Magazine article The Spectator

Urban Degeneration

Magazine article The Spectator

Urban Degeneration

Article excerpt

Inner-city apartments

IT's summer, and urban England reverberates once more to the traditional sound of baseball bat on polypropylene riot shield. The great inner-city riot is back with a vengeance, rekindling memories of Toxteth, Lord Scarman and a punk-rock group called the Specials who, much to the annoyance of local residents, built their reputation on a pop video depicting a burnt-out Coventry.

Bradford, Oldham and now Burnley: given the copycat nature of riots, those who live in the centres of other industrial cities would do well to pray for rain - the one thing which, once the CS gas canisters and appeals for calm from local churchmen have run their course, tends to send the British rioter running for cover.

But there is one group of people who must be feeling more anxious than any other: the new urban classes who have put their money where Lord Rogers's mouth is and have set up home in revitalised patches of city centres. In the melee that is the property boom of the early 21st century, there is nothing quite as remarkable as the emergence of a market for plush apartments in the rundown centres of Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and several other industrial cities.

Lord Rogers and the authors of the government's White Paper on urban living cannot have wished for their dreams to have been realised quite so rapidly. In the last four years, scores of industrial buildings have been stripped to their bones and rebuilt in the form of little cells of glass and beechwood flooring, of which even the onebedroom model now sells for 120,000. Penthouses carved from t'mills in Manchester sell for upwards of 1 million. Office blocks that even half-a-dozen years ago were pilloried as eyesores have been reborn as trendy places to live - an entry ticket into a lifestyle that revolves around bars, restaurants, clubs and theatres, all within a few yards' walk of your bed.

The swanky inner-city apartment - the word 'flat' is an archaic term in the world of property development - is a thoroughly New Labour phenomenon. It owes little to the past, puts image - in the form of show flats kitted out with clever lighting and designer gear - above substance, and involves men in designer suits making vast amounts of money. And, for all the talk about revitalising communities, there is absolutely nothing in it for the poor.

Though many developments have been partly funded with generous slices of the local regeneration budget, swanky apartments tend to begin at prices of five or six times the average salary - way out of the income bracket of existing local residents. Moreover, developers seem to have a knack of limiting each phase of their developments to fewer than 20 apartments -- the level that would, under planning rules, trigger a requirement to include `affordable housing.

There is nowhere grim enough to escape the boom in inner-city apartments. Around the centre of Birmingham is a ring of canals: horribly oily, reeking of detergent, and rippling with the thump and thud of metal-bashing yards. Yet developers' money has been pouring into one little corner of the canal system, Gas Street basin, as if it were prime greenfield land in Surrey. When Docklands took off in London in the 1980s, views of the Thames were part of the attraction. In Birmingham's quarter-million-pound apartments, the views are dreary beyond belief. One estate agent twitched as I pulled back the blinds from the curtain glass wall to the living-room in a 200,000 apartment to reveal a panoramic view of a large roundabout. …

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