A sporting chance?

This year's 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony will feature the demolition of Glasgow's renowned Red Road flats. The showpiece demolition not only marks the 'changing face' of the city's East End but also the brazen revanchism of the city's regeneration policy.

Kirsteen Paton
8 April 2014

Glasgow's Red Road flats. Tom Manley/Demotix

Glasgow’s renowned Red Road flats will be demolished as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony with Council leader Gordon Matheson pronouncing that: “their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow, not least in terms of our preparations for the Games."


Glasgow's Red Road flats. Tom Manley/Demotix

Glasgow’s renowned Red Road flats will be demolished as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony with Council leader Gordon Matheson pronouncing that: “their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow, not least in terms of our preparations for the Games."

Let us think about the symbolism of that demolition and the message it conveys. 

Let’s begin with the timing and tenor. The demolition of the Red Road flats are the latest in a spate of government public spectacles, showboating punitive might over the most vulnerable sections of society. From the 2012 introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ to Chris Grayling’s recent call to cut the provision of books in prisons. Spectacles such as this compound the neoliberal narrative: it is individuals - not the state - who are responsible for their own lives and life chances. The tenor of the message conveyed by the demolition of the social housing tower blocks is flagrantly clear: ‘poor people’ and ‘poor places’ are the cause of Glasgow’s socio-economic ills. Public and policy discussions of housing estates or schemes and their residents are largely stigmatising. Pernicious in a way that attributes responsibility to people and places rather than economic and political structural factors. Instead poor people and places are symbolically pathologised as economic and cultural lags on ‘progress’, responsible for their own life chances and lack thereof. Is this a scene more fitting of the Hunger Games than the Commonwealth Games? 

This problematisation paves the way for one solution: gentrification, sugar coated as regeneration and delivered via the mega sporting event: the 2014 Commonwealth Games (CWG). This is a convenient if not deliberate misspecification of causality of inequality which justifies the use of neoliberal policy interventions. The Red Road demolition speaks to the broader political landscape rather the physical one in Barmulloch.

But let’s think about that symbolism a little more. 

The Red Road modernist monoliths were part of the large-scale programme of high rise housing development envisaged to improve the lives of residents of inner city slum housing. Opened in 1971, in Barmulloch, North Glasgow, these towers, built in a brutalist modernist style, as part of a comprehensive public sector housing development under the local authority, then Glasgow Corporation, who were the largest public sector landlord in Western Europe. Glasgow Corporation were said to have housing stock greater than that of Eastern European communist countries at that time. These flats offered quality housing with electricity and running water, rudimentary provisions so lacking in Glasgow’s working-class housing stock. The Red Road flats were symbolic in the physical and political landscape; a towering tribute to social welfare, the social contract and post-war optimism. I say this not to romanticise - but to recognise the significance – of the state’s role in the provision of housing as part of the post-war welfare settlement (albeit historically said to be the shakiest pillar). State intervention in housing was crucial: the most vulnerable were not subject to greater disadvantage and inequalities due to the vagaries of the market in the provision of housing.

In 2014 such a vision for housing has all but died – at a time when its resuscitation is vital. Social housing has been slowly but surely eroded. Beginning with Thatcher’s fatal Right to Buy, further advanced by the Housing Stock Transfer out of the control of local authority into semi-private enterprises, and consolidated today by the ‘Bedroom Tax’. The transfer of responsibility for providing housing to homeless people to the private rental sector is further proof of state-scale responsibility shirking and gratuitous profiteering. The rising commodification of housing has seen social housing stocks fall both in value and number: the tenure of last resort in the pursuit of the homeownership dream. 

Just as the construction of the flats conveyed the political message of welfarism and optimism, their erasure reflects the hegemony of homeownership. Today the market mediates housing provisions rather than the state.

