Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Real McCoy: Developing Interest in Industrial Innovation

The economic crisis has focussed attention on the distortion nurtured under Mrs Thatcher's Governments of over-reliance on the financial services sector, and the destruction of industry and manufacturing. Blair and Brown continued with the obsession about the City. When he was London Mayor Ken Livingstone accepted and supported its role through his economic, planning and other policies.

In my walks in Nine Elms and Vauxhall I talk about the area's rich industrial and manufacturing history, including links with the creative industries. Most of that past was swept away by the developments of the 1960s and 1970s. The aspirations of Mayor Boris Johnson's Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea Opportunity Area Framework, supported by Lambeth and Wandsworth Councils, and the large scale developments already proposed for Battersea Power Station and the US Embassy will sweep away most of those 'newer' developments. The Strategy, however does not address the needs of the large number of people who live in and around the Area.

LDA Economic Development Strategy

This failure simply continues the Mayoral tradition. When I worked for the British Association of Settlements & Social Action Centres I argued in comments on Mayor Livingstone's draft London Economic Development Strategy that:

it failed to analyse London’s economic system from the bottom up, from neighbourhood level and from the experience of different socially excluded groups.
overarching analysis either at local authority or sub-region level ignores local needs and problems will be ignored, and therefore would not address those problems.

it needed to ask questions like: what are the economic needs of the people of London; how does the current economic system operating in London meet those needs; and what needs does it not meet?

London’s essential public services needed to be adequately staffed, given the cost of housing and travel.

jobs created in regeneration schemes should benefit those people who are unemployed in adjacent neighbourhoods rather than attracting in employees who have to travel long distances from the edges and beyond of London.

London South Central Strategy

Part of the Opportunity Area covers Livingstone's former London South Central Strategy area. This was characterised by:

a lack of imagination as to the kind of jobs that might be encouraged
an acceptance that many of the jobs that might be created would be low paid service jobs
a neglect of the industrial legacy of the area.

The Strategy delivered nothing of any lasting significance. The opportunity of opening up a new way of encouraging creative industries, linking manufacturing and training young people in relevant skills was dismissed when the London Development Agency refused to financially support Lady Margaret Hall Settlement's proposed Artisan School. This had been based on a detailed study of the area and its needs, which I was involved in researching and writing. The Settlement continued to argue the case, and developed its Kennington Quarter strategy for developing the local creative industries, of which the School would be a vital component. This was launched in July 2007 at the Push the Envelope Further event which I was involved in organising for Riverside Community Development Trust, Beaconsfield art gallery and the Settlement. Turning the Artisan School idea into reality was scuppered by Lambeth Council's constant changes of approach to the future of the Beaufoy Institute in which the Settlement hoped to house the School.
The new Opportunity Area strategy also lacks the kind of broader vision that the Settlement was arguing was required. All that will be created is a range of office based employments with large numbers of commuters pouring in, supported by residents of the local estates in low paid manual jobs

Low paid – menial jobs

An important issue in socio-economic regeneration is who is going to do the manual service jobs without which social, leisure, and employment facilities cannot operate. Where will this workforce come from if not from (a) those whom the education system fails, (b) those who are new arrivals into the country, and (c) students, mothers and the elderly wanting part-time jobs. While they may be low skilled and menial there are many people who obtain immense satisfaction from doing such jobs well – like keeping things clean. Such jobs need to be recognised for the important value they provide: in making public and work environments look and feel good, and in safeguarding public health. They should be better paid. The grand strategies do not address the issue of the type of jobs, and what controls should be operated through public funding investment on wages and conditions.

Historic Legacy

The London South Central Strategy's tunnel vision on the creative industries ignored the area's industrial heritage, especially railways, engineering, small scale boat building, potteries and candle making. All these depended on innovation and design. Marc Brunel, Isambard’s father, invented a military boot that would not leak, and which was credited to have been an important contribution to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. The boots were manufactured at Brunel’s factory on the Battersea river front. Doulton’s and more recently Lambeth Tiles demonstrated the link between design and manufacture of desirable consumer products.

The area is still covered by a major railway network, with Waterloo as a major terminus at one end and Clapham Junction further west from the other end. People are fascinated by railways, engineering and industrial design. The Tate Modern building is a symbol of that design, and attracts people partly because of its stunning cavernous space. The arguments about the appropriate regenerative uses of Battersea Power Station hinge around people’s passion for it as a well designed building. Price's Candles started at Vauxhall and went on to to light the world from its Battersea base (see my History & Social Action Publication by Jon Newman Battersea's Global Reach. The Story of Price's Candles. What is significant about Price's is the key role of inventiveness in chemistry and engineering.
This industrial legacy is not celebrated. There is no local museum devoted to it. Yet we know that with imaginative display and interactive exhibits such museums elsewhere fascinate children and young people, and can open up their minds to science, engineering and design.

The Real McCoy

And the epitome of great design is the phrase ‘The Real McCoy’. More than just the name of a range of crisps. McCoy was a black American, who designed lubrication systems that enabled the railway locomotives to be oiled while they were still moving. His methods soon came over to Britain and through British railway building to other parts of the world. What a positive image McCoy projects for black pride and enterprise. How many ‘Real McCoy’ designs by others from around the world have influenced the machines of yesterday and today. How many started off in local industrial premises?

Back in 2003 I drafted the kernel of an idea, The Real McCoy Project, that would explore in its first stages:

the industrial and design heritage of the London South Central area
the development of a ‘museum’ to showcase that history and its relevance to industrial design today
how to foster and support improved design and technology teaching and activity in schools
the contemporary design needs of the railway industry
what could be done to contribute to better design for river transport which would make it more attractive
how to improve the visual design of the main bridges that link London South Central with the north bank of the Thames
showcase exhibitions of industrial design at Tate Modern
the development of an exhibition about McCoy and other inventors, engineers and scientists

Unfortunately it was not possible to work this up for funding support. But I still think there is mileage in the idea. And there must be scope for turning a building within the Opportunity Area into a facility dedicated to the industrial, engineering and creative industries that were in the area, and that show cases the lessons from them for the future.

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