The power relations in the Spitalfields market regeneration: An assessment through urban regime theory

By Rodrigo Caimanque


Images Source: and, modified by the author


The present essay attempts to address the power relations among different actors involved in the regeneration of the historic Spitalfields market in London, towards an approach which allows to understand how different groups exert power and influences the decision-making process. These relations are analyzed through the lens of urban regime theory (Stone, 1989, 1993) as a conceptual basis for the case. The Spitalfields regeneration and its evolution from the former wholesale market of fruits and vegetables to the current vibrant and attractive place of London provides a context in which power relations change over time due to different scenarios shaped by major economics constraints. These changes gave ground for a complete reinterpretation of the place transformation. More inclusive process of decision-making, triggered by new community movements in the 1990s. However, under the urban regime theory, the idea of stable and long-term arrangements among dominant stakeholders, shows that the economic growth agenda continued being the key driver of the place regeneration.

The structure of the essay is divided on 4 parts, starting with a brief explanation of the urban regimes and its main features. Following that, it will be explain the historical process of the Spitalfields Market regeneration, to continue then with the discussion around power relations in the process of decision-making. Finally, it is drafted general conclusions.

Urban regimes

The complexity of the urban process under the post-fordist structuration involves, among other factors, complex and narrow relations of actors beyond the role of the state and its different levels in decision-making, where the private sector and the civil society become influential stakeholders. To understand the relationships among these actors, urban politics provides relevant approaches by establishing theoretical frameworks to understand how are positioned and what are their role within the structure of power. The United States has been the ground for relevant and rich theories, such as the growth machine (Molotch, 1976) and the urban regime (Stone, 1989), trying to provide more specific approaches of power and decision-making in relation to urban development processes (Harding, 1996).

The growth machine theory refers to the elite’s influence that exerts pressures for growth modifying the land use with the objective to obtain profit (Molotch, 1976, 1993). The mains actors in a growth coalition are primarily the elite society and entrepreneurs, who sets the agenda for urban development in a determinate locality. The urban regime for its part, understand the process decision-making through informal arrangements between public institutions and the private sector interests, working together in a collaborative manner “in order to make and carry out governing decision” (p 6). Although both the growth machine and the urban regimes establish the coalition configuration as the key driver of change, the first rely almost exclusively in terms of economic development while urban regime goes beyond that (Harding, 1994, cited in Van Ostaaijen, 2013), becoming more appropriate especially in the analysis and applications of cases outside the US.

Urban regimes are based on arrangements from different actors with mutual interest which build coalitions and establish a common agenda (Ward, 1997). These actors must be able to provide the necessary resources (monetary investment, skills, information, etc) to pursue the agenda (Stone, 1993, 2005). When Stone (1989) depicts the actors involved to the governing coalition in the public-private frame, the private interest are not exclusively limited to business. Other groups may be organizations, foundations or communitarian leaders, providing a useful approach to understand power relationships among diverse and heterogeneous actors (Lipietz, 2008).

Through the urban regime focus and under specific socioeconomic arenas, public policies are defined by the following factors “(1) the composition of a community’s governing coalition, (2) the nature of the relationships among members of the governing coalition, and (3) the resources that the members bring to the governing coalition” (Stone, 1993, p 2).

Urban regimes, according to Harding (1996) establish links with pluralism, as a position to understand and establish who are the actors involved in the governing process. Although Stone (1993) recognized that both pluralism and urban regime are based on coalition-building, and states the importance of politics, there are several differences that help to shape the purpose and scope of urban regime. While pluralism gives special importance to the electoral process and democratic control through votes, urban regime transcend the barriers of a particular government cycles, being the regime’s stability in larger periods of time a key factor to its success. From pluralism, decision process “takes shape in the same plane” (Stone, 2005, p. 311) in a system that is open and penetrable. Urban regimes recognizes the multiple levels of political decisions and question the idea of penetrability, especially considering the existence of class and its stratifications that triggers social and economic inequalities (Stone, 2005).

