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Trouble at the Mills

A failed campaign to save Solent Flour Mills, a monumental building in the port of Southampton, raises questions about how councils and campaigners can fight multinational capitalism in local spaces.

The Solent Flour Mills is – was – a monumental industrial complex on the river Test in the centre of Southampton, built on reclaimed land as part of the expansion of the city’s docks in the interwar years. Demolition began in August after a local campaign to save the building was roundly ignored by the building’s current owners, Associated British Ports, who intend to replace it with an empty space to stack shipping containers in. The saga over the building can tell us a great deal about the lack of connection in Britain between ‘the economy’ and the places and buildings that are really valued locally.

Southampton has typically been a town or city that most people know only from passing through it. As a result of this, it has been governed largely in the interests of these visitors, and in the hope of attracting more of them. The people who actually live here—and the areas in which they live—have been neglected and have fallen into disrepair. Even the air quality is among the worst in the UK as a result of port traffic. The city’s skewed economic structure is justified on the basis that investments in and for the sake of transient commerce will create and sustain jobs. Retail is the main industry of the city centre. One explanation for the campaign to save the Mills is that it seems like a monument to a past in which, to paraphrase fictional dockers leader Frank Sobotka, ‘we used to make shit’, when organised labour was able to extract concessions from capital. Now, to invert a saying popular on the socialist left, almost everything is too good for the working class.

It’s perhaps wise not to romanticise the building overmuch – this was a factory, built as part of a giant construction project during the British Empire, as part of the commercial transformation of the city. The Hovis building was paid for by Joseph Rank, father of J. Arthur Rank, one of the owner-operators of Pinewood Film Studios, well known as the home of the James Bond and Carry On film franchises (two peculiarly British and toxic contributions to culture). The architect was Alfred Gelder, who was also a Liberal politician. The Solent Flour Mills was not a monument to some golden age.  That the building has attained cult status among residents is partly due to the paucity of interesting or even good architecture in the city centre, a result both of the carpet-bombing it received in 1940 and decades of indifferent planning.  But the building is nice. It’s got big windows that gleam pleasingly in the autumn sun, and a clock that has never had any hands, for as long as I can remember. It was well-liked in the city, and a petition to save it received widespread support.

Solent Flour Mills itself is often erroneously referred to as ‘Art Deco’; as the writer and broadcaster Gillian Darley points out, it is ‘a fairly standard early 20th century industrial building’. It is very similar to the same architects’ Baltic Flour Mills on the Tyne in Gateshead, which was converted into the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in the New Labour years. It is solid, and highly viable for conversion into much needed extra housing for a city with a steadily worsening homelessness problem. That this was ruled out completely by Associated British Ports takes some explaining. Darley suggests that the demolition itself – as well as what she considers to be the misuse of the site – is down to ‘a vested or conflicted interest’. Investigating this makes it seem highly likely that she is correct, but there is little to suggest that any of this could be deemed illegal or even improper. Here, it’s worth looking at who Associated British Ports are, and how they found themselves in ownership of the building.

The privatisation by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the British Transport Docks Board in 1982 led to the creation of Associated British Ports, which led, in turn, to the ports being owned by various organisations and institutions, some of them almost comically evil. None of them give a single fuck about the people of Southampton, or indeed of Immingham or Port Talbot. At last count, a Canadian pension fund, the Kuwaiti government and Hermes investment managers all had their wizened fingers in this particular pie. It’s hard to imagine the CEOs of any of these celebrating a Danny Ings goal or complaining about Southampton’s preponderance of traffic lights, let alone fretting about rough sleepers in the city centre. Realistically, none of them have any interest in the city of Southampton beyond its obvious utility as a deep water port.

This utility is of course tied in with the city’s status as a commercial gateway. This is a long-standing state of affairs. Southampton was referred to as ‘the gateway to Empire’ between the First World War and decolonisation, and this globalised and transient economy still dominates any merely local interest. The city’s Labour council at one point spoke of introducing a ‘Southampton pound’ — in other words the sort of localised economic protectionism now synonymous with ‘the Preston model’ — but this has been quietly shelved in the wake of the left losing control of the Labour Party. The leader of the council is a restaurateur whose pizza parlour offers delivery via the infamously exploitative platform Deliveroo. This should indicate the council’s direction of travel and the interests it typically prioritises.

It would be unfair to blame the council entirely. Tom Venables—a proud Sotonian and now vice chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute—tells me ‘planning has become largely reactive to the overwhelming power of the development industry, now in almost complete command of the built environment. Southampton is no different.’ For example, ‘Southampton lost out on a game changing public transit system after serial filibusterer and ex Southampton [Itchen] MP Christopher Chope talked it out of parliament. Since then, the city centre has continued to be blighted by congestion and the dominance of the car. Ikea and the West Quay retail park (are) the main legacy of this era—while other compact European cities were investing in human scale transit and urban renewal, Southampton was building American style edge of town shopping parks in its city centre. These are now likely to be victim to the twin threats of internet shopping and COVID-19 and should provide a big opportunity for the future—if the city stops its prioritisation of the car.’

