Hamlet Without the Prince

Investors, London

Hamlet Without the Prince or Why We Need More Research on How Private Sector Actors See the World.

I recently gave a paper in the Department of Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow on the subject of ‘Seeing Like an Investor’.  The talk was based on a paper that has just been published in European Planning Studies with Nicola Livingstone and Dan Durrant on how and why actors ‘invest’ in London and what they are ‘looking for’ in making such decisions over where to invest their money.  They are particularly attracted to London’s transparent and well-established property markets, along with its ‘polymath’ character – a place in other words that provides for a whole range of needs and is an exciting place to live and work.  Perhaps most surprisingly there was a lot of support for the presence of a strong planning system and a common law legal process that guaranteed returns.  Less regulation would be a problem.

It’s a paper we’ve been wanting to write for some time.  We argue that too often critical accounts of urban politics feel like Hamlet without the Prince – with the private sector characterised (if it is analysed at all) as a unified entity that is out for short-term profiteering at the expense of citizens, communities, and places. Within much urban studies writing little urgency is given to the interrogation of private sector motives, intentions, thoughts, or ways of acting.  It is much easier to focus on public actors and policy ‘strategies’, than to look at institutionalised and embedded forms of action across different sectors. This is a gap that the WHIG project is seeking to fill and it is a line of argument that we have been developed with Tuna Tasan-Kok and Patrick Le Gales.

When writers have taken the trouble to shed light on how private actors act, their work feels so much more powerful and alive.  Our paper draws directly on the inspiring work of Anthropologist Danny Miller and his work on how private actors perform their roles and are more competitive when they have a deep understanding of the markets they are working in. Rachel Weber’s recent writings on Chicago are perhaps the best example of the approach we are seeking to develop, with her detailed empirical work that both describes and explains how actors perform their roles and shape the city.  Or I would recommend a recent book by Robert Caro looking back at his decades-long quest to shed light on ‘city-shapers’. He sets out an agenda for how to use interviews and documentary analysis to weave together the complex threads that shape the implementation of urban projects and programmes.

The Department of Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow has pioneered such work for decades and my thanks to attendees for a stimulating and thorough discussion.  A couple of key reflections to emerge:

First, despite very real differences between the Scottish public sector and the rest of the UK – such as the setting up of the Scottish Land Commission – it was clear that there are some signs of a narrowing.  There is a greater emphasis on trying to accommodate the perceived ‘needs’ of developers and investors and in guaranteeing the economic viability/profitability of projects, although it should also be noted that a stronger public sector still exists, with greater capacities and political support.

And second, a number of insights were made on questions of methodology – how easy is it to speak to private sector actors?  It was noted, perhaps with some surprise, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to interview with public actors, working in highly-pressurised austerity environments.  The days of 2-3 hour meetings with teams of Planners and policy-makers that used to provide the staple source of evidence for Ph.D.s and research projects have long gone.  Private actors, on the other hand, increasingly feel that they are doing something valuable for cities and places.  They are often happy to talk openly and confidently about their activities and what government policies should be focusing on for the common good.  It will be interesting to see if these reflections are widely shared amongst researchers in other places, or are particularly strong in London.

Mike Raco

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