“There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build”
Tony Blair (1997) “The will to win” Speech at the Aylesbury Estate, Southwark, 2 June
The UK’s urban regeneration mania of the last decades has taken many forms and defines much of our contemporary urban landscape. Post-crash and mid-austerity, the preponderance of over-hyped and over-leveraged glamour-towers, prestige starchitecture and insidious ‘splashes’ of new urban living rouse familiar anxieties about the trajectory and accessibility of cities. In the shadows of these visible neoliberal affronts however, a legacy of injustice has begun to emerge not through action to displace and renew, but through inaction and failure. This piece is a call to recognize, confront and challenge what happens to residents when urban regeneration does not stay within the linear, unfolding narratives of ‘successful’ neoliberal urban development and instead mires people and neighbourhoods in limbo, uncertainty and devitalisation.
First, the familiar anxieties. Most obviously, there is the unease at the pace and form of neoliberalisation within and across cities, as flows of petro-dollars and the unceasing privatisation of the public realm produces sanitized, securitized and depoliticized urban spaces. Lying behind the seductive mega-events and shopping malls is a procession of ‘elementary brutalities’ wrought by globalised capital flows.
Secondly, critics lament the weary socio-spatial politics of inner-city housing ‘regeneration’. One form of tenure is tenaciously stigmatised, devitalised or demolished (public / council housing), whilst developers fall over themselves to build for a hazily defined aspirant urban middle class. ‘Nightmarish’ estates are razed whilst enclaves replete with multi-coloured apartment facades, dedicated ‘little’, ‘local’ or ‘metro’ convenience stores and militia of ‘wardens’, ‘officers’ and managers surveying and auditing quasi-gated communities proliferate. Industrial pastiche prevails through a litany of ‘wharves’ and worse, whilst Manhattan is the go-to imaginary, conjured via numerous ‘villages’, ‘parks’ and ‘quarter’ acronyms.
We know that, the financial vulnerability of many middle-class homebuyers notwithstanding and some bone-throws to the ‘affordable’ crowd aside (and there are sometimes re-housing strategies for tenants in more enlightened new developments), there is violence here. The ‘designing-out’ strategies and gentrification logics which this form of regeneration has come to embody means new housing developments are often knee-deep in exclusion, displacement and inequality, no matter how well they are dressed up in the language of consultation and community. Sometimes this is overt (such as the gentrification of Elephant and Castle, south London), other times more subtle, but more often than not this form of urban renewal operates through varying degrees of marginalisation, eviction and exclusion of ‘undesirable’ (working class) populations from the inner city.
So far, so obvious. However, the critique that these regeneration projects circulate around prestige, branding and class privilege supported by dubious sources of cheap finance and flimsy ‘lifestyle’ messaging reflects a particular tone and texture of urban injustice. They (rightly) focus on the lurid and more visible end of the contemporary urban renewal picture and yet, away from the soulless, privatised piazzas and the systematic housing displacement so integral to the regeneration logic of a global city like London, a more muted, yet equally troubling urban renewal reality has been unravelling in recent years.
In surveying the wreckage of contemporary regeneration we need to also shift our critical gaze to the edges and margins of the renaissance dream factory. We must consider, not only the outcomes of privatisation, eviction and dispersal so apparent in the spotlight cities and districts, but also the immobilisation, powerlessness and limbo which can now pockmark the everyday urban experience of those in the neoliberal urban shadows. Inspiration for this contention comes from my specific research experience of Salford, Greater Manchester where residents are currently enduring not only high unemployment and social security cuts, but some are also living with the dangerous failures of inner city ‘regeneration’. As a PhD student in 2003-05, I conducted some research in inner Salford at the apex of New Labour’s neighbourhood renewal programe. The regeneration vision at this time was relatively modest, but glamour, pastiche, displacement and a thrill of the new were all clear and disturbing base notes. In 2013, I began returning to my case study neighbourhood to see how the vision had unfolded. It was not pretty.
