In London, cranes can be as significant as what they build – or destroy

The former industrial cranes in Battersea. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

London can easily give the intoxicating impression that its landscape is constantly changing. And there is one material symbol of this change that no one can miss when walking along the Thames: the capital’s infamous construction cranes.

We live in a time when building innovation focuses on showing off how to reach extreme heights and how can some materials be ‘resilient’ to that height: an era in which skyscrapers are mass-produced. The geographer Andrew Harris has coined the term ‘volumetric urbanisms’ to describe how classic urban geography processes, such as urban sprawl, displacement, enclaves, and so on, can correlate with vertical urbanisms.

What can be seen in Greater London is the switch from one type of verticality to another. Vertical mass housing à la Corbusier is neglected and is literally crumbling down; meanwhile, mega ‘regeneration’ housing projects – realising young execs’ dreams of private gyms, concierges and mahogany – are popping up everywhere. This is where the cranes gain a whole new meaning.

Vertical politics and the neoliberal construction site

The thing to remember about cranes is that they do not operate for just any type of infrastructure projects, but for only the ones that could, in any medium-sized city, be qualified as ‘colossal’. The consultancy Deloitte, in its biannual London Crane Survey, records crane locations as a proxy for the city’s economic growth, in several sectors: London’s forest of cranes grows as exponentially as the dividend pay-outs transnational company shareholders accumulate as they dispossess the lower classes of their homes.

In September 2006, a tower crane collapsed in a Battersea housing development site, killing its driver and a passer-by. In the construction sector, this drove debates over the dangerousness of these machines.

But Battersea’s cranes have also attained a symbolic meaning, linked to the start of the Battersea Power Station mega housing project: a 2013 Evening Standard report, for instance, was titled “Power to the people: a last lingering look at Battersea before the cranes move in”. Paradoxically enough, tower cranes that were used in the former power station will be restored and reconstructed as a ‘heritage feature’ when the estate opens

The way cranes are operated in the setting of large urban projects is also embedded in neoliberal logic on the organisational side. Carillion is a UK construction firm specialised in crane-built infrastructure, that over the last few years relied more and more on very large public-private partnerships. While its directors were increasing their bonuses, thousands of jobs were jeopardised, and when the company went into liquidation in January 2017, several projects were temporarily deserted.

The image that most media captured from this bitter event was of the massive Carillion signs being removed from cranes. This made the situation vastly  more dramatic: with this symbol, the whole process of outsourcing was called into question.

How to gaze at cranes

The Colourblock Cranes project. Image: Diamond Geezer/Flickr/creative commons.

There are several ways of looking at the image above. ‘Colourblock Cranes’ was commissioned by the Upper Riverside development project – one of the seven ‘new neighbourhoods’ in the Greenwich area, a former industrial zone.

Morag Myerscough, the artist responsible for Colourblock Cranes, has said of the project:

“When I travel I collect images of temporary scaffold-clad structures, and for many years I have been fascinated by cranes. So to be asked to colour a group of cranes came at the perfect time. Cranes are so skeletal, standing elegantly, moving and sometimes even dancing around in the sky.”

The dance of cranes in the London skyline is almost mystical, hypnotic; it is a pitfall for those who are passionate about cities and progress. Gentrifiers tend to seek moral redemption in their acts: the ruling classes think they are bringing about ‘positive social mixity’ in the places to which they are moving. They are more likely to move to places that have adopted a ‘sustainable’ mode of living (or at least those which are advertised as such), or where ‘creativity’ plays a role: media and arts might seem, prima facie, less ‘violent’ than the financial sector.

My guess is that the latter is the reason why Colourblock Cranes was commissioned in Greenwich; cranes are seen a reassuring entity in that context. They are a flagship feature of “industrial luxury” discourses – I have genuinely seen this expression on an advert for a construction site in North London – and merely set the scene for more fetishisation of working class material.

All in all, this is another, relatively hidden, example of artwashing.

“I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.”

Solange, on her song ‘Cranes in the Sky’

At a time where people are homeless and homes are people-less, Solange provides a convincing vision of the types of effect that cranes can trigger on oppressed communities. Anxiety, dispossession, ostracisation – the neoliberal city makes these emerge out of power structures, objects, and landscapes.

The (un)reachable high-rise. Image: Freaktography/Flickr/creative commons.

Urban explorers (or ‘place hackers’) such as Bradley Garrett play with legal boundaries and crane-like unachieved space because they feel the need to re-appropriate them, or the feeling of height, or the view. (None of these things are free nowadays.) Cranes can indeed be climbed, like universities can be occupied, like strikes can actually work. It is a message of hope: as urban citizens, we should be aware that landscapes should not be considered as static.

Whilst cranes bring apparent motion to the skies over the course of the day, human bodies and spirits add noticeable momentum to the landscape. Entire regeneration projects can effectively be stopped, as it happened a few months ago in the borough of Haringey, where resident associations single-handedly put an end to the privatisation of public housing and services in their neighbourhood. But only if we are involved enough – if community potential is translated into exploration, collaboration, and political effort.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.