Predicaments: unresolved and overlapping (a response)

This article was published in South Leeds Life in response to Issue 10’s centrefold: Predicaments: unresolved and overlapping by South Leeds based artists Andrew Wilson and Toby Lloyd. The article references a struggle for retaining green space in the face of new housing development in the Garnets, South Leeds.

HOUSING + CRISIS

The housing crisis is everywhere, but the north of England faces a different housing crisis from the south. Here we’re faced with problems of deprivation, territorial stigmatisation, empty homes, low demand, areas of so-called ‘failing housing markets’. This is first and foremost a social housing crisis: a lack of council homes coupled with a lack of investment in aging stock. But regardless of endless press and political point playing on this issue, there is a political inertia, an inherent unwillingness to deal systematically with this crisis.

In Leeds there are over 20,000 households on the social housing waiting list (GMB, 2014) yet nearly 5,000 empty properties (www.emptyhomes.com). Whilst Leeds City Council has plans to build over 1,000 new council homes over the next few years, only 25 houses will be built in the Garnets – a pitiful number when faced with the wider picture.

Here and all over the country housing is being ‘used’ as a tool for persuasion, in the same way that employment is ‘used’. We are consistently told, “This development will bring much needed housing”, in the same way that we are told, “This development will bring much needed jobs”. And lastly, in quieted tones, we are told, “There is no alternative”: development or bust. Ironically the last housing bust, that of the mortgage crisis, was a big factor in the 2008 financial crash and still we affix our eyes on the housing market, obsessively watching the rise and fall of house prices.

GREEN SPACE + VALUE

But what are the costs of development to local communities? What is offset in a neighbourhood when green space is lost? Health, wellbeing, a sense of place, somewhere to meet, walk dogs, a place for the kids to play? But what ‘value’ do these activities have?

Councils often use the concept of ‘highest and best use’ when making decisions on the viability of developments. But what does this mean? How do you ‘value’ use? According to the planning application for the Garnets, just over half of the respondents said that they were disappointed there was no green space provision in the proposals. (Whilst, it must be mentioned, the proposed new houses will each have a private garden.) It was then concluded by the council that it would be difficult to “provide meaningful public amenity space by reducing the scope of the proposed development” (Leeds City Council).

So for councils, especially in a time of squeezed budgets, ‘highest and best use’ and ‘land value’ are viewed predominantly on an economic level, on market value as opposed to social value.

DOG SHIT + PARTICIPATION

So in a time of crippling austerity how can this be challenged? Can the concept of ‘highest and best use’ be countered by the concept of ‘community use’? Can land emerge as a site of conflict, of struggle against the cry of “economic value trumps all”, and through this struggle bring local people together? How can state claims be challenged and alternative claims articulated that are neither ‘public’ nor ‘private’, but something that crosses between these two domains?

Could this illuminate the tokenist tick-box consultation of the council, the rhetoric of ‘community participation’, where participation is merely “a window dressing ritual” (Arnstein, 1969), a going through of the motions, the decisions already made, the deals already done.

So, in a wider sense, how do you create a ‘space’ for a community to flourish? How can a neighbourhood, become an active community? And could this be an exercise in reconfiguring the state-citizen relationship?

If the dog shit in the Garnets really gets people’s backs up, then what can we learn from how people come together over shit?

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