Don’t turn London into a ghost town
Ahead of the Olympics, killjoy officials are on a mission to purge London of spontaneous street life.
Continuing spiked‘s ‘In defence of the Olympics’ series, Sarah Boyes slams the authorities’ attempts to rid London of its street traders and sandwich board men.
British officials have been ‘cleaning up’ London life in time for the Olympics. In an effort to have the city ‘looking its best’, the aspects of urban life deemed messy or ugly have been banned or swept from view.
Sandwich board men used to be a familiar sight dotted along bustling Oxford Street, advertising the latest deals or giving directions to a tucked-away shop or eatery. Yet as early as 2008, Westminster Council made it illegal for anybody wearing a board to stand on Oxford Street, on pain of a hefty £2,500 fine. Six areas in central London come under the ban. Defending the move, a spokesperson dubbed sandwich boards ‘cheap and ugly’ and declared, ‘This is a world-class city, not a junkyard’.
Not far from Oxford Street, street traders are a well-established part of London’s West End, and fill its corners with stalls selling bags, London-themed t-shirts, cheap postcards, Union flag-themed umbrellas and plastic policemen’s hats.
Yet early in 2009, Westminster Council drew up a new bill designed to give the local authority powers to curb the behaviour of street traders, who it describes in a derisive way as ‘old timers selling bits of nothing’. Among other things, the new bill would allow officials to intervene when stallholders pass pitches down to their children.
The council plans to import officially selected ‘new talent’ into the stalls to remove what it sees as ‘kiss-me-quick tat’. Yet it is precisely this ‘kiss-me-quick tat’ that defines the lively street culture of the West End; if stalls couldn’t float financially they would have gone long ago.
The East London street of Brick Lane is brimming with food stalls, smells of freshly baked bagels and is lined with curry restaurants. Until recently, touts could be heard up and down the street trying to tempt passers-by, offering deals and showing off their menus.
But Brick Lane recently become ‘like a ghost town’ according to one restaurant owner, following a move by Tower Hamlets council to make touting – which London mayor Boris Johnson bizarrely describes as a ‘real nuisance’ – illegal in the run-up to the Olympics. New ‘no touting’ laws mean people who stand outside their restaurants to talk to people face large fines. Touts hover uneasily inside doorways, muttering a few half-hearted remarks. As one restaurant owner laments: ‘Before, it was buzzing till 2am on Friday; now it’s dead at 12.’
The council has strongarmed businesses, he continued, into accepting ‘no touting’ laws, threatening to revoke licenses if they didn’t comply. It is because Brick Lane will be an official Olympic eating venue, with buses coming from the Olympic Village, that the council has begun this official supervision. One restaurant owner has already had his licence suspended for flouting the ban.
At the same time, owners report drinking licences have increased in price by 100 per cent, although actual drinking hours have been reduced, while it now costs £150 to place one A-board sign on the pavement. Some restaurant owners claim the council is ‘jealous’ of the street’s independence, seeing the authority’s behaviour as simply rent-seeking. ‘We can’t stand outside our own door and talk to people’, they say, ‘politicians tout for votes – why can’t we promote our business?’.
Indeed, no touting, like banning sandwich boards in Oxford Street, means the local authority is choosing who is allowed to use public space and laying down the law about how people should engage with one another. The subtle interaction that defines a city’s everyday life is being redefined as a worry and a trouble by officials.
Tower Hamlets council’s move destroys a central part of social life, which people go to Brick Lane to soak up and enjoy, in favour of official ideas about acceptable ‘ambience’. Meanwhile, boards bearing messages, be they prophesying the end of days or advertising the latest offer, are not ‘junk’ but part of the hubbub of city life. This is what a city looks like. In redefining boards as a mess to be cleaned up, officials reveal a perturbing attitude towards the spontaneous interaction that defines somewhere like Oxford Street, seeing it as dirty and untidy and presenting official intervention as ‘clean’.
From this bureaucratic perspective, creating a world-class city means reorganising everything around a predetermined image, rather than allowing residents and their multiple uses of urban space define what the city should look like. Of course, everyone wants London looking nice and for the Olympics to go as smoothly as possible. But this shouldn’t come at the cost of spontaneous street life. City streets are places where people should be able to tout, pitch or discuss as they like. These gatherings are not just ‘mess’ to be swept away.
Given the degree to which these ‘messy’ places are frequented by tourists, it is questionable whether 2012 visitors will appreciate these moves to clean up London. They may well wonder where all the plastic policeman’s hats have gone.
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