Southbank skaters’ victory shows grassroots culture still worth fighting for

Graffiti artists, making the place their own. Image: David Jones on Flickr, reused under creative commons.

A year-and-a-half after the Southbank Centre published its plans for the redeveloped Festival Wing that would have removed the skaters from their habitual haunt in the building’s undercroft, the plans have been scrapped. A joint statement by the centre and the campaign to save the skaters' undercroft, Long Live South Bank, stated that it would be kept open without charge, seemingly indefinitely.

This is quite a reversal of Southbank’s stance, with the centre’s rhetoric throughout the campaign towards the skating community and LLSB shifting from caring sympathisers, to annoyed landlords with nuisance tenants, to aggressive name-calling. The project’s failure can be pinned to three, related issues.

First, there was the overwhelming groundswell of support for the skaters. The Southbank seemed surprised by this. For decades skaters have been treated as anti-social deviants, yet the community thrives as a form of urban practice and creativity with roots going back decades – and the undercroft was a central part of this scene before the Southbank took off as a go-to area for hoards of tourists and visitors (who like to watch them).

Skateboarders use the city in unexpected and different ways, ways in which planners did not intend, and private landowners often don’t like. But their continued presence in cities all over the world demonstrates its appeal and longevity.

The skateboarding subculture is tied into the subconsciousness of cities. So when a key cultural site is threatened by “big business”, it was hardly surprising to see others standing with them, including London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. The undercroft is not just another skate spot – it had been defended for decades, with skaters facing off efforts to marginalise and criminalise them.

The second problem was the Southbank's decision to include an alternative skate park in their plans, a facility it described as “an area for urban arts”. This was a clear and transparent attempt to commercialise skating from the outset, as well as a rather patronising gesture.

Skate parks have long existed as places where skaters can go to practice, socialise and perform in relative safety and comfort. But as spaces designed for that purpose, they remove the element of creative re-appropriation of the city that is part of the culture. Such parks represent a spoon-fed consumerism that goes against the grain.

The proposed skate park was not only extremely corporate in appearance, but represented a complete whitewashing (literally) of the undercroft’s history, and would undoubtedly have been branded, sponsored, overly-policed and micro-managed. It was seen as a transparent attempt not only to remove skaters from prime real estate, but also to impose greater control over them.

Unoriginal thinking

Third and perhaps more importantly is that of the capitalist logic at work behind the Southbank’s plans. While the Festival Wing plans were heralded as dynamic, creative and visionary, really they only recreated cityscapes that have proliferated across the world. Coffee chains, “boutique” retail stores (usually owned by larger corporations), food markets, pop-up events – these are all indicative of the march toward the privatisation of space. Capitalism has become extremely proficient at creatively adapting its aesthetic appeal, while maintaining the end result of further privatisation of land, centralisation of wealth, and homogenisation of cities.

The skaters recognised this early and were able to expose its inherent contradictions. Why would a “culture for all” not include skaters? If Southbank was really committed to broadening the cultural offerings, surely preserving the undercroft was paramount. It already attracts marginalised young people; it already allows them to form diverse communities around a shared common interest; it already promotes social interaction, healthy living, and cultural engagement. The desire to create more saleable retail space is not reason enough to destroy a community that already matches the aspects the Southbank wished to promote.

In an era when our cities are increasingly corporate, private and elitist, Long Live South Bank’s successful defence of the undercroft proves that democratic, grass-roots community activism still works, and it proves that our cities are still worth fighting for. The Conversation

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.