With nobody against the BBC’s move to Salford, where it is almost certain to become mediacity:uk’s anchor tenant, there appeared to be little to debate at the Circle Club on Tuesday night. Salford City Council leader John Merry happily explained that the remaining tees to be crossed were relatively minor issues, like quayside mooring rights, and that the final final announcement could be expected within a couple of weeks. So that’s that then.
But no. Late last year the Audit Commission found that the master plan produced for a major regeneration project failed to demonstrate how redevelopment would ‘integrate with the wider area and act as a catalyst for physical change’, implying a missed opportunity… might the same happen with the BBC?
Stephen Kingston, who almost single-handedly writes and publishes the Salford Star, a surprisingly successful freesheet, was here to argue that case. Kingston’s magazine is not only attracting vital advertising revenue but, more importantly to its proprietor, forcing Salford’s establishment to reconsider its relationship to the city’s scally population; bad press in the Star prompted the Lowry to hire out its facilities to a community film festival for next to nowt. And Kingston’s campaign to save Salford Film Festival was a success too. Cool.
With the debate moving onto the more complex social aspects of Salford’s regeneration, at least one panellist fell out of her depth. On hearing that few Salford homes are online, North West Vision’s Lynne McCadden said: ‘But I bet they’re all texting’. Maybe so, but John Merry reckons that just one in five homes have t’internet access. Every child can get online at school, but it’s clear that the web is not part of Salfordians’ everyday lives. The scallies aren’t hooked up to social networking sites and the aspirational few that make it to university, will appear freakish to their new peers who’ve been living an online life from their early teens. The danger is that while the BBC will attract a great many related businesses to Salford, Salfordians will remain disengaged and fail to take advantage of the opportunities on their doorstep.
So Kingston’s Salford Star is all about reclaiming Salford for a population that might otherwise be simply displaced. Consequently, the magazine’s focus is squarely on affordable housing. Salford has a radical policy that says at least twenty per cent of dwellings in new developments should be affordable. But a recent planning meeting observed by Kingston approved 1600 units, none of which fell into the city council’s affordable criteria and in the period September 2006 to March 2007, just two per cent of new units approved for central Salford were classified affordable.
Affordability is always going to be difficult in a city where, just a few years ago, terraced houses sold on the open market for just £5,000. Salford City Council has been demolishing street after street, to make way for a new Salford. It’s not good news for everyone. Forcibly evicted Guy Griffiths was first offered £18,000, later raised to £36,500, plus a £25,000 grant to sell up and make way for new playing fields. That left him £75,000 short of being able to buy a new officially affordable home, built just fifty yards away on old playing fields: ‘the houses weren’t unfit… they’ve used government powers to the benefit of a private company.’
But on the night my sympathies lay, though certainly not uncritically, with John Merry, leader of Salford City Council.
Presenting himself as something of a fish out of water, Stephen Kingston was clearly uncomfortable on stage. There was no shortage of sympathetic questions from the floor – ‘what are you doing to ensure local people get a share of the jobs… what happens to those displaced by regeneration?’ – but he made little effort to engage the audience, suffering perhaps from the ‘them and us’ attitude all agree Salford’s scallies need to shake off. By the end of the night, not one penny found its way into the Salford Star’s charity collection tin.
Maybe that was stage fright. One to one over a pint (I let him buy me a £3.30 shandy, as I was driving) the ex-pat Scouser is as focussed, passionate and articulate as his writing. Able to quote statistics at the drop of a hat, his arguments are impeccably researched and his understanding of the old Salford culture and mindset near perfect: ‘The Star could only work in Salford or Liverpool, not Manchester, maybe Glasgow.’
I wanted to know what an affordable house would look like. Kingston wants us to understand that the average annual wage is just £13,000 with average household income just £19,500. On a three times multiplier, that’s less than £60k I say: ‘That’s right, affordable is less than £60,000.’ Officially affordable houses on the estate Guy Griffiths looked at ranged from £115,000 to £138,000. Oh dear.
The circle to be squared is that old Salford was simply not desirable. The population was in freefall (a phenomenon only reversed in the last year) and anti-social behaviour both chronic and acute. That’s why a decent terraced house could sell for a highly affordable £5k. And why nobody would invest in such a property, except, says Kingston, private landlords who moved in ASBO families (probably the only tenants a landlord who won’t spend money can find) and waited for the council to buy at inflated compulsory purchase rates.
Just as there is a consensus that relocating the BBC is a good thing, so is there a consensus that something radical had to be done to renew Salford. Yet if people want to live somewhere, they will inevitably bid up the price of housing. Those private property developers may greedily fight for every penny of profit, but they have added value to Salford by making it somewhere people actually want to live.
On a wind-up I suggest Kingston has fallen for the Thatcherite lie that home ownership is for everyone and that he should not be campaigning for massive compensation packages. Giving money to today’s homeowners or forcing developers to sell units off cheap, will not benefit their children – today’s teenagers and younger – who will have to pay the full market price tomorrow. Instead he should fight for significant quantities of new build social housing: ‘Social landlords are shit.’ Do they have to be?
I’m reminded of Ken Dobson now, rather bizarrely, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Manchester city centre. As an east Manchester councillor he opposed the Commonwealth Games (he still lives just a couple of streets down from the stadium) because it only created jobs for ‘outsiders’. It’s a view Kingston shares: the legacy wasn’t for the people like Ken. Somehow the jobs of the old Salford – or east Manchester – are romanticised, as if working long hours for low pay in heavy industry was great fun.
The old jobs aren’t coming back and the challenge is to enable and convince each Salford scally that they can acquire the skills and talent to secure one of the 15,000 jobs the BBC’s investment is expected to create at mediacity:uk and beyond.
Transition is painful and victims like Guy Griffiths require and deserve the support of the wider community. The Lowry should not have required bullying before it put on a community film festival that offered its participants a chance to acquire precisely the skills the BBC will be looking for.
While I lean towards cock-up theory, Kingston is a frequent conspiracist who is too often confrontational in a way that leads the establishment to close ranks, batten down the hatches and write him off as a lone nutter (‘That’s just your view, Stephen,’ was a frequent retort during this debate). As John Merry left I shook his hand and told him he’d acquitted himself well but needed to pay more attention to Kingston. He clearly took me for a wind-up merchant. Lynne McCadden, who appears so out of touch with the Salford redevelopment threatens to displace, and yet is tasked with administering a huge training budget, is hardly likely to invite Kingston in for a chat.
Imagine a Salford where instead of harking back to the days when their kids would grow up to work in a hateful factory, parents assume they’ll work for the BBC. A politically savvy Salford Star could be more than the City Council and the Quangos’ conscience, it could help them engage with the community and make that happen. Or it may simply be bulldozed out of the way, along with the rest of old Salford.