Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London riots and Leeds Market: some thoughts

This week I had planned to write an update to my previous post about the debate over the future of Leeds Market. In light of recent events in London I thought about not bothering. Is it not all a bit trivial in comparison with the scenes of mass disorder and chaos coming from our capital? In one sense, yes. No-one's lives are put in imminent danger by the success or otherwise of Leeds market. In another sense, no, because in some ways these things are all interconnected.

Back in March I commented on a piece on the Culture Vultures blog entitled 'What's the matter with Kirkgate Market?'. The article drew a great deal of comment, much of it discussing the pro's and con's of gentrification, much of it using London-based examples to argue a particular point. On the subject of Brixton I had the following to say:

I agree that Brixton is great, and I think it has managed to achieve a pretty good balance between gentrification and retaining a traditional market shopping environment. I would love Leeds to manage something similar, but I just can’t see it happening. I don’t know of anywhere in this country like Brixton markets outside of London, and I think that’s a reflection of the differences between London and the rest of the country.

London is much less segregated geographically between the wealthier middle classes and the urban poor. Brixton is a prime example of this, it has significant areas of poverty and deprivation but plenty of young well-to-do professionals as well. It makes people more accustomed to interacting with, or at least sharing space with others from different social backgrounds. Franco Manca, a feted pizza place and about as middle class as it could be, is in one of the arcades pretty much surrounded by discount hardware stalls and butchers selling cow foot. No-one bats an eyelid.

In an ideal world people could think beyond the constraints of places not being for them (e.g. the markets full of undesirables/wino’s, but just as much oh the Corn Exchange has gone all snobby).

In the context of recent events that sounds like a hopelessly naive vision of social cohesion. Everyone scraping along merrily together, irrespective of differences in their cultural and social backgrounds or financial status. The thing is, I more or less believed this to be true. I lived in Woolwich for three years and never once felt threatened or ill at ease. There were occasional news stories of youth violence in the area, occasional blaring sirens as a couple of police vans headed off somewhere-or-other, but you become blasé about these things assuming it to be just a part of big city life.

Last night, the violence reached Woolwich. So far it has hardly featured in the national press, but it looks just as bad there as any other part of London. The Wetherspoons pub on the main square was burned to the ground, and the path I used to walk home along from the station was blocked by burning cars. Terrible scenes in a deprived area, but one that was on the up, at least on the surface. Millions are being pumped into regeneration schemes and developments are ongoing despite the recession and government cuts.

It all seems different in tone to notorious riots in previous decades. I'm too young to remember the riots of the early 1980's, but from what I've read it appears there was usually a focal point. Perhaps the police or a police station in a particular locality attracting the anger of protestors for a particular reason, justified or otherwise. This just seems wild and spontaneous, disconnected completely from the initial trigger point in Tottenham. As a consequence it's very easy to dismiss the whole thing as being perpetrated by mindless criminal thugs, with no context or backstory by way of explanation, which is what much of the political establishment appears to be doing.

This isn't going to turn into a defence of looters and arsonists. I believe that the perpetrators of this are mindless criminal thugs. They absolutely do deserve to face the consequences of their actions. But surely to ignore the context would be foolish. Restore order, catch and try as many culprits as possible, but then please don't carry on as if nothing ever happened, mindless criminal thugs dealt with. Mindless criminal thugs are not some separate entity, distinct from the rest of us human beings. They are just people, and something has obviously gone very wrong with people who feel the need to destroy their own towns. People, many of them children don't just become mindless criminal thugs for no reason at all.

What would lead someone to turn so readily to violence and looting I'm not entirely sure. It's beyond the limits of my own experience. I wasn't brought up in urban deprivation, I'm certainly no longer a youth and I'm gainfully employed. I know nothing about social work or community organisation.

If I could hazard a guess at what maybe the biggest factors are I'd say inequality and a sense of disenfranchisement are near the top of the list. Taking inequality first, London is a city where a single flat sold for £136 million and the average house costs over £400,000, but where you'll find 4 of the 20 most deprived boroughs in the country. I don't think envy of the rich is the issue here, but the startling size of the gap between those at the top of the tree and those at the bottom. One person can buy one flat for the price of 340 average London properties, but for hundreds of thousands of Londoners that average London property is an unattainable dream, even for those in work. That can't be a sign of a healthy society.

Looking at disenfranchisement, I can understand why people might feel the political system will never work for them. It may just be a fluke of history but Britain seems to have regressed in terms of opportunity for all. No political party has done anything substantial to address inequality, and the politicians themselves no longer set much of an example. Say what you like about the policies of Major and Thatcher, but neither of them came from a particularly privileged background, both of them were schooled by the state, and both of them had a hinterland beyond politics. At least they had the mandate of life experience. Nowadays it seems that only a combination of privilege (Cameron), independent schooling (Blair and Cameron) and virtually a whole career spent solely in politics (Blair, Brown and Cameron) will get you to the very top. I don't feel that these people have much of value to say to me, their experience feels remote and irrelevant to my life, and I'm nowhere near the bottom of the metaphorical pile.

What to do about all this? How do we prevent people from descending so readily into criminality? I'm way out of my depth here, so I'll just stick to three brief suggestions. I don't doubt that there are many more, probably better ideas.

The first would be relatively easy to implement: make voting compulsory. Some years ago I was involved in a local election campaign in Australia, where voting is compulsory. What struck me was the sense of occasion, that this mattered to people, the young included. Contrast with the almost universal disinterest in local elections in this country. A legitimate complaint against young people in this country is that they don't tend to bother voting, the defence being that they're not interested because there's no-one to vote for who will represent their interests. It's a lose-lose circular argument. Those seeking election don't bother courting young votes, because young people don't bother voting, so the young people don't vote, because they feel no-one represents them. Make voting compulsory and the entire electorate becomes the target market.

Secondly, and a much bigger challenge. Take genuine and substantive steps to tackle inequality. Don't ask me how, but it can be tackled as we currently live in one of Europe's most unequal societies.

Finally, the little things matter. Which is where Leeds Market comes into all this. Inequality and lack of opportunity will only become more entrenched if amenities used by the less well off are allowed to decline or disappear through neglect or lack of funding. Local community campaigns to protect and support important assets like the market can only be a good thing, provided they're backed up with action. And by that I mean shopping at the market, not burning it down.

What I said about Brixton is still true to an extent, it and other London communities really are a melting pot of social backgrounds. What I didn't realise is the level of resentment felt by many of those at the lower end of the scale. All the more reason for supporting community facilities I'd say, the situation would only be made worse by increasing ghetto-isation of rich and poor. Brixton wouldn't be better off if all the wealthier folk disappeared from its streets, and Clapham wouldn't be improved by demolishing its estates and leaving it to the middle classes. The same applies to Leeds, whose city centre must be a resource for all its residents, and the market is a fundamental part of this.

I still think the strategy for the market will result in the same outcome as I did a fortnight ago, some of which will be bad news. But whatever happens, whether the market is reduced in size or not, please keep shopping there. Oh, and please don't avoid London either, I'm sure they'll be wanting visitors as the recovery from this takes place.

Footnote 1: Anyone who says the quality of produce on the market is uniformly low isn't looking hard enough. Today I bought 10 donut peaches (the little flat ones that supermarkets charge a fortune for because they look special) for £1 and a bundle of fat, live razor clams for £3.50. The peaches are sweet, ripe, fragrant and utterly delicious. I've not eaten the clams yet but they look damn good.

Footnote 2: This is all a bit serious so tomorrow I'll be writing a post about how I stuffed my fat face on Sichuan food over the weekend.

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