Gilded palaces

If there are two things I dislike with a moderate but consistent intensity, they are shopping malls and crowds.  So it was against all sorts of better judgement that I visited Westfield Stratford this evening.

As we walked through the thronged corridors of shops clad in gleaming marble, shiny glass and fashionably-distressed copper, my companion observed that the crowds really looked and sounded like East London – loud, ethnically mixed, not particularly well-heeled.

This reminded me of a middle-aged man I watched being interviewed when the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2007.  When the building opened in the 1940s, the interviewee was growing up in South London, and vividly remembered his first visit to the venue: he could not believe that someone like him was not only allowed but encouraged to visit somewhere with this thickness of carpet, this richness of marble, this elegance of balustrade.

In many ways Westfield Stratford, the apotheosis of 21st century consumer capitalism, is the polar opposite of the Royal Festival Hall, with its high-minded aspirations towards \’culture for the masses\’.  But the buildings share something too: like the Festival Hall, Westfield Stratford isn\’t a dumbed-down version of something else.  It doesn\’t fob local people off with cheap finishes and \’value\’ retail outlets, but gives them as good a high-end shopping mall that it would build anywhere else.

There are plenty of criticisms to level at malls – their gaudy promotion of consumerist fantasy, their impact on neighbouring shops, their introverted street systems and privatised public space – and Westfield Stratford will probably be accused of many of these. But it doesn\’t patronise, or pander to presumed poverty of aspiration.  It deserves credit for that.

The illiteracy of uses

Long ago, before Brick Lane became internationally-renowned home of the ironic haircut, I attended a meeting between the Mayor of London and protestors from the Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) pressure group. With the protestors, who were seeking to preserve the former wholesale market on the edge of the City of London, was florid architect Will Alsop.

They had asked Will along, they said, to demonstrate how new commercial development could co-exist with, rather than destroying, the courtyard of 19th and 20th Century buildings, by then enclosing an \’alternative\’ market, selling everything from vintage clothing, to dream-catchers, to decommissioned pub signs. With a straight face, Alsop unfurled his plans. Over the nondescript market buildings towered a monstrous blob on stilts. One of the bien-pensant SMUTters coughed nervously, and explained that this proposal wasn\’t necessarily what they were actually proposing.

Straight face aside, I wondered whether Alsop was making a wry comment about the confusion of buildings and uses in the UK planning system. What the SMUTters wanted to preserve, I sensed, was not so much the decent but nondescript market buildings, but the marginal market uses that they accommodated, a messy bulwark against bland City expansionism.

But our planning system\’s \’use classes\’ are a blunt instrument: retail is retail, and drinking establishments are drinking establishments. Planners cannot discriminate, so protestors are forced to rely on heritage arguments, in order to defend the unique and particular against the homogenous and generic. They make claims for buildings, when what they are actually talking about is character – fleeting, intangible and easly destroyed. Spitalfields Market is now redeveloped (Smithfield is the new front); while many of the market buildings were saved, and a few token market stalls remains, they feel as forlorn and denatured as in a suburban megamall.

Reading this week about the Parisian proposal to designate streets and shops for specific uses (eg, as bookshops, bakeries, butchers or tabacs), I started to wonder we could imitate the initiative. Perhaps individual shop units could be designated for \’slightly funky coffee shop not owned by Seattle-based leviathans\’, \’old-fashioned hardware store where you can buy nails by weight in paper bags\’ or \’butchers with organic meats and straw boaters\’.

This type of positive discrimination is what the great estates can do; it\’s what Howard de Walden have sought to do (with some sucess) in Marylebone High Street. But this power seems unlikely to be granted to town halls even in our brave new world. It may be irreproachably conservative, and trendily localist, but it would be a heretical denial of free market ideology.

There should be a law against us

Today\’s story, of a teenage boy who badly burnt himself in an un-staffed tanning salon, only merited a few lines in most papers, but one comment offered a sharp insight into the state of modern capitalism.