‘But,’ he adds “’Southampton City Council could be making much more of the assets they have and be stronger with the tools they’ve got’. One of the tools that might have saved the Mills is the listing process, but the building was only locally listed, not nationally listed by Historic England, meaning it could be knocked down. As Catherine Croft of the C20 Society tells me, ‘local listing is just something done by the local authority. It’s the next tier down after grade II. And whether it has any effect depends entirely on whether the local authority has policies in its development plan that say that they’re not going to let people knock down buildings on their own list. There’s no point in having a local list unless you follow it through with some level of protection. They certainly could have used their planning powers to influence the outcome, I would think.’

Part of what made the Mills so conspicuous is the poor quality of so much recent building nearby—the malls and retail parks in the centre, and even recent schools, medical facilities and cultural buildings, seem to be made of little more than metal and plywood. An academic at Portsmouth University, tells me that ‘in terms of quality, it’s a case of budgetary pressures resulting in clients making compromises in quality. The reason old buildings look nice is that they’re made of higher quality materials which are no longer as economical. If the council are adamant that they want high quality traditional brickwork, then they can have it—at a cost meaning savings will have to be made elsewhere. It’s also the logistics of the building process —traditional techniques take longer. And it’s not just the commercial pressures on the contractor that’s building it (because they want to make a profit) it’s also that the client hasn’t got the money or in some cases the will to pay for quality architecture’. This seriously curbs the power of councils; ‘because of the cyclical nature of local authority control, and changes at the level of national government…things don’t get followed through to completion and the money that’s already been spent goes in the bin.

There were plans to develop the Royal Pier (a grand, domed Georgian building close to the site of the Mills), but due to the recession and austerity, the appetite for it gradually dwindled and now they’re reliant on third party investment’; the fact is ‘there’s simply not enough money for councils to do what they want to do.’ This extends far beyond the port. ‘This is why housing suffers. At the moment, we don’t build council housing. It’s either done through housing associations—and on a prime site like that, they’re not going to get a look-in—or it’s through a commercial developer who’s obviously only interested in the bottom line and any social housing is going to be the ugly boil on the arse of the development…’ We share a hollow laugh at Southampton’s bid to be European City of Culture in 2025. ‘Look at Glasgow,’ he tells me. ‘Look at Bilbao. If you want to build something of real architectural merit, you’re not going to do it without big pots of government money.’

The City Council has officially opposed the demolition, but has made no effort to confront Associated British Ports on the issue. When I raised this with Barrie Margetts—a reliably socialist Labour councillor but not, unsurprisingly, a cabinet member, he suggested to his peers that direct action should be organised to protest and to try and save the building. This idea wasn’t deemed worthy of a response. Instead, two councillors visited the site and had themselves photographed looking sad outside. The council seem to believe that only commerce and the development of private property can improve the city, irrespective of the fact that the city has been governed for many years by the party of organised labour. It is also typical of the relinquishing of democratic oversight that councils have colluded in over the last four decades. The people of Southampton have almost no control over how their money is spent, what their city looks like or who it is for; even tourists are offered little but a series of cavernous shopping centres and a gigantic branch of IKEA. You can imagine how much of the profits from these businesses make their way into the local economy, especially given the legitimised flogging of value from labour by companies like Asda, a branch of which is within walking distance of the Mills.

I visited the building itself in the hope of taking some photographs before it vanished for good, but was told in extremely officious terms to piss off. It was a scene reminiscent of one in Mike Leigh’s Naked, in which a security guard named Brian tells the film’s antihero — with some reverence — that he is ‘guarding space’. I was eventually told that I could take photos from the other side of an imaginary line. When I wrote to Associated British Ports to request permission to enter the site to get a sense of what its interior looks like, they told me to piss off, too. The end of the world is indeed nigh, Bri.

The Solent Flour Mills building survived the Blitz, but, like many buildings built by modernists, it won’t survive the modernisers. The left is often scolded for using the term ‘neoliberalism’ to describe anything we don’t like. But two fairly clear tenets of neoliberalism really are at play in all this; privatisation of public utilities, and the insulation of economic decision-making from democratic oversight. The institutional dysfunction of Southampton City Council is fairly obvious, but they can’t be blamed for the port having been privatised and the dockers unions annihilated, nor for the decisions made above their heads by the council’s executive management team (which is not elected, but appointed). They can’t be blamed for the unfettered movement of capital. But with almost no sense of civic pride to unite the community — and without a Labour Party prepared to act as a countervailing force, what good are petitions and glum-faced photo ops?