In Salford we have a salutary tale of a city (or a municipal authority) presiding over some of the worst excesses, harms and failures of the UK’s recent regeneration binge. As Conservative and then New Labour governments leveraged big bang and boom-time windfalls into swaggering renaissance projects, high-profile boosterism attempted to re-narrate much of the industrial North of England as dynamic and cosmopolitan. In Salford, Salford Quays became a renowned prestige development housing the five-star Lowry hotel and arts centre, the Imperial War Museum North and the BBC. In nearby inner-city districts such as Ordsall, Pendleton and Irwell Riverside, in part ‘edged out of sight’ of and by this new glamour district, there were also smaller scale, but equally controversial policy brainwaves taking hold such as Housing Market Renewal (HMR) and the New Deal for Communities (NDC), both of which were quietly setting about restructuring neighbourhoods and districts across urban England by the early 2000s. These programmes sought to complement the wider restructuring of Salford (typified by the Quays) from proletarian and industrial to aspirational and dynamic, and reflected city council anxieties about middle class flight from the inner city and declining tax revenues.
In the peripheral district of Irwell Riverside (IR) where I conducted my research, home to around 9000 people living in the shadows of Salford’s ‘successful’ rebranding process, the NDC and HMR programmes combined to create imperatives for a ‘Development Framework’, published in 2004. This document declared that significant demolition and surgery of IR’s public housing stock was necessary, as was the redevelopment of vacant but potentially profitable ‘natural assets‘ such as riverside land. In the words of the local authority: “a comprehensive programme of intervention was required to ensure the area’s renewal”. A building programme of 2500 new dwellings (including 25% ‘affordable’ housing) was proposed, as was the ‘clearance’ of 351 properties considered to be an obstruction this new neighbourhood vision. In 2005, the preferred developers were named and a process of consultation, ‘masterplanning’ and ‘site assembly’ (including compulsory purchasing of homes) began as yet another Salford district went under the knife in the name of urban renewal.
Gentrification, eviction, displacement, and symbolic violence were all in evidence as a devitalised inner-city neighbourhood with a housing tenure mix of 40% council (public) rental, 39% owner occupation and 12% private sector rental spread across streets of classic red-brick Victorian English terraced housing and 20th century ‘Radburn’-style low-rise largely public housing estates was pulled into the gaze of reform and renewal. The stage was set for confrontation, resistance, struggle, victory and defeat as some residents confronted the galling fact that the local council, with NDC, wanted them out. Only it did not happen. Many of those residents are still there; not because they have defeated the forces of gentrification, but because those forces went into abeyance. A neighbourhood restructure was started, but stalled and stopped, resulting in a decimated landscape of semi-eviction and part-transformation.
Figure 1: Aerial picture of IR
The Forgotten Estate
The social and spatial restructuring of IR has turned out to be not only violent in theory but agonising in (non) practice and by 2013 a process which began almost a decade before had already been in limbo for several years. The planned transformation and gentrification of the area had largely still not materialised amid aborted projects, dissolved developer contracts and the fiscal downturn affecting market demand for house building in a ‘low value’ neighbourhood. NDC formally came to an end in 2011 and the gaps in its redevelopment vision were taken up by a ‘legacy’ organisation called the Development Framework Group. Employees of this organisation now contend that mistakes were made when the Development Framework was published such as its ruthless focus on physical transformation at the expense of social considerations. This approach understandably induced feelings of marginalisation and violation as residents were in effect told that they had failed their neighbourhood and to get ready for an explicit programme of eviction and change. As one resident told me recently: “it was as if NDC were saying: lovely river, full of fish and herons, but it’s not for the likes of you” (Roger, resident, 21-60 years old).
By the end of 2013 the situation looked like this. One new-build housing estate had been completed on the leafy site of a former secondary school. This estate contains 202 new build private market properties and 28 ‘affordable’ homes. A four bedroom house in this estate was priced at a minimum of £187,000 in late 2013. The median annual income per person in East Salford, as calculated in 2011, is £11,714 whilst unemployment and educational attainment is significantly worse than regional and national averages. Nonetheless, Salford Council Leader John Merry said of the development: “These proposals will play an important part in the changing face of Salford...I am delighted to see further progress on another project which demonstrates that Salford is going through colossal change for the better"
With this portion of gentrification under way, the next phase was meant to be the demolition and clearing of largely council housing near the riverbank. Indeed, 184 homes across 7 streets (including at least 80 compulsory purchased) were demolished in 2009. However, this demolition site has stood empty ever since awaiting developers to begin construction. The precise destination of evicted residents is unknown, although some of those who could, moved to the new estate. Thirdly, in a council housing estate earmarked from the beginning of the 2004 Framework for large-scale demolition, no demolition has actually taken place despite numerous plans and ‘visions’ presented to tenants since 2004 and even before. Several households have been evicted however, leaving vacant, tinned-up properties throughout the estate which remaining residents, who have taken to calling the area ‘the forgotten estate’, must confront every day. These residents were threatened with eviction, then were told they could remain, and now face an extremely uncertain future with their homes ‘under review’, which means upgrading in the short term but possibly eviction at some later stage. The casual disregard for residents and the limbo they have been forced to endure was summed up by this contributor to the Salford Star website:
You don't even know if you should bother to decorate because our homes are coming down, then they are staying up and then they are coming down again. I just wish they would tell us what is happening.
