Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Merrion Market Leeds

Last month plans were announced for the transformation of the current Leeds Merrion Market site into a new leisure development to coincide with the completion of the city’s entertainment arena by 2013. A once bustling centre offering independent, low budget shopping, recent years of high rents, competition from high street stores and the site owners’ most likely relatively long-standing ambition to increase profits through a redevelopment overhaul make it one of the latest and saddest gentrification processes in central Leeds.

 With the market’s closure earmarked for the end of this year its future seems confined to the forums of ‘secret places’ websites and online photo galleries, whilst its replacement, a development of a gym, restaurants and bars, alongside the gradual leasing of new space to larger and more profitable companies in the main Merrion Centre suggests the tussle for the contents of the purses of the increased number of visitors who will come in search of sell-out tours in 2013.

I can’t speak for all Leeds residents as to how much, if at all, the market will be missed. Several years of neglect of this part of the building, probably because its cheap and cheerful image is at odds with its owner’s most-likely long standing goal of drastically increasing profits through redevelopment has meant that each trip to the market has seen more and more empty plots and a high turnover of businesses who can’t afford rents alongside a lack of customers due to this attempt to wind it up.

However, the building’s charm came not just from its idiosyncratic and low-budget shops but its architectural significance. Housed inside a Brutalist fa├žade, the quaintness of the hand-painted signs and playfulness of the units’ cheap-and-cheery pre-fab like walls are hard to find in the UK today.

The process of renovation seems to be a similar, if much more gradual and out of sight process as the Corn Exchange, whose new owner Zurich Financial Services in 2008 removed existing shop tenants with the aid of increasingly high rents to make way for a range of upmarket boutiques and gourmet food outlets with a view to profit of the higher rents that their clients would be able to afford.

Even Leeds’ beloved Kirkgate Market has not escaped this drive to maximise profits from already existing local hubs through their regeneration and subsequent gentrification. Leeds City Council have enlisted what traders have branded “white collar consultants” to help plan the future of their market, which has already been threatened with a reduction in size to increase efficiency

The only sort of market which developers and property owners seem keen on developing in Leeds is the Granary Wharf and its visiting pannier market, in an attempt to ‘reinvigorate’ the area through an influx of upwardly mobile clientele, thus encouraging demand to live in one of the waterfront apartments whose future has seemed uncertain since the beginning of the economic recession.

The closure of the Merrion Market this winter will symbolise yet another stage in the gentrification process of city centres as we know them, a process that has found root in other major industrial cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, whose shopping centres and residential quarters have been rebranded in parts to attract an increasingly upwardly mobile clientele. How far this will go and the change it will have on the demographic of people who come to visit Leeds is something that remains uncertain but most likely part of a trend spreading across the nation that will see the less wealthy pushed out to the peripheries.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A long time coming


Nick Clegg’s prediction that if the conservatives got elected it could lead to scenes of rioting on the streets has been one of his most prescient statements so far (unfortunate that he couldn’t however predict his party’s own rapid decline in support following a Conservative coalition). The government, some sections of the media and public have flippantly coined the riots as “severe criminality” fuelled by “feral rats”. But it is hard to believe that there is no smoke without fire. What is it that has led people to riot and why will ignoring the issues in favour of a hardline police response fail to make a positive impact in the long run?

Like the British riots of the 1980s and 2005 Parisian riots, the latest high profile series of multiple city rioting has not come from nowhere. They all emerged amidst times of economic hardship, whether for the country as a whole or in the individual communities where the incidents sparked. High unemployment, poverty disenfranchisement, lack of opportunities and discrimination have peppered analysis of these past events. A similarly strong case can be made as to the reasons behind the current riots in England, which come at a time of economic recession and swingeing cuts, denial of opportunities and a voice with which to be taken seriously which have been simmering uneasily alongside a host of prejudices. 

According to a TUC report Haringey, Lewisham, Hackney, Greenwich and Lambeth, the areas in which the riots originated, all remain in the top ten for highest claimant to available job ratios varying from 1 job per 29 people to 1 for every 19. Although now joined at the top of the board for worst job opportunities by swathes of Scotland, the marked increase in claimants chasing each job has increased notably since 2005 when Newham had the worst employment statistics in the country at a ratio of 15 claimants per available job. This, in addition to the substantially higher unemployment rate in the under 25s which is hovering around 20% could start to give us some idea about why people have become embroiled in riots and why now.  With few job opportunities and the unlivable wages of as little as £2.50 an hour that can be offered by apprenticeships (whose apprentices are known to be dropped after completing their training in order to keep costs down), escalating living costs and housing shortages pressures like these can weigh down hard. The coalition’s cuts, to services such as youth centres, street level support workers which provide distractions, opportunity and guidance, combined with the scrapping of the EMA grant sends the message that government concern for providing the means for bettering the lives of young people is not its priority.

