A year or two ago, a friend posted a comment on Facebook that she was going to be interviewed on local radio and did anyone have suggested answers to the question “What would you do if you won the Lottery?”. I replied “I’d buy Park Hill and convert it into social housing”. She chose suggestions a bit more warm and fuzzy, but that is what I would have said, had I been asked.
But no-one would ask me that question because no-one wants to hear that answer. I have already been quite outspoken about Sheffield City Council’s and Urban Splash’s failure to complete the redevelopment of Park Hill, its gentrification and also the inappropriateness of the proposed change of use of part of it to artists’ spaces when there are people sleeping in tents and doorways within its own curtilage. You can read my original post here:
On Saturday 30th September 2017, I attended the opening of an art exhibition in a recently reclaimed car park, overlooked by the Duke Street wing of Park Hill that is earmarked to be converted into artists’ spaces for S1 Artspace.
I spoke at some length with Mark Latham, the Development Manager for Urban Splash, and he was very polite to me, as I was to him, but I tried to press him on certain issues about the development, including the change-of-use of part of the site, the lack of completion of the housing units and the effective social-cleansing caused by the pricing of the new units.
I am sure he has had a lot of stick over the years and is used to it, and he handled me pretty well, but much of what he said amounted to “we don’t have the money”, “ooh yes, neoliberalism is a bad thing” and “ but what can we do?”. It was like punching bag of feathers and, being an admirer of Gandhi (although I am not strictly a pacifist), that is the only punching I approve of these days.
One question Latham didn’t answer was when I asked him will the rest of the dwelling units really be finished by 2022 (the current predicted finish date, confirmed by him). I’m no developer of property but there looks like a lot to be achieved in only another five years.
However, the failure of this redevelopment is written large across the skyline of Sheffield city centre, and this is an example of what Guy Adams referred to as “administrative evil”. Sound excessive, I know, but Adams, and Philip Zimbardo (the designer of the Harvard Prison Experiment) have written and spoken widely about “technical rationalism”, that is, the retreat from ethical decision-making to rule-based abdication of responsibility.
An early version of Guy Adams’ book is available online as a PDF:
The book is here:
Also look up Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment where he found that 37 out of 40 people will continue to follow instructions, even if they believe it to be causing genuine, physical distress to another person.
There is a lot more to say about this and I will elaborate more on administrative evil in subsequent posts.
I also asked Latham if he had seen the recent documentary “Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle” (2017 Velvet Joy Productions & 215 Productions) but he had not heard of it.
I was at the screening of this film at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield on 25th July 2017 and, although it is not featured in the film, Park Hill got a mention during the Q&A. I did not get the impression that Latham is a dishonest person, and I’m sure he would have acknowledged the documentary if he had heard of it, but I left feeling deeply unsatisfied with his brushing off and his nothing-we-can-do attitude.
I’m afraid it’s not good enough and it’s not true either.
If Urban Splash wanted to do something about the 600-or-so housing units that have been rendered uninhabitable (in order to prevent them being squatted), they could do something. Maybe they could could temporarily convert 20 or 30 of them into basic living units for nothing more than getting those unsightly rough sleepers out of Primark’s doorway, or those pesky people sleeping in tents and spoiling the hipsters’ view from their bijou flats. If they have no money (which I don’t believe), maybe Latham and the other employees of Urban Splash could take a pay cut to fund it? Or maybe they could borrow money? With the Bank of England’s base rate at 0.25%, surely they could get a pretty cheap loan? But maybe their business is not sound enough to be a good risk, remember what happened last time the banks lent money to the sub-prime sector.
Or maybe the City Council could borrow the money, like they did to build a new office block for HSBC.
Last but not least, maybe Urban Splash could sell one of their assets, rather like our local authorities are required to do, in order to fund the completion of the Park Hill redevelopment? Silly me, in a neoliberal world, as Noam Chomsky put it, profit is privatised and risk socialised, so why should a business that bought an asset for a song, subsidise the undeserving poor? It is easy to forget that private businesses get the benefit of socially-funded infrastructure all the time. Healthy, educated workers are the product of the publicly funded National Health Service, and publicly-funded schools and their goods are transported on publicly-funded roads.
However, in Thatcher’s Britain “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Or, these days, it might be more accurate to paraphrase – “there is no such thing as society. There are individual shareholders and vice-chancellors, and there are corporations”.
But what can we do? I have asked myself that question over and over for years and the answer became obvious, eventually – do something. However, this immediately leads to a further question – do what?
My income halved in 2008 but I can still find a few pounds a month to donate to Sheffield’s Cathedral Archer Project, a non-religious charity supporting homeless and vulnerable people. I also volunteer for them, and in the past have volunteered for Sheffield HARC (homeless and rootless at Christmas) and contributed to the Sheffield Homeless Shoebox Appeal.
Maybe Urban Splash could volunteer staff for the Archer Project’s breakfast club, where local businesses help cook and serve food for the clients. Maybe they already have and I have no doubt that the staff of Urban Splash, their executives and their shareholders do lots of good things that I am unaware of. But they have still failed to achieve the really important thing that needs achieving.
Tonight, Friday 13th October 2017, I will be sleeping out in the streets of Sheffield as part a fundraising and awareness-raising event for the Cathedral Archer Project, organised by the Academy of Chief Executives. Maybe the chief executive of Urban Splash will be there. Maybe the chief executive of Sheffield City Council. As Mark Latham can tell them, they probably don’t want to sleep next to me.
But this event is not going to get anyone off the street, is it? Maybe not directly, and neither is the venting of my self-righteous, middle-class spleen, but it is doing something. And if I do a little bit, and another person does a little bit, and lots of other people do a little bit, then it can add up to a lot. But I’m a nobody. I can give a little bit of money and wash up in the Archer Project’s kitchen, but I don’t have enough influence to make a big enough difference, and this is where institutions, corporations and the wealthy need to break out of their apathetic moral torpor, and put their money where the hungry mouths are.
I know it all sounds very melodramatic but I grew up in this area and have been coming to Sheffield my whole life I have never witnessed this widespread homelessness and rough-sleeping in Sheffield until the last few years. Something is very rotten in the state of England and Mark Latham and the other decision makers, executives and shareholders at Urban Splash, along with the councillors and council officers at Sheffield City Council, need to examine their consciences and ask themselves are they one of thirty-seven or one of three?