Asked about the unfortunate incident, salon owner Steve James said that he could not afford to have staff on duty all the time if he was to remain competitive. He said: “I’m really disappointed this has happened. We are not operating illegally. If laws were passed to make all salons staffed all the time it would solve the problem.”

It is worth pausing over this statement. Mr James does not seek to defend his business practices on any grounds apart from their legality and the need to remain competitive. Indeed, in calling for legal changes, he implicitly acknowledges that, without tougher regulation, salons like his will operate in an irresponsible manner. In effect, he is saying: “There should be a law against us.”

You could hardly ask for a more damning indictment of contemporary capitalism. In an era of global and local competition, businesses cannot afford to let any moral considerations to dull their competitive edge. Conscientious entrepreneurs are cornered, and end up actively seeking regulation by the state, as their only defence against a relentless descent to the bottom line.

Consumer pressure, on sweated labour for example, can act as a gentle inhibitor of the worst practices, but shareholders will swiftly punish any working practices that raise costs (without a parallel boost to profits). Codes of conduct and self-regulation offer only uneasy stand-offs, which hold for as long as their least scrupulous member.

There is an irony here. After years of rolling back the state, building bonfires of red tape and so forth, businessmen like Steve James see state regulation as the only thing that can rescue them from the callous consequences of relentless competition.

S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G

The capital city of the nation of shopkeepers is getting worried. Is London beginning to face the same pressures that have stripped many other town and city centres of their life?

Over the next few years, central London\’s shops will face a bit of a rocky road, with growing competition from what might be called \’out-of-town-in-town\’ retail malls: at White City to the west, at Stratford to the East and at the expanded Brent Cross/Cricklewood scheme to the north. Combined with congestion charging, and the homogenisation of retail through \’clone town\’ encroachment by large chains, the threat is particularly acute for smaller and independent shops.

Kensington and Chelsea recently established an independent commission to look at the future of retail within the borough and their report (here) makes some interesting proposals: how can you preserve retail diversity, and the character of neighbourhoods that this creates?

Some of the changes they recommend relate to planning policy, and in particular use classes. If your boredom threshold is low, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Land and building uses are categorised by Government, and local authorities uise them to define what activities are allowed on a particular site: retail, offices, housing, industrial uses, etc. \’Retail\’ includes sub-classes for shops, financial and professional services (ie, banks, estate agents and bookies), restaurants and cafes, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. In general, changes within a particular use class are permitted, but changes between use classes require planning permission.

The K&C Commission suggested putting small shops into a new category, and making mergers of smaller units a matter for planning consideration. They also proposed creating a new class for coffee shops, to prevent local retail being \’Starbucked\’. The report also suggests letting councils take over large shops\’ car parks, to remove their unfair advantage, and even toys with the idea of creating special \’retail conservation areas\’.

Why is this interesting? Firstly, because retail conservation areas could be seen as the next step in the heritage movement. Since the mid 1960s, we have woken up to the value of the every day buildings that surround us (of which more in another post soon), but have paid little attention to their use. A listed factory building or church can be changed into housing as long as it looks the same. Protecting the use of a building, as well its looks, is a pretty radical move, more reminiscent of the way we approach farmland, than buildings in the centre of a city.

It\’s a pretty conservative move too, though not one that would seem strange in New York or Paris. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea is Conservative, but this feels like a far cry from the laissez-faire world of the market, seeking to protect shops like Rough Trade (a collectivist record shop) from the depradations of capitalism.

Thirdly, like most people, I am deeply hypocritical about shopping. I love smaller shops in theory, but the half-stale produce and limited range soon sends me scuttling to Sainsburys. Perhaps the streets where I live are slightly less replete with specialist sourdough bakeries than the streets of Notting Hill are. Not every small shop is worth saving.

Similarly, when I work in poorer parts of London, they don\’t tend to worry about small retailers. They feel they have too many of them already. They want Starbucks. They want Tescos. They want that holy grail of upwards mobility, Pizza Express. Keeeping good small shops afloat is important, but should we really rely on planning to save us from our own actions?