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Comment: pre-Coalition localism success must not be killed by government propaganda

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HOK’s Sherin Aminossehe warns that government branding could harm the very success it is championing

Tech city, media city, health city, think of a noun and add ‘city’. It all reminds me of the developments in the glory days of Dubai, when consultant fees were high and nobody really cared that ‘build it and they will come’ was a quote from a Kevin Costner film about a baseball field. It really shouldn’t have been used as a mantra for unplanned development in the United Arab Emirates.

So what is Tech City? Is it the phoenix rising from the ashes of the property bust up in Dubai, a new idea to diversify the economy when the oil finally runs out?

Actually no, it’s much closer to home, located in the not so hot, balmy and sandy environs of Old Street, east London near a fairly undistinguished roundabout. In fact it didn’t even have a name until David Cameron heard of it, then labeled it in true political proprietorial fashion and held it up as an example of best practice in localism.

This may sound glib, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that. In my distant student days, there seemed to be very little going for the area except for the 24 hour bagel bar and the shabby chic of half abandoned buildings that lent itself to end of year architecture projects, when your tutors encouraged you to explore your creative instincts.

However, those initial seeds of attraction were enough to attract those same students and other creatives into the depths of east London, into places like Hoxton and of course, Shoreditch and Old Street and within a few years the place was barely recognisable, through the renovation of old long-forgotten buildings, breathing life and creativity into the area, bringing with them other businesses like restaurants, cafe and niche retailers to support these new entrepreneurs.

Of course this is nothing new; it is the latest manifestion and organic evolutionof a number of similar districts that have sprung up in London over the years.

Liane Hartley, a savvy and articulate lady, who with her business partner Kate Nelson, runs Mend  - a relatively new company which specialises in facilitation between local communities and developers - was the first to tell me about Tech City.

‘Creatives are well known for pioneering new futures for city parts rendered downtrodden, forgotten and redundant by the prevailing market preferences that shifted away from it,’ she said.

‘Their energy, ideas and networks breathe new life into a place, helping to reinvent it, reactivate old strengths and bring much needed injections of people and money.

‘Then a critical mass builds up before it catches the eye of mainstream prevailing market preferences, but not before the place has ascribed itself a new raison d’etre of its own accord.

‘The return of the market brings with it a levelling and sanitising urge, to bring the area back into its fold but the transition can often push out the very people, ideas and energy that brought it back to life. No matter, as the area is self-sustaining again and the pioneers move on.

‘This cycle is already being seen in and around the Silicon Roundabout [Old Street] and poses a challenge for the capacity of the area to provide a fertile incubation ground for micro-start ups.

‘Big corporate brands are already eyeing Shoreditch as an alternative to the media mainstay of Soho and a few are on their way over.

‘The reasons that Shoreditch has become a favoured location for micro creative tech start ups are a lot to do with the relative cheapness of space there and how this has led to an and organic growth of networks and spaces for people to share and cross-fertilise ideas.’

Her words confirm the attraction of the location but what will happen to the area once the government gets its hands on it to forward their localism agenda? Will it become the next Silicon Valley, with beautiful people, with perfect hair and straight white teeth with bulging wallets à la Bill Gates?

‘There is nothing like a government brand being slapped on something that already exists to kill any sex in it. The ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Shoreditch has already been busy bubbling away for a few years only for civil servants to gallantly announce its arrival,’ she said, before going to add that there are also opportunities in terms of linking the Tech City concept with the regeneration that has been spurred by the Olympics in Stratford and creating new jobs in east London.

Trendy, educated, young urbanites, taking an area of the city and transforming it into a vibrant, successful business hub, is enough to bring a gleam into eye of any politician, then bring in a much favoured policy idea that fits perfectly into what’s been done in the area and no wonder they’re salivating over it, but I keep on returning to her warning: ‘We need to ensure that the existing vitality and vibrancy of Shoreditch is enhanced and not compromised by the TechCity initiative –a classic case of if it isn’t broke then don’t fix it.’

So is government policy truly toxic for a place like this? Will it kill any infant Googles or Microsoft, before they’ve had a chance to spread their wings? After all they’ve come this far without any help from the government, so why should they dilute their ideals and take any assistance?

That would be a little extreme, but there are responsibilites connected with being a successful poster child. However, their future shouldn’t be full of trotting out empty soundbites, but one of educating those in power about what they can do to really help. For instance the government could use the money it wants to spend for Big Society propaganda on quietly shoring up on what’s already happening here.

There are a lot of opportunities, such as new business tax credits, different ways of calculating VAT on building renovations, especially those that are more sustainable and enabling the planning system to encourage the growth of the district, rather than spending it on empty rhetoric.

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