Tensions with police in some areas has been another issue waiting to boil over. Reports from the news websites have stated that of the at least 333 deaths in police custody since 1998 there has not been a single conviction of police officers despite IPCC investigations. Lee Jasper, a British race equality campaigner spoke with scorn on Sky News when he said that “if a police dog dies the police commissioner comes out to announce he’ll launch an investigation to see which officer had the temerity to leave a dog to suffocate but the same is not being done when a black man dies.” He also suggests that police can seem to show contempt in other ways when such tragedies do occur, citing the shooting of Mark Duggan, in which his family did not immediately receive a visit from police to pay their respects. Controversial police stop and searches, which are currently been challenged in court by Ann Roberts as being racially discriminative show a lack of mistrust of authorities.

This issue of mistrust and suspicion can be felt particularly amongst young people in this country.  Demonization of young people by press, politicians and some sections of the public is likely to have increased feelings of alienation and frustration. Looked on with suspicion when in large groups or especially if branded as ‘chavs’ if seen ‘loitering’ or wearing ‘hoods’ and sportswear young people face negativity on a daily basis. Accusations of being idle despite lack of real job opportunities for young people also come thick and fast and do not help with the feeling of dispossession. If people, especially those with authority treat you with incredulity based on incredibly shallow criteria it becomes easier to see why people become alienated.

Consideration of what makes people think it is justified to loot shops should also be taken into account. A society functioning within an economic system which wholeheartedly promotes consumerism and greed (as the relative lack of serious consequences for those in the banking and finance industries who helped bring about the economic crisis at the expense of ordinary people has proven) could have impacted upon some of those who have been involved in the recent lootings.

Whether or not this is picked up by people consciously or subconsciously, people are affected by their surroundings- what they see and hear in their communities- whether that be knowing someone who is or being unemployed themselves, experiencing discrimination, not seeing any real opportunities emerge or feeling that they are not given a real voice to express their dissatisfaction, these things can lead to a sense of frustration, anger and disillusionment that are not always easy at a first look to disseminate.

Derisive comments have appeared on social networking sites accusing those involved in the rioting of not having any reason for becoming involved when asked by the media, blaming it on a lack of morals and want for individual gain. Jasper believes that “nobody burns buildings down for a laugh, they don’t get up one day I know, I think ill burn down Currys. I don’t condone the violence but I’m not stupid. Pressure cooker politics are intensifying in inner city areas. People are in pain over cuts to public services, over the lack of opportunites and when a community sees the death of ambition and hope, its ability to have faith in progressing itself in the future then the politics then the politics of no hope take over, the politics of desperation take over and the politics of cynicism take over. So yes, we condemn the violence that took place yesterday but we condemn the economic violence of this government that has led to huge levels of unemployment in inner city areas and a closure of opportunities in education for young people, a kind of violence that is not recognised. When pockets break out in rage under this pressure that we’re under it is that violence that is picked up on by the media and given priority. We say focus on the cause and not the symptoms. The violence yesterday was the symptom, the cause was the complete alienation of inner city areas that are being left to rot in levels of unemployment that are frankly criminal and somebody should be held to account.”

The feeling that has emerged amongst some parts of the press, the public and especially the government that those involved in the disturbances should simply be brought to justice in order to solve the issue will always fail in the long run as they only address the symptom and not the cause. The overbearing focus on the symptom instead of the cause leads to policing measures that do not deal with the social situations in which these periods of unrest emerge. It also implicitly condones the violence at the hands of the government and business that goes on somewhat unnoticed behind the doors of community services and in the homes of those in communities by way of unemployment and cuts to services and opportunities in the name of ‘saving the economy’.

David Cameron, like the rest of the government and main opposition leaders have condemned the trouble on our streets without any real promise to reassess policies and attitudes that lead to these outbursts of anger. It is up to us to demand change to the social situation that is leaving more and more of us feeling frustrated and dispossessed, to harness this anger in communities and together create a targeted and thus strengthened direction for bettering our social situation and the lives of those in our country. 




Thursday, 4 August 2011