The most shocking book of the year is about…planning? The property economy? Or citizenship?
I wanted to link to this interview I did back in September 2009, and found the Spinebreakers website had it down as ‘404 Not Found’. So here it is. A new edition of Ground Control is out this month, with updates. But see my (slightly) more recent post for that.
I read Ground Control by Anna Minton when it was published earlier this year, and from the moment I picked it up I knew it would be a book I’d always remember. Minton describes the outrages we’ve seen in the world of planning, public space and the tackling of crime since the 1980s; through this, she explores the role of cities, what citizenship and society is all about, and the way in which we live our day-to-day lives.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is how she has managed to condense so much information, previously available only in forms barely understandable to the ordinary person, into a concise, readable book. This has obviously taken a great deal of passion. But what was her initial inspiration for writing on the subject? “I think writing a book comes out of a really complicated mix of motives,” she tells me at the British Library in Kings Cross, “so there’s probably a lot of things I’m not fully aware of.” Minton is not a professional working in planning, but a journalist, although she has been writing about the themes she covers in Ground Control for a number of years. “The very first spark of it was an article in the Guardian I wrote, about mixed communities, where I wrote about gated communities and ghettoes in the US.” At this point, Minton stresses, these issues had less of a presence in Britain. “In 2002, gated communities were still a relatively rare phenomenon [in Britain], but by the time I came to write the book, most new development is being built in that way.” I am told the trend continued even while she was writing the book, which she says sustained her interest. It is plain her passion is to spread her thoughts on these topics to a wide audience: “I want people to read them.” She continues: “What I started to do was read these really fascinating accounts in journals, which nobody ever read; these are really, really important issues, and they have to be translated into an accessible language for a mainstream audience.”
Many are keen to dismiss any writing about city planning as boring and irrelevant, but is this really what Ground Control is about? “I don’t think it is a book about town planning,” Minton argues with some conviction, “I think it’s a book about fear, and emotion relating to the landscape and environment we live in, and how the places we live in make us feel and react and cooperate with each other as citizens.” She would even go far as to say a book focusing on planning would be out of date: “It’s much more of a book about the property economy than planning, because planning really doesn’t feature anymore, that’s one of the aspects of the book, planning has basically been discredited, it’s been disempowered – following the planning disasters of the 50s and 60s, planners have no power.” Minton certainly argues against the way many British city centres are now run. “Instead of trying to create a city which has got the most healthy and sustained environment – the main issue is if you create a place where your main aim is creating maximum profit from that place, you’re creating a more segregated, divisive and fearful environment.” The priority, Minton argues in Ground Control, ought not to be profit but developing community and trust.
Any reader of Ground Control should be prepared to be shocked; for me it was that we, the public, had let those with power hand over so much influence to profiteering corporations from the citizen. One scheme that Minton comments on is the Pathfinder ‘regeneration’ project, under which almost a million sound Victorian homes, predominantly former social housing in northern town centres, are being compulsorily purchased and demolished, solely in order to maximise the property value and attract a higher class of residents. Despite having done much research on the subject, Minton describes having still be shocked by what she saw on travelling to Derker, Oldham, one of the Pathfinder hotspots. “I was quite dumbfounded by what I actually saw, in terms of experiencing the human cost and what these places actually look like. Nothing beats looking down a whole street of boarded up houses bar one, in which a terrified 82-year-old woman lives.” She describes how she felt after her fact-finding trips: “I really did think God I’m so bloody lucky, it’s stuff none of us have got any idea about.”
The areas explored in Ground Control, which range from the private-controlled ‘business improvement districts’, where political protest is often banned, to youth work (Minton speaks of equal shock at youth provisions in Salford to that at the atrocities of Pathfinder), are continuously developing, so I ask Minton what has come up since the book was published which has interested her. “There’s relevant stories all the time,” she says. “Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility was just another example of totally wrong-headed, missing-the-point policy making. It was a typical example of them saying it was the elitism of the old boys’ network that is hampering social mobility in Britain, and if we had more work placements or something, social mobility would miraculously improve.” Minton then shows the deeply-rooted connection with some of the issues discussed in her writing. “The problems are just so much more profound, and relate to the increasingly segregated city environment that people live in and grow up in. There’s an unholy alliance between housing and property prices and education, which has created a totally two-tier education system. That’s the fundamental issue, and not work placements.”
And what of the future? “I think Pathfinder may have had its day. It’s been a market led policy, which has come down with the market, and I think it may be abandoned, simply because of what’s happening with the property market.” I find hearing Minton say this quite reassuring, given how disturbed I was when reading of this project. Minton’s hope, however, is admittedly limited. “Would I envisage that either another Labour government or the Tories would significantly improve things in the way I’m discussing, well, no, sadly,” she explains. The approach taken in the new development of the Kings Cross railway lands (almost adjacent to the British Library, where we are sitting), however, is encouraging to some extent. Camden council will retain control of the streets, she informs me, and public spaces will be governed by standard by-laws. “If the streets remain in public hands, that’s very important. Certainly that’s an exception, that’s the only development that has done that. But if you go round much of the development it’s very much in keeping with the high-security feel.” Ground Control holds this ‘high-security feel’ at least partially responsible for Britain’s culture of fear. We shall, of course, discover if the ‘Kings Cross Central’ development is a positive step for sure when it finally ‘opens’ in the next few years.
What is most admirable about Anna Minton is how she has developed thoughts on so many different areas into a clear and inclusive view of how our failures in these areas have led to society becoming more fearful and less happy. Her ability to engage with these issues as they emerge, and inform a wider audience of them, is refreshing in an area where it often seemed there is little hope at all. If there is ever a major turnaround in these areas, it would be hard to imagine Minton and her deep passion not being somehow involved.
For more details of Ground Control visit www.annaminton.com