The Dundee effect: a failure of capitalist regeneration

A report shows that the waterfront redevelopment has failed Dundee’s workers. Dundee RIC activist Marty Smith says protestors who warned against a superficial, capital-driven regeneration have been vindicated.

Dundee’s superficial ‘regeneration’ has ultimately failed Working class people across the city of Dundee, a recent report has established.

Tim McKay, interim deputy chairman of the Accounts Commission, who published the report said investment had transformed some areas of the city, particularly the waterfront, but this was in “stark contrast to the inequality and drug-related deaths the city faces”.

The Thick of It-esque ‘inspire people out of poverty’ regeneration project, was centered around the much heralded architecture of Kengo Kuma and a new V&A design museum on the city’s waterfront. The report comes with the news that the V&A’s sister museum in London announced it would be looking to cut 10% of their workforce in the pandemic fallout, and begins to draw a very bleak account of the effort in Scotland’s ‘Yes City’.

The £1 billion transformation of Dundee City Waterfront is a 30 year plan which began back in 2001, and stretches 8km along the river Tay. The vision set out was to “transform the city of Dundee into a world leading waterfront destination for visitors and business through the enhancement of its physical, economic and cultural assets”. In 2009, the core attraction of the project was announced, the V&A Dundee. However, the design centre has already encountered a number of high-profile issues along the way.

In 2014, the company BAM Construction was identified as the preferred bidder to build the museum. This decision overruled objections being raised by union officials and opposition councillors, that the company previously took part in the widespread industry blacklisting of trade unionists. This was followed by the news in 2015 that the costs of the project had begun to spiral out of control, rising from a projected £49 million to a staggering £80 million, £6.5million of which was contributed by the local council itself, leading to widespread criticism of the SNP administration. The final nail in the coffin for many activists with concerns about the project’s main attraction, was the news that V&A Dundee workers could have worse pay and pension terms than the rest of Scotland’s museum staff. This came after it emerged that an arms-length organisation, not the civil service, would be the employers at the design centre.

To give it its official title ‘The V&A Dundee – Museum of Design’, opened its doors to the public in September 2018 and was met by a protest which consisted of a coalition of trade unionists and anti-poverty campaigners, who aimed to highlight the endemic poverty levels the city faced to its visitors. The message on the main banner of the protest read “The V&A and the hospitality sector will not reduce poverty and social exclusion in our city. Only political change and working class unity will”.

Many lambasted the protest and city council leader, Cllr John Alexander, stated he wouldn’t be “lectured to” by the activists who refused to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture had been understood. Protesters were well aware of research conducted by the University of the Basque Country that investigated the so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’: the social and economic fallout of the new Guggenheim museum and gentrification of the surrounding area, in the Basque Country’s largest city in 1997.

Twenty years on from its opening, the research identified that the economic benefits of the regeneration had been highly unstable, rooted in the tourism trade and highly speculative real estate sector boom. The employment patterns created in the redeveloped area were extremely polarised, characterised by a small number of highly paid managerial jobs but ultimately outweighed by exploitative low paid hospitality and service roles.

The reality of exploitation in our own hospitality sector are already present in the areas surrounding the V&A, and can e best represented by the protest mounted in late 2018 against one of the city’s restaurants located adjacent to the project. Members of the union Unite were forced to take their former employer to court following an underhanded dismissal, owing to a lack of sustained business in the redeveloped area. Former employees faced a number of distressing situations throughout the process, one of which saw them repeatedly rebuffed by the city council in their bids to remove the licensing legislation of a phoenix company.

Ultimately a judge determined that there had been a complete failure on the part of the employer to consult staff about possible dismissal and that they had breached a number of specific rights. Despite being issued the maximum compensation available, the workers only received this after a year of jumping through bureaucratic hoops, with all but no support from their local administration leaders.

The extent to which the speculative real estate industry has mounted increased pressure on the city can be measured in figures published by Rightmove in 2018. They show that rental prices in Dundee had risen faster over the past decade than anywhere else in Scotland, increasing by 40% since 2008. The reliance on the private rental sector in Dundee continues to grow, fostering a housing environment which has seen substantial growth in the usage of temporary accommodation since 2003.

The analysis published on the ‘Bilbao Effect’ further identified the rise of inequality and poverty in Bilbao, which should have alerted to the threat of ‘disaster gentrification’ in Dundee. Severe poverty had increased in Bilbao since 2000 by 33 per cent, and households receiving income assistance had increased by 38 per cent in the same time frame. The downtown bias of the regeneration project, with the city centre being upgraded at the expense of the poorest communities exacerbated socio-spatial disparities and was identified as creating a ‘dual city’, with two Bilbaos; the new gentrified downtown and old depressed neighborhoods on the periphery.

The community activists who protested outside the V&A Dundee, argued that some of the city’s poorest communities, like Menzieshill, Fintry and Lochee, would be forgotten once again. These warning fell on deaf ears to all but a few in the council’s chambers. A principled stance was however taken by one of the cities Labour Cllrs, Charlie Malone, who was at the forefront of the Timex dispute in the early 90s, as he refused his invitation to the swanky grand opening by stating that “as a councillor of a ward (Lochee) that suffers from areas of multiple deprivation – where poverty affects one in three children – I cannot indulge. Many of my constituents will never be able to afford to take their families to visit the exhibitions, nor indeed the bus fare”.

The stark reality of these statements rang true to many living outwith the bubble of the gentrification process and was further reinforced just one year after the V&A grand opening, when 13 areas in Dundee, including Lochee, were classed as among the most deprived 20% in Scotland by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.The published report further identified those living in the 13 most deprived areas as being three times more likely to die before reaching their 25th birthday from drug or alcohol misuse, confirming the city as the drug death capital of Europe.

The news that the council leader backs the creation of a ‘Freeport’ as part of the developing waterfront project suggests conditions will remain bleak under the city’s current SNP leadership. Such free trade initiatives have an appalling record of undermining workers’ rights and economic stability.

A genuinely transformative regeneration project for the city would have centred around reinvigorating our deep-water engineering and fabrication industries. Our city is on the doorstep of a North Sea oil sector which is seeing mass decommissioning, with workers crying out for retraining programmes in the renewable sector. The creation of a renewable energy hub encompassing wind, wave and decommissioning duties for not just Scotland but Europe, would generate a substantial number of well paid and stable jobs. Moreover, with the help of the city’s higher education institutions the creation of entry level programmes, with funding, would generate opportunities for Dundonians to learn the kind of skills that would put the city on the map for all the right reasons.

However, it appears the administrations who govern metropolitan Scotland will continue to bury their head in the sand, throwing money at gentrification processes in the desire for a revered architectural landscape aimed at enticing tourists. The news that Glasgow’s East End community Dennistoun, was voted as one of Time Out’s top 10 list of the “coolest neighbourhoods” in the world will only further encourage the champions of this liberal perspective on city development.

Ultimately, this comes at the expense of communities forced into new peripheries, and fails to tackle endemic poverty levels, embraces exploitative employers and unstable employment, wields cuts to drug and alcohol misuse services and ignores the mounting housing crisis. The juxtaposition of the new Social Security Welfare Agency, leasing the building a mere 20 feet away from the V&A Dundee, is the perfect monument to the folly of capitalist regeneration. The lives of working class Dundonians will be shaped by this project for decades to come.

  • This article was first published by Conter.

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