Unsurprisingly, some residents are now resigned to leaving the estate and some are even supportive of moving in order to attain a decent, secure tenure and living environment. The abandonment and abjection of this estate due to project failures, not to mention ongoing cuts in welfare support as well as the bedroom tax, has been worsened by the closure of local shops, a local community centre and all local pubs. One shop now remains to serve an entire community. The riverside ‘potential’ of IR remains resolutely ‘unfulfilled’ meanwhile local people (never of course part of that ‘potential’) endure a seriously devitalised and uncertain future.
Figure 2: All materials of value removed. A non-demolished house in IR, 2013.
In the case of IR and Salford, it is tempting to emphasise the splintering and divided city aspects of the contrasting fortunes of a souped-up quayside and an abandoned inner city district. But an even more pernicious legacy has unfolded. Yes, the Quays continues to ‘disguise’ and disfigure the symbolic and material realities of much of the city and this continues to attract fierce criticism, but just down the road there is a different kind of wreckage as a devitalised community manages the blowback from a regeneration that never came and a battle that was never fully joined. The community here might yet be further displaced, but for now they are simply placed; placed in the cross hairs and marked ‘TBA’. In the course of the absurd, dark logic of competitive urban regeneration funding, local authorities and their regeneration partners ensnare citizens and their homes in precarious renewal visions. These usually entail some degree of eviction and displacement of populations deemed dispensable to the needs and imaginaries of the neoliberal city. In response, a campaign of resistance is usually waged, some success is perhaps achieved before the wagons of capital roll on, the linearities and dialectics of the neoliberalised city further entrenched.
However, as demonstrated by the contemporary picture in IR, when the policy or political-economic context of this process changes or fails, local resistance and affective entanglements over place, belonging and identity can be ultimately left cruelly exposed by processes of abandonment, as community infrastructures are brutally downgraded without resolution or sense of finality. Battling the slick eviction industry is one thing, but battling a phantom, unpredictable menace bogged down in failure and incompetence offers even greater malevolence for residents fighting to protect their homes, yes, but also to assert and cement their rights and attachments to their community.
The absences wrought by these (temporary) failures of gentrification and displacement in what are now the edgelands of contemporary urban renewal must then be exposed and confronted just as the obvious violences of high-profile evictions are successfully highlighted. Crash or no crash, we are by now inured to the empty clichés and indeed the emptiness of contemporary urban development and, along with freshly mapped geographies of dispersal and exclusion have, in some cities the obvious socio-visual signifiers of harm (pop ups / plazas / quarters et al) to klaxon the mess. In other places, no such mappings or visuals exist; they never came. We knew where we were with urban ‘renewal’ and indeed with abandonment and ghettoisation, but this half-life of neoliberal intervention lacks form, shape and dynamics and thereby challenges the analytical tools offered by critical urban scholarship. Meanwhile of course people stolidly live on, yes free for now from some hellish, renaissance lifestyle assault, but left pondering from where the next incursion on their community will come.
As for Salford, whether we consider the demolition of the city’s landmark blue cranes as a rich industrial heritage is further disappeared, or as the failure to sustain viable public housing and community infrastructures is revealed, the city council’s “casual disregard for the history, personality and culture of its city” is poignantly clear.
This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City
Andrew Wallace is a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln, working on the legacies of New Labour’s urban regeneration programmes and the depoliticising of the city.
 Sassen, S (2013) Expulsions. Boston: Harvard University Press
 Mellor 2002, cited in Christophers, B (2008) The BBC, the creative class, and neoliberal urbanism in the north of England. Environment and Planning A 40: 2313-2329
 See Allen C (2007) Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. London: Routledge and Wallace, A (2010) Remaking Community? Farnham: Ashgate
 Henderson S Bowlby S and Raco M (2007) Refashioning local government and inner city regeneration, the Salford experience. Urban Studies 44: 1441-1463
 Salford City Council (2006) Redevelopment Information Pack. Available at http://www.chalk-ndc.info/documents/redevelopment_pack.pdf
 Bourdieu P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press