From Red Clydeside to the New Black 

While Gordon Matheson celebrates the changing face of Glasgow, much of what he is referring to in this brave new world is in fact old hat. The use of mega sporting events to regenerate is not new. Neither is Glasgow City Council’s penchant for glossy city branding exercises, which have managed to transform the city once famed for ‘Red Clydeside’ to ‘The New Black’ as proclaimed by Glasgow City Marketing Bureau’s campaign. Mega sporting events such as this are heralded as a panacea in urban regeneration terms. The 2014 CWG have been positioned explicitly by Glasgow City Council as a mechanism to improve some of the most deprived areas, namely the East End of the city. The CWG are the most recent in a long chequered history of regeneration initiatives levelled at Glasgow’s East End, which have hitherto ‘failed’. The use of CWG, like its predecessors, epitomizes the dubious trickle-down logic used to justify much regeneration: that economic and social capital will be distilled down to – and amongst – the most deprived residents. In a Pygmalion style process, the ‘poor’ East End finds redemption as the CWG offer both a commercial and civilising salve to Glasgow’s recalcitrant and untameable neighbourhood (see Gray and Mooney, 2011).

Look beyond the fanfaring and you’ll find scant evidence that attests to the lasting benefits or ’legacy’ of mega sporting events. Global research suggests that the gains are short term and uneven, mostly benefiting private capital. Mega sporting events also result in residents’ displacement, directly through the development of facilities which support the event, or latterly as the area transforms in usage and land value and residents find themselves squeezed out (see Paton et al. 2012). From this researched position, the showboating demolition of social housing tower blocks seems all the more symbolic: Glasgow City Council unabashedly razes and displaces that which is a barrier to the state’s brand of market based ‘progress’. It has even greater poignancy if we are to think of who became the residents of the Red Road flats in recent years: refugee and asylum seeker families often displaced from their homes in the Commonwealth and beyond.  

Legacy is an empty slogan

We know there is little chance of lasting meaningful benefits for local residents. We also know that neoliberal policy solutions are based on misspecifications of the source of social and economic problems. From that we can deduce that the regenerative efforts of the CWG are doomed to fail. 

So we are lead to ask what is the message and what is the goal? The CWG not only represents the future or ‘changing face’ of the city, it is the last chance saloon for the East End. Thus when the residents of Glasgow’s most deprived area do not experience improved socio-economic conditions, they bear the blame for this failure personally, having individually failed to act like reasonable and responsible citizens: we gave you social housing, we gave you velodromes, we have tried again and again and you have failed to make responsible decisions. This is a fait accompli. And it carries a clear message and a clear affect.

The CWG bid was won in 2007; thus the political ideology of regeneration initiatives was couched in a different set of political and economic conditions. Since that time we have experienced financial crisis and recession, instatement of the Coalition government and austerity measures, particularly the punitive welfare reforms. These changes not only limit the potential success of economic-led regeneration but result in an acceleration of conditionality which has characterised the Coalition’s approach to welfare. If local residents fail to become more responsible citizens and find their socio-economic situations improved through the various CWG initiatives, they face further pathologisation which serves to justify conditionality by the Coalition government who have made painfully clear that they will not help those who fail to help themselves. 

Rather than what the research suggests – that there are limited regeneration impacts of mega sporting event on local residents lives – there may be additional affects created by these CWGs. This is more than mere symbolism. It reveals a highly punitive form of governance. The affects are material where stigmatizing narratives and structural inequalities coalesce to justify the withdrawal of welfare and support to those most who need it.  

So as the spectacle of the Games dazzles the media we should not lose sight of the everyday experiences of Glasgow’s East Enders but also that of the growing working poor and precariat across the UK. Rather than being dazzled by the circus we should instead scrutinize and challenge a style of governance, which not only fails to prioritise protecting people from the inequities wrought by capitalism but further individualises the source of such problems and capitalises upon it to justify the retraction of welfare. Chance is not very sporting when the game’s already rigged.

For more on the series go to the Cities in Conflict mainpage.

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