New vision for equality and the real class conflict in urban life

Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, talked about Urban policy at the LSE this week. He spoke about the need for governments to create socially inclusive cities and articulated a vision of the good city. Before we know what city we want, he said, we need to know how we want to live. Urban planning is about building happiness. And it’s all about politics, about choices.

The speech is online here, and it was inspiring stuff.

Peñalosa put equality as the foundation of his urban vision. He explicitly didn’t mean income equality (because “we all agree that the best way to manage most of society’s resources is private property and the market”), but, rather, equal access to the features of cities that enhance the quality of life.

So he spoke against gated communities, private waterfronts, exclusive parks. But the main thrust of his argument was about mobility in cities:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver.”

The transport system we have currently prioritises car drivers – it grants them greater legal rights to public space.

Peñalosa spoke about some ways to reclaim this space, including dedicated bus lanes. In London, it strikes me that although bus lanes represent a small attempt to introduce some equity into the road system, they are still accessible, and usually blocked up, by black cabs. Taxis cost £20 a pop and so are only available to the tiniest heights of the social spectrum, and in any case generally cruise around in the bus lanes completely empty. Ironically, the bus lanes for the people become zil lanes for the rich, presumably because the few people who can afford to take taxis also happen to be the ones writing or buying the law.

Peñalosa insisted that segregated cycle lanes are hugely important. They are not “cute architectural features”, but ought to be be a right. Otherwise, the only people who have a right to safe mobility are car drivers.

A segregated cycle lane “shows that a citizen on the $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $300,000 car.”

Cars were rightly identified for particular opprobrium. Not only do they represent a hugely disproportionate distribution of space and money, they make cities a dangerous place to live.

In 2009, 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died– 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

Around the world there are tens of thousands of children killed by cars every year. Children grow up in cities in terror of being killed.

As Peñalosa put it: “Even in Columbia where we never had wolves, we tell children about wolves, because Western civilisation is still scared of them, because a few children in the Middle Ages were eaten by wolves in Northern Europe. But I can assure you that in any given month in our time there are more children killed by cars than were killed by wolves in the Middle Ages.”

It’s mad that we think it’s normal and natural because it isn’t – it’s the result of choices.

There is no such thing as a natural level of cars in a city, or a requirement for the privileges the law gives to drivers. This all came about through political choices.

Just one local example for me, as described on Freewheeler’s blog:

“Cyclists and pedestrians have to GIVE WAY to motor traffic on Richmond Road and are not even given a zebra crossing or signalled lights, even though cycling and walking flow is high and traffic flow is relatively light. The message, as always, is that those who choose to travel around London in a car are the top priority, and those who cycle or walk are an inferior species, who must at all times defer to the primary transport mode.”

This was a political, not a technical decision.

Peñalosa said that:

“The real class conflict today is not the Marxist class conflict between proletariats and capitalists and all that story, although it was very beautiful, but between car owners and those who do not own cars.”

The space and resources given to the owners of these dangerous machines is fundamentally inequitable, and ruins cities. It’s because of the car that the twentieth century will be remembered as a disastrous one in urban history. But it’s something we can change.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

No sex please, we’re Hackney

Hackney Council’s licensing committee voted this week to approve a new ‘nil’ policy on sex establishments in the borough. Sex shops, strip clubs, and porn cinemas will not be able to open in Hackney if and when the Committee’s decision is endorsed by full council. This fight between a broad coalition of libertarian citizens on one hand, and a nest of clucking moralistic biddies on the other, is instructive, as the former were in the majority even if the latter have won this round.

I’ve never been to a strip club or porn cinema BY THE WAY, and when I went into a sex shop once I went scarlet and wasn’t sure where to look. Such, I suppose, is the residual effect of Catholicism even on the committed apostate. But, as a matter of principle, freedom of choice should always be respected, and it is deeply offensive that the borough authorities should be able to stamp their moral code on the rest of us.

The consultation went massively against the Council’s proposed ban. It was reassuring that most of the responses from members of the public to the council’s consultation were broadly libertarian. Two-thirds of respondents opposed the council’s proposal to ban sex encounter establishments; three-quarters opposed banning sex shops.

Local businesses also opposed the ban. Strip clubs in particular seem to generate a lot of business for other aspects of the evening economy. Bars, kebab shops, cab companies, and the local comedy club all opposed the nil policy.

