Saturday, 13 February 2016

More is less

Photo by Maciek Lulko

More London. Every day there's more London. Not in terms of area - nobody's reclaiming land from the Thames, Zuiderzee-style - but there's more to a city's size than its dimensions.

It's people I'm thinking of. A city is nothing without its people, and so more people means more city - and we all know London's population is growing daily. More London.

But London is also shrinking. Not in physical size, and not in density, but in another way: culturally and civically.

Every time another cultural space gets converted into a block of luxury flats, London gets a little smaller.

There is less physical area in a way: less space that isn't roped off for a select wealthy few. But the range of behaviours and freedoms of expression open to us also shrinks, making London that little bit less interesting, that little bit less ours.

It's ironic then that More London should be the name of the "visionary business development" on the south bank of the Thames, just west of Tower Bridge.

You probably know More London as the site of City Hall, the shiny glass building shaped like a motorbike helmet - or, to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, like a testicle. But there are 13 buildings in total, on 13.5 acres of land.

Why is the name of this "professionally managed, high quality estate" ironic? Because on this site, More very much means less.

Less freedom. Less democracy. Less community.

Exploring how More means less was the purpose of a guerrilla event called Space Probe Alpha that took place at More London on 13 February, without permission.

The brainchild of Bradley Garrett and Anna Minton, Space Probe Alpha was an opportunity to protest the creeping privatisation of public space in London and the UK more broadly. More than 100 people congregated on More London's private property, which runs right up to the banks of the city's greatest asset - the Thames - on land that offers views of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and the City, to hear from speakers such as Mark Thomas and Will Self about how this corporatisation is gradually diminishing the spaces in which public activity is constrained only by the law and allowing companies to impose their own rules.

It's not just antisocial behaviour that's being clamped down on. As I mentioned, More London is the site of City Hall, the seat of London's democracy. And what did members of the London Assembly find when they moved into their shiny new home in 2002? That they weren't allowed to be filmed for interviews outside it, former Deputy Mayor Jenny Jones told those gathered for Space Probe Alpha.

After much complaint, each political party was eventually given a single pass allowing them to be filmed on More London's land one at a time, but all other forms of commercial photography remain banned without prior permission. Skateboarding isn't allowed either, and you won't find many homeless people sheltering from the rain under More London's swooping arches.

As well as being educational, Space Probe Alpha was interventional: those in attendance were encouraged to take photos and sell them to each other for a penny a pop, in deliberate contravention of More London's rules. Throughout the event, More London's security guards watched on, occasionally joined by the odd policeman.

This event was allowed to proceed uninterrupted, but then it featured two peers and one of the UK's finest writers among its roster. Whether it would have been tolerated had such luminaries not been involved is anybody's guess.

What I do know is this: the more these kinds of spaces are allowed to proliferate, the less London belongs to the people who make it a place worth living in.

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