A Soapbox and lazy thinking about ‘regeneration’

I had the pleasure of saying a few words on Thursday at the opening of Soapbox, Islington Council’s new youth centre on Old Street.

Soapbox is a fantastic new space, enabled by Islington Council’s development of new Council Housing on the nearby Redbrick estate. As well as excellent dance and arts space, it hosts a Virtual Reality (VR) cave, multimedia suites, two recording studios, 3D printing facilities and a radio studio.  All this in an old Council office that used to administer parking.

The website for Soapbox is here: www.soapboxislington.org.uk

The aim of Soapbox isn’t just to provide young people with affordable and cool things to do – important as that is in a borough where child poverty is still among the highest in the country – it’s also to start the process of linking local young people into the opportunities in the tech industry around Old Street.

This is where the challenge to the lazy thinking I believe is at the heart of some so-called regeneration comes in.

In the 1980s an economic theory called ‘trickle down’ became fashionable in some right wing circles.  It said that if you put more money in at the top of an economy, for example through massive tax cuts for the rich, this would trickle down through the economy as better off people took on more staff, paid better wages etc.  The theory was roundly debunked in international development as it became clear that all putting more money in at the top did was make the rich richer and the poor no better off.

However, somehow this theory still seems to hold in some urban ‘regeneration’ in Britain.  There are still people who seem to believe that simply by building new blocks of expensive apartments this somehow regenerates an area and improves the lives of the existing residents.  These promises of ‘regeneration’ get made readily by the development industry without real thought to whether their shiny new building really helps anybody (apart from themselves, obvs…).

But too often ‘regeneration’ either doesn’t touch the lives of existing residents or actually makes them worse.  New housing that isn’t affordable or accessible to existing residents (or even lived in at all) is built by people with no local connections because i’s cheaper for construction company’s to import labour than train local people.  New offices area created that employ no one form the local area.   New shops and restaurants open that aren’t affordable or welcoming to the long standing local population, and don’t employ them either.  Old community institutions like pubs close and are replaced by, say, artisan coffee shops where a cup costs the daily household food budget.

This kind of lazy ‘regeneration’ make already hard lives much harder while delivering next to no benefits at all. London strikes me as a city that is in sever danger of eating itself: it’s housing market is disastrous for many if it’s residents and research by Central London Forward shows an economy that is increasingly specialising in a small number of sectors and so is more fragile.  Post the Brexit referendum our city’s reputation seems increasingly toxic both nationally (London bashing is becoming a national sport) and internationally (which EU tourist or business person wants to come to a place where they don’t feel welcome?).

This isn’t to say new building is bad.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Our city desperately needs new homes. But to usefully contribute to ending our housing crisis, a good sahre of these new homes have to be affordable to more than just a very fortunate few.

And if economic growth is to be sustained it can only be done by being fairly shared.  Put another way, if areas like Old Street are to become genuinely economic power houses, the local population needs to be engaged and employed in them.  Without that sound footing the potential for economic growth is transitory.

Islington, and neighbouring boroughs like Hackney, are alive to this threat. So while we welcome new investment into the borough we are tough in ensuring that there are decent percentages of any new housing is both affordable and allocated to local people; while new work spaces should include a proportion that is affordable to local organisation and start-ups.  For example, we strongly believe that all new affordable housing should deliver as close to 50% genuinely affordable housing, mainly social rented housing, as possible.

We work hard to build links with growing sectors in the economy, like tech, in order to support local residents to get jobs and apprenticeships in them. Schemes like our Creative Apprenticeships aim to allow working class to break into careers that often only go to middle class kids who can do unpaid internships.

We’re trying to work with the construction industry to encourage them to make a much more significant commitment, particularly post Brexit, to training labour instead of importing it ready trained (not that I’m against free movement but we need local jobs too).  This is hard work as the industry hasn’t properly invested in training for years. There are, speaking frankly, superficial commitments to apprenticeships but often these have little actual value. Sorting this out cannot be done by individual boroughs and will take serious and long term commitment by both the Mayor of London (where it does exist) and the Government (where it doesn’t).

So why Soapbox?

Because an area like Old Street is changing so rapidly that there is massive risk the local population is left behind.  Yes Old Street now has more than its fair share of artisan coffee, trendy clubs and massive blocks of expensive flats, but it also is home to a proud Finsbury community that feels increasingly like the area doesn’t belong to them.

Soapbox is way for Finsbury’s (and the rest of Islington’s) young people to get exposure to not just  to mew technology but also to the kind of companies and individuals that are behind it.  Institutions like Soapbox are critical to breaking down the divide that rapid change to an area can create. They can become shared spaces where the different occupants of the area meet and swap ideas. Most important, the can be a launching point for life changing opportunities.

We’re rightly proud that Islington has protecting it’s investment in young people over the last eight difficult years of austerity. Soapbox can show the long-term potential of that investment.

POSTSCRIPT: I know the arguments involved in this are complex and I couldn’t possibly seek to do them, and the economic analysis that sits behind them, justice in a short blog post.  I hope though that that this post gives some sense of Islington’s thinking about economic development.


About Cllr Richard Watts

I am the Leader of Islington Council and the Labour councillor for Tollington ward.
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