A lot of residents told the consultation that the establishments are well-run and not a cause of antisocial behaviour or crime. Local Tennants’ Associations wrote that “None of the tenants or residents have complained of the crime of anti-social behaviour from Browns or the White Horse. Off-licences causing more problems”. Pubwatch, an organisation that runs a voluntary accreditation for well-run pubs, noted that the “premises operate in a professional manner.” Even the Vicar at St. Leonard’s Church, Rev. Turp, told the committee that although there are “tensions between local residents and transient commercial users” and crime caused by local bars, the strip clubs happen to be a “big success” when it comes to managing antisocial behaviour, and that “none cause trouble for the police or community disruption.”

This doesn’t surprise me. When For Your Eyes Only was applying for a license on City Road, the police told the licensing committee that in streets where this chain had opened a club, crime and antisocial behaviour actually went down, so effective were its door staff.

30% of the consultation responses were from Gay men, many attempting to save the ‘Expectations’ sex shop as a resource for the gay community. Shops like this may sell rude items, but they are also an important source of condoms and lubricants and other sexual health needs.

So why did the curtain-twitching moralistic tendency win out?

The obvious response is that Hackney traditionally has a respect for democracy roughly equivalent to Cuba, and the Labour Council is all about imposing their own moral code despite people’s actual wishes.

Yes, Hackney Council’s consultations are usually some form of sham. But pandering to moralistic groups is not the preserve of one party or one borough – even the Liberal Democrats have jumped on this bandwagon before.

Lib Dem councillors in Archway fought against a new strip club for example. (I should declare an interest as having drafted the press releases.)

To be fair on them, the councillors involved there are impeccable liberals, and the argument was always couched in the ostensibly liberal terms of local people having a say on what happens in their community. The loophole in Labour’s 2003 licensing act pretty much allowed licensed pubs and bars to transform into strip clubs at will – a loophole that was closed by the Coalition Government last November. There probably are good and bad places for strip clubs, and councillors are there to make that decision for the local community. I guess that’s legitimate local democracy. Although sitting as it does in the middle of an ugly and inhospitable – and largely inaccessible – gyratory, I probably wouldn’t think of the Archway Tavern as an obviously wrong place.

From the Islington Lib Dem press release, you’ll note that the Liberal Democrats were working hand-in-hand with the Fawcett Society and Object, who aren’t interested in finding the right place for different sorts of entertainment. They want it banned outright.

Almost all of those responding to support the council’s proposed policy included the formulation that the “Borough has a duty to tackle gender inequality”, usually citing Harman’s Gender Equality Duty 2007. According to the Committee’s own analysis of the consultation responses: “When looking at the arguments presented in support of the “nil” policy and in opposition to the different types of sex establishments, the ‘exploitation and objectification of women’ was the main reason presented”

The chair of OBJECT (tagline: “Women are not sex objects!”) sent a response, and many followed her template. Including, in a move I find rather disturbing, an apparently official submission from Amnesty International UK.

“Very uncomfortable with the existence of the licensed clubs”, says one supporter of the nil policy, summing up the Object argument in a nutshell.

In this case there was clearly an organised group of Feminists attempting to use the force of law to impose their morals on everyone else.

In one brilliant example from Islington, the licensing committee was considering giving an adult entertainment license for a new strip club at Bar Aquarium in Shoreditch. The committee was bombarded by letters and template emails from outraged women saying how degrading it was to have women stripped and objectified, how it would inevitably lead to rape on Old Street, and so on. The bar, however, was applying to have male go-go dancers. The feminists are fiercely organised, even if they are bad at reading the small print.

So what are the lessons here?

That in this country, even here at the heart of the Metrop, politicians are keen to legislate for morality. In Hackney it’s a problem with Labour, but even Liberal Democrats can jump on that bandwagon to curry favour with vociferous local groups of WI-type ladies, and that’s a difficult beast for a liberal to ride.

These noisy interest groups can represent a form of tyranny. As Lib Dems, we have to recognise that while localism is good, the dangers of autocracy are as relevant at a local level as a national one. Adam Bell has warned that the Tories in Government are in favour of state intervention as long as it’s at the local level – which shouldn’t be surprising, but is something we need to keep an eye on.

But the most heartening lesson is that, at least in Hackney, the vast majority of people just want the Council to mind it’s own damn business.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)