Short-term casino capitalism by developers is driving people from city centres, writes Joyce McMillan.
ANOTHER WEEK, another row in Edinburgh over a new development that seems insensitive – if not downright damaging – to the needs of local people. This time, it’s St Margaret’s House, a huge 1960s government office block on London Road that once housed Scotland’s NHS administration. The building has long been designated as ripe for development; and it has now been sold, like so many city centre sites and properties, for conversion into yet another hotel, and yet more luxury student accommodation.
In the meantime though – pending the decision about its future – several floors of the building have become home to a group of young Edinburgh-based artists. First under the name Arts Complex, and more recently as Arts Palette, it has provided much-needed, inexpensive space for a whole community of painters, designers, crafts people and writers.
And although that community could move elsewhere, the sight of the people who made this unpromising brutalist block into a creative hub being given their marching orders, in favour of a development that will at best house transient visitors and residents, seems all too typical of the kind of “urban cleansing” that now seems to be happening in cities all over Britain.
Essentially, a combination of “studentification” driven by the rapid growth in higher education, pressure from a booming tourist trade, and soaring property prices, threaten places like Edinburgh, Bristol, and Cambridge with a future as “doughnut cities”, with ordinary residents driven into the outer suburbs or beyond, while the centre increasingly becomes a “theme park” for short-term residents and visitors, and for wealthy global elites. And the threat is now compounded, in cities everywhere, by the rise of Airbnb, which offers owners of empty property a huge financial incentive to take it out of the local rental market, and turn it over to short-stay visitors.
The result of these pressures is an apparently endless series of campaigns, rows, and protests, involving buildings from Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art – recently threatened with a colossal block of student housing obscuring its entire south elevation – to Edinburgh’s old Royal High School, still under threat of being transformed into a six-star hotel for the wealthy despite brilliant alternative plans.
Even when major developments do go ahead, the public consultations on the detail often seem to be pre-empted by deals previously struck between the authorities and the developers. A prime example is Edinburgh’s new St James development, another scheme aimed at luxury shopping and hotel accommodation for wealthy visitors, which has led to a bitter row over the reconfiguration of Picardy Place, the big adjacent road junction. Despite consultations, the council voted, in the end – with many councillors claiming they had no choice – for an old-fashioned 20th century-style scheme that ignores the site’s potential as a living urban space served by excellent public transport, and confirms its status as a giant, fume-filled traffic roundabout.
So how can the people of Edinburgh, and of cities across the UK, begin to reclaim for themselves the city landscapes from which many feel increasingly excluded? It seems like a simple question, to which local authorities should be able to provide an answer; but in fact, it goes to the heart of the distribution of power in our society, and the increasing helplessness of elected governments, at every level, to resist those who offer the prize of more investment and jobs, in however questionable a form. Of course it is not in the long-term interest of Edinburgh, or any other city, to become a kind of museum in which people do not make their lives; the kind of development that drives out local people – their houses, shops, local pubs, street-level music venues – and kills the very thing that tourists once wanted to visit.
The long term, though, is not something that much interests the big hitters of 21st century capitalism. And so, across the world, we see governments at every level talking the talk about social inclusion, but signing off deals and developments that will exclude 90 per cent of their citizens through price alone; or issuing splendid guidelines on the environment, but allowing a potential parkland and public transport hub to remain a traffic roundabout; or spending years working out cultural policies, only to fight shy of making residential developers responsible for soundproofing their own buildings, so that they can co-exist with a vibrant street life. And public authorities make these decisions not because they are evil, but because they are broke, and do not have the cash to preserve public spaces and buildings for public use.
To oppose what is happening to our cities, in other words, involves challenging the whole pattern of economic power in our society, along with the prevailing model of short-term casino capitalism that drives the urban property market. Some say that the boom in luxury student accommodation may soon burst, like any other property bubble, and that those little single-person apartments will eventually become available to local people; the boom, after all, has been caused by many factors, including sky-high UK university fees for overseas students, which mean that those who come are often so wealthy that another ten grand a year for a student room is not a problem.
Whatever the drivers of the current rash of student development, though, what is clear is that we – and that community of artists in St Margaret’s House – are in the hands of a system that cares nothing for the real life of our cities, and everything for the short-term value of our real estate on the global market. And although moaning about the xouncil is a proud tradition in all Scotland’s cities, it’s perhaps time to recognise that our local authorities, too, find themselves trapped in a vicious downward spiral; too weak and cash-strapped to defend us against the worst effects of inappropriate development, and therefore ever more despised by the voters whose fierce grass-roots support our elected representatives will need, if they are ever to regain the power to stand up to the brute forces of big finance, and to speak for the people who live in our towns, cities, and rural areas, in ways that count.