lack of confidence in the central thesis of the book at a crucial point. Other factors – rapid social change, the consequent weakening of traditional social bonds, the role of the media – are given little attention.

The other factor which undermines the book’s effectiveness is the romantic view that is attached to other places and times. Continental Europe seems to be an urban Elysium of civic comity and cultural vibrancy, in contrast to the “American way of doing things” which acts a short-hand for anything bad. This can lead to overly-simplified judgements. A section contrasting the ideal European piazza with the “American Clean and Safe agenda of the shopping mall” leads to the conclusion that “it is no coincidence that rates of mental illness in continental Europe are half those in Britain and America.”

In a similar vein, Minton contrasts the dull and hyper-sanitised environments of the Docklands and Bluewater with grittier, more unpredictable urban spaces like the Manchester rave scene. Many readers will share her instinctive celebration of the latter over the former, but the comparative analysis can be confused and distorted. Manchester is presented as both the victim of an ASBO-led “newly sanitised culture” and the beneficiary of an “unplanned, spontaneous” explosion of sub-cultures. The criticism of community wardens, behaviour contracts and litter fines suggests a disdain for basic neighbourhood management, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. Is it really all that bad to want to “keep the streets of the city as clean as the shelves of the supermarket”?

This may be an unfair criticism. It would be odd if the author’s own interpretations and reflections, and the stories she has heard, about life in other places were not an important element of the narrative. And, of course, there is a limit to how nuanced any analysis can be in a book which is aimed at an audience wider than policy specialists.

More problematically, the book contrasts the state of modern-day cities with their historic manifestations. Minton refers back at various points to a pre-Thatcher / pre-new Labour golden age. As I’ve argued elsewhere, critics of the policy paradigm which governs housing and planning today have to recognise why so many people have not, until recently, questioned them. Returning land or homes to public ownership is no guarantee of fairness or accountability, if the track record of Town Hall bureaucracies for much of the last century is anything to go by.

Going further back, Minton argues that current land ownership and management policies create “places which are quite different from the British cities of the last 150 years, focused and revenue and commercial rather than innate value”. This is an odd analysis of the economic history of British cities, which have expanded and retracted, flourished and floundered according to economic trajectories.

Minton cites Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities to back up her argument about the importance of unregulated urban interaction, over enforced conformity. But she overlooks Jacobs’ slightly lesser known The Economy of Cities. In this, Jacobs shows that the city has always been an economic construct, founded and sustained because things could be mined or manufactured, built or refined, but always and most crucially exported and exchanged there.

For all that some readers might find the style of arguing and the use of simplistic short-hand terms problematic, the content of Minton’s argument is powerful and persuasive. Ground Control is of immense relevance to today’s housing and planning policy arguments, and of lasting value to long-running debates about the value, governance and quality of our shared urban spaces.

John Houghton
is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009.