There is a permanent debate on the applicability of the theory in the United Kingdom (and Europe in general), with various attempts to adapt it to this context (Mossenberg & Stoke, 2001). There are also approaches which establish that is not possible to use those theories for being too related to the U.S. reality (Wood, 2004), where the local level decision-making has more autonomous features, in contrast with the UK system with a strong concentration of power in the central government (While et al, 2004). However, the recognition of differences should not deny the existence of “signs of convergence between the two countries” (Harding, 1995, p 47). Indeed, empirical research such as Dowding et al. (1999), applied the urban regime theory at London Boroughs level, which helps to support the analysis of the Spitalfields regeneration.

Moreover, considering urban regimes analysis has been a concept intensely discussed by several authors over time, with different approaches and application to understand it (Van Ostaaijen, 2013), it is clear there is more ground towards new interpretations for particular cases. In fact,  Stone (2005) establishes, in a more recent review of urban regime, an approach which seems more flexible in terms of, for instance, how coalitions work. Within a coalition,  there are no fixed actors, who are basically determined according to the agenda that wants to be addressed, in a problem-solving perspective[1]. Therefore, from a still open debate, the aim of this essay is suggest the existence of some of the elements that might establish a regime coalition in the Spitalfields experience rather than set the process as a literal expression of the theory.

The Spitalfields regeneration

The ward of Spitalfields is located in the fringe of the City of London, specifically in the east boundary of the city, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area has been appointed as one of the most deprived and poorest in London (Fainstein, 1994) but also has been the settlement of successive waves of immigrants for over 300 years (Jacobs, 1999). Currently is a zone characterized for the presence of Bengali people, especially located around the area of Brick Lane street. Within the ward is located the Spitalfields market, the former wholesale place of fruits and vegetables of the East London. It was one of the oldest market in the city becoming a key area for redevelopment since 1986, starting a long process which finished on 2002, though with important effects for both the place and the city at present.

The changes in the Spitalfields market have echoes in the radical transformation of the Greater London in the last 40 years, changing from an economy based in industrialization to a new one related to services (Hammet, 2003).  Forman (1989) argues that despite the proximity of Spitalfields with the city centre of London, there had always been a social barrier between these areas which begun to change with the rise of the speculative model of cities’ development, changing Spitalfields from a non desirable to a profitable area from both public and private interest. In this context, the political alternation of power at national level increased the speed of changes under the conservative period in the 1980s, wherein the market role began to influences the policy-making, affecting the planning system as well (Fainstein 2001, Hammet, 2003).

First stage of regeneration: A physical development approach

The market-led decisions of this period and the high demand for services provoked a sharp increase in needs for new office buildings. Considering the relaxation of the regulatory role of planning, adding the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the central government had enough power to set a pro-growth agenda over local government decisions (Forman, 1989). The interest to redevelop the Spitalfields market lay in needs for growth beyond the city ‘business district’ boundaries. Both the pressure of elite groups and the pro-growth context settled the scenario in which The Corporation of the City of London, owner of the land, issued a tender document to redevelop the market in 1987 (Fainstein, 2001, p 141). Finally the proposal of the Spitalfields development Group (SDG), a consortium of developers, was selected.

The proposal consisted in the removal of the market and the building of a large-scale offices and retail complex. However, during the process of planning permission, pressures for conservationist groups (Spitalfields Historic Building Trust), expressed their concern about the project impact, though still expecting the improvement of the area, surrounded by the Georgian architecture heritage, through the relocation of the market (Jacobs, 1999). The Bengali community and Labour politicians strongly opposed to the proposal considering the consequences associated to the impact of the local economy and gentrification caused by the new use of the area (Fainstein, 1994). As a response of those pressures the project was redesigned, basically calming down the middle- and upper-class concerns about the place ‘aesthetics’. The SDG plans began, and in 1991, the market was finally relocated (the economist, 2001).

The regeneration of the Spitalfields market came into a dynamic of negotiations in which the local government finally agreed with the SDG proposal, in a deal where SDG besides paying the removal of the market, they added the transfers of 127 properties within the site to housing associations, besides resources spending from contributions for charity and job training compromises (Fainstein, 1994).

