Culture and Curfew in Fantasy City: whose time, whose place?
‘Regeneration’ has brought new
ways of talking up the city of Liverpool, with renaissance managers bringing
with them new visions, rules and ways of presenting our city. The goal
is to paint a positive and crisis-free picture. These are entrepreneurial
spaces: confident, forward-looking and freed from negativity. In the words
of the self-styled ‘man of the people’ and chief urban patriot
Phil Redmond: in a ‘culture-led economy, public space, whether for
reflection, performance or exhibition will be at a premium … in
the sense of well-being and confidence it can bring to people’
Hidden in this fantasy language is the class-based nature of city rule and the repopulation of city spaces with middle class, culture-hungry ‘can-doers’. It is their confidence in the re-made city that is critical. The stakes are high in this image management of Fantasy City through which ‘successful’ and ‘confident’ regeneration will be achieved.
Behind Fantasy City, and disguised by it, lurks a reality: hideously high levels of inequality, households struggling on low incomes, intensifying levels of personal debt and child poverty, and average life expectancy which remains significantly below the national average. Poor housing and fuel poverty add to this misery.
Some people, and their activities and routines, do not or cannot fit in with the new well-heeled urban dream. They blight the rosy image, or send out the ‘wrong signals’ in the city of hyper-consumption, tourism and investment. If they can’t play the game they will have to be managed, controlled; or, ultimately, excluded.
Meanwhile, the ‘quangocracy’ of self-appointed ‘local heroes’ who run the city remain secure in their ‘vision’, thanks to the shockingly feeble mechanisms, which (allegedly) are meant to hold them to account.
For many groups, confidence to participate in the city is undermined further by ever more intensive levels of surveillance and policing. These are apparently essential if we are to be convinced of our security, despite the rather contradictory claim that we are enjoying a new 'confidence'.
If ‘regeneration’ is to be successful, creating ‘safe places to do business’ is seen to be a prerequisite under the current market-driven framework. A ‘cappuccino culture’ is apparently where it is at. The prospect of a ‘bargain basement economy’, unregulated youthful activities and homeless people, in this context, defiles the desired image for the city. In Liverpool we have seen campaigns aimed at the public urging people to desist from giving change to street beggars; business having a say in where Big Issue vendors are pitched; the use of ASBOs to restrict movement in and around the city; and pressure on The Big Issue to clean up its vendors along with a no-sell policy in the ultra-glam ‘flagship’ project, Liverpool One. The increases in violence aimed at homeless people by members of the public, some police units and private security, reported to researchers at the University of Liverpool, are less visible but more worrying. One homeless person reported: “they tell us there is no place for us in the new Liverpool”. The presence of homeless people undermines the fantasy more than any other group.
Having ‘no place’ is reflected also in the woeful facilities provided for homeless people. This applies too for asylum seekers and victims of domestic and racist violence, as detailed in successive Audit Commission reports, and highlighted on numerous occasions by campaign groups. Meanwhile, city managers have called on police and local byelaw enforcement to eradicate or move on street traders, skateboarders, and ‘penny for the guy’ beggars, along with unauthorised street drinking.
‘Policing by consent’ takes on an entirely new meaning alongside the fact that a great deal of policing in the city is funded, managed and staffed by business and private interests. Lines of accountability are blurred; and the compelling questions remain: who owns ‘public space’? Who are the key architects and benefactors of Fantasy City? As a designated Business Improvement District, local businesses in the city centre of Liverpool are able to raise funds for initiatives to maintain ‘standards’ and the ‘quality of life’ in public space. This is to be achieved through monitoring and managing CCTV, maintaining a private surveillance radio network, promoting various anti-crime campaigns (’Hats Off To Beat Crime’, Pub-Watch) and, among other things, providing licences and arenas for ‘cultural events’ and street entertainers in main shopping areas.
The Oscar-style glitz launch of Liverpool One [L1] last year may indeed persuade some that ‘this is not a shopping centre, but a city centre’ and relax any middle class guilt about eye-popping consumption, but it remains nevertheless a highly contrived and closely controlled space. The ‘new rules’ for L1, as the Grosvenor spiel puts it, include: ‘Make new rules, Involve everyone, Love the city, Think big, Create more, and Be best’. Rather vaguely, these rules ‘are fluid and have the ability to change and evolve as the development progresses’ (Daily Post, 01/11/05). Once again the fantasy lingo applied here hides the cheap migrant labour (hired and fired by day), which was used in the rush to complete the project. And here it should be remembered that, as the Health and Safety Executive reported in 2007, building sites in Merseyside such as this were among ‘the most dangerous places to work in the UK’. Union leaders were harassed and banned from L1 in a dispute over accident rates and pay.
Up to four hundred new CCTV cameras have been installed on the site alongside teams of private security personnel to facilitate this exclusive space. Academic studies on CCTV show how targeting is determined by stereotypes (based on age, ‘race’ and class) as much as it is on proof of a crime being committed. In this way, looking and behaving ‘inappropriately’ (i.e. not consuming) and looking ‘out of place’ propels the surveillance network into action and, as a consequence, will target the poor disproportionately.
The most recent official statistics made available show that ‘racist incidents’ almost doubled in the Merseyside area between 2003-4 and 2006-7. Conversely, in 2005-6, black and minority ethnic groups were three times more likely to be stopped and searched and asked to account for themselves, than white groups: the number of black people stopped, per 1000 population, increased further in 2006-7 according to the most recently available figures. Academic studies and evidence from community-based campaigning groups have consistently demonstrated that the combination of under-policing (of racist violence and harassment) and over-policing (the use of stop and search powers, for example) seriously undermines community ‘confidence’.
Who’s Watching Fantasy City?
Fantasy City wants us to forget and forgo. The past is dead – long live Fantasy City! This ludicrous state of affairs promotes the image above the reality. But taking a peek behind the ‘confidence’ beloved in the fantasy we see it is the confidence of business to colonise public space and engage in decision-making along with policing activities not enjoyed since the Empire days of late 19th century Liverpool. One historian has described the police of this time as ‘uniformed garbage men’ – cleaning the port city of street sellers, rogue youth (‘Arab children’), drunks and prostitutes, on behalf of the mercantile class.
So much for the great ‘unwashed’, but what about the great ‘un-watched’? If businesses police the streets, who polices them in terms of political incompetence, corporate / financial crime and environmental pollution? Policing, like local democracy itself, is becoming increasingly blurred with private sector interests, often with no effective means of holding these new ‘guardians’ to account. Policing the excesses of Fantasy City, like the recent calls for the policing of unrestrained financial capital, seems well overdue. But this needs to go along with questioning an excess of technologically-equipped ‘uniformed garbage men’ policing the presence of the least powerful inhabitants of Fantasy City.
Roy Coleman and Lynn Hancock are Lecturers in Sociology and Criminology at The University of Liverpool
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