Who really owns the city?

The Edinburgh council politics of Disneyfication of the city centre is in front of us. We see it in the never ending festival nightmare that haunts the whole city, and invades the city centre. Some people might even like it, performers take over the city centre, every street and location is filled with comedy, music and art, but often behind a curtain of light entertainment there is a different picture.

Submitted by Rory Reid on December 19, 2016

During the festival many of the performers are not paid, and many of the workers are denied minimum wage, social security and health and safety. Accommodation in the month of August becomes harder to deal with for residents, tourists and performers alike who are made to compete for a room in town. In this context Air BnB, an online platform through which homes can be booked from local hosts, creates a situation where it becomes possible (and more and more common) for those with an extra room to ask for double the normal price making it almost impossible to find a room for rent in August, for less than £500. This other side of the festival really provides a sense of the ways in which exploitation and social cleansing are produced and intensified through such an event. The map of how income is distributed Edinburgh clearly shows how poor households have already been pushed outside the centre and are now under threat of even being squeezed out of the outlying schemes due to the privatisation of the housing stock there.

The city council, the Scottish government and local business are all united in celebrating this carnival of opulence. Tourists, businessmen and rich students are the privileged subjects for this theme park that the city of Edinburgh has become. Within this context public property is sold to private interests and poor residents and unwanted populations are displaced from the centre and ultimately from the city.

How have we got here? Didn`t the city belong to its citizens who inhabit its streets, workplaces and homes every day for the whole year, not just for a few days, weeks or months?
Edinburgh exemplifies how cities have become the space in which the politics of austerity and debt are played out. Public assets are sold for insensitive, speculative projects, and a good example of this situation is the recent approval of the construction of a new hotel in the Cowgate.

This will have a massively detrimental impact on the Central Library and the local area.The original intention for this piece of land was to be used for an extension of the Central Library in a way that would firstly respect the architecture of this building, and secondly re-visit its importance as a vital 21st-century cultural hub – a space open to everyone, free of charge and a shelter for those that have nowhere else to go, study, read, and find some peace. Libraries are under threat everywhere in the UK and also in Scotland, where cuts to services and staff are putting huge limits to the services libraries are meant to support.

Sticking to this example is useful because it is not just the public space of the library that is stolen from the people, the land where the hotel is meant to be built is also going to take over a space currently used for supporting homeless in Edinburgh. In addition to the loss of this land, the developer has secured the sale of other assets including the Cowgatehead Church, a well-used NHS clinic which has provided services to the most needy and vulnerable in the community for many years, this is one of the few spaces where homeless can register within a medical practice and where they can receive medical attention and care. It is now earmarked to become a licensed venue as part of the proposed hotel.
Homelessness is a growing issue.Services and support spaces for people most affected by the economic crisis should not be cut but increased in current times. A group of homeless are currently camping on the site to protest against this development. They need our support and should not be left alone to fight this battle. The struggle of the E15 mothers in London provides a useful example of how the same logic of stigmatisation of homeless and their expulsion from the city is not just a casual event in the political landscape but part of a broader process, gentrification that we need to acknowledge if we want to build effective resistance.

To address the homelessness crisis, there is a desperate need for more genuine social housing for rent. From 58,000 council tenancies in the late 1970’s, there are now less than 20,000 council homes in Edinburgh. The so-called regeneration of areas like Greater Pilton is actually resulting in a massive privatisation of housing stock. The new 21st Century Homes development in Muirhouse/ Pennywell plans for 30 per cent proper Council tenancies, 50 per cent private homes for sale, and 20 per cent “mid-market” rent which is unaffordable for those on benefits or low wages. This plan is rightly being opposed by groups like North Edinburgh Housing Action Group. Other campaign groups all over Scotland and the UK are also involved in such struggles.

Similarly, in the north-east London borough of Haringey, local residents and activists have formed a group called the St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART), determined to beat the developers at their own game. In order to protect St Ann’s large green spaces as resources that belong to the whole of the local community, they are planning to build 500 genuinely affordable homes for local residents. As Dan Hancox notes: “this is more than just a straight fight for a higher proportion of affordable housing – essential as this is. It’s an existential battle for the soul of a crowded city already wracked by inequalities of wealth, health and housing”.

Taking over the city

If cities have become a hub for the concentration of financial capital, capture and depoliticisation of social cooperation, what is to be done? The multiple struggles that intersect in the urban space provide a materialisation of resistance to the attacks of financial capitalism.

the Cowgate development plan and its ultimate consequence of social cleansing requires a shift in our understanding of gentrification and how we can oppose it. On the planning, legal and institutional level, a number of options are available for slowing down, changing and eventually reshaping the project.
There is a need for community run spaces, where self-management and strategies to fight against the economic crisis are not just discussed but put into action. Occupying and fighting for public space can be the beginning for a bigger movement for taking back the city and its economy. Let`s make the Cowgate camp a space for connecting different struggles together and make visible the resistance to neoliberal cuts. The concrete fight against the construction of the hotel might be hard and the chances of success limited, but any changes in the way the city is run and inhabited can be won only if we manage to create solidarity between different grassroots campaigns, groups and human beings.

Last Sunday the Edinburgh Against Gentrification Forum provided a first step in the constitution of an opposition to the expropriation of the city. Residents, activists, workers, researchers and homeless came together to share their experiences and show solidarity to each other. The Cowgate case was used as an opportunity to address wider issues. This was done in the morning with a discussion of plans and spaces of resistance and in the afternoon with a series of talks and debates over what can be done to take back the city, including alternative approaches to current legislation, and reflection on the concept of gentrification and the importance of the presence of social diversity in urban areas. The Cowgate site has been already sold to developers by the Council and due to this irreversible fact, there was an assumption that this site is now a lost battle. However, the extremely rich discussion during this event led to the realisation that there is a lot more that can be done to hinder and possibly cancel the developer’s plans.

More specifically, the Cowgate development plan and its ultimate consequence of social cleansing requires a shift in our understanding of gentrification and how we can oppose it. On the planning, legal and institutional level, a number of options are available for slowing down, changing and eventually reshaping the project. A further reflection on the ways cities are inhabited requires an inversion of the current paradigm with which planning controversies such as this are conceptualised.

As the Marxist geographer Neil Gray puts it:
“With social reproduction becoming at once the site and the content of struggle, ‘take over the city’, suggests a politics that places the direct appropriation of social resources on the immediate horizon without waiting for permission from a state that would dispense this as a ‘right’.”