At that moment, the decision-making process was mainly driven by private interests associated on one hand by middle-class and upper-class groups who made the initial pressure for relocate the market and the redesign of the proposal. On the other hand, the property developers and the land owners which aims were basically to take advantage of the city centre growth phenomenon, becoming the Spitalfields Market in an attractive land to these purposes. In addition, the context provided by the state policies, supporting market interest leaving the local authorities with fewer chances to influence, except for the planning permissions, increased the interest on the land. The civil society had been less relevant despite their opposition to the redevelopment, where the outcomes did not vary in a wide sense from the planned, apart from some social benefits negotiated.

Second stage of regeneration: a social approach? the role of community engagement

The economic downturn in the early 1990s froze the attempts to allocate office and retail projects in the old market site, even when the planning permission were approved in 1992 by the borough Council. Under that context, two main situations occurred (Fainstein, 2001): firstly, the SDG attempted to sell part of the land and with lack of success, hence it was the City of London Corporation which obtained the land, involving significant monetary losses for the consortium. Secondly, the SDG decided to develop part of the remained land within the market with new ‘interim uses’. After that, the original development plan was modified, triggering different configurations of power relations among the involves actors.

According to Fainstein (2001) the absent of any major development gave way to new small scale enterprises which together with regeneration initiatives as City Challenge, and its continuation, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) through the program Cityside, start to produce changes in the place, beyond the initial physical approach. This kind of investment, based on the Thatcher’s entrepreneurial model (Shaw et al. 2004) provided flexible funding for specific areas through competition for bids. Those initiatives encouraged negotiations among local government, the private sector and communities in local decision-making, working in physical improvements, diversification and skilled development for labor programmes, fostering small business for local communities and promoting attractive places for visitors.

Once the economy gained momentum again, part of the wholesale market had already changed its use, with the allocations stalls for craftsmanship, sports, and ethnic food, filling the land and consolidating the place as “one of the most thriving indoor spaces in London” (The economist, 2001). With this new scenario, the SDG was forced to rethink its development strategy. Considering the popularity of the new use which provided 1000 local jobs, mainly local residents (Fainstein, 2001), the civil society gains enough power even to reach the courts and provoke in 2000 the SDG decision to withdraw the original planning permission for a renewed submission (The Guardian, 2001a).

Finally, after 14 years the SDG new proposal designed by the architect Norman Foster obtained in 2002 the definitive planning permission (BBC, 2003). However, the outcome was totally different from the original design, and the proposal was related towards more discreet offices, and concerns about public spaces with narrow connections to the current market (The Guardian, 2001b). In the new context with the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which also supported the proposal consistent with its aims to set London in a world context (Evening Standard, 2002), Spitalfields and its relation with Brick Lane were consolidated as one of the most thriving leisure hubs of the city.

This second stage of the power relationships changed to the extent that the civil society organized through local coalitions such as Spitalfields Market Under Threat (The independent, 2002) was able to exert pressure over a process mostly dominated by private interest. It seems clear that the broad economic context and the ‘unexpected’ decisions of the landowner triggered the transformation and consolidation in the use of the market. However the community’s capacity to understand the scenario and take the opportunity to become major players was essential to influence in the decision-making process.


As it was explained the Spitalfields market regeneration lay in two stages, split by the economic downturn. In the early period, the power relations identified between elite groups might be identified as a coalition in terms of its composition and agenda setting, which aims were basically growth development. The actors within the governing coalition brought in the resources needed for the agenda fulfillment. The private sector represented in the SDG provides de investment on the land, whilst the local power was represented by the City of London Corporation as owner of the land and the Tower Hamlets Council which despite its poor influence in the process, contributed with resources associated to planning regulation. Other actor that emerged was indirectly the conservationist groups that exerted pressure for develop the land in a ‘more aesthetic way’ to enjoy its potential profitability.

However, unlike the case of the U.S., the strong influence of the national government which sets the rules for a new market-led scenario, is a key factor in the complexity of the decision-making process in Spitalfields, especially in that period where local governments were ‘by-passed’, in order to deliver fast private-led development in UK. This is an important factor to analyze the case through the lens of urban regime, rather than for instance, the growth machine. The growth machine is strongly linked to elite’s pressures at the local level, meanwhile in the Spitalfields case the central government influence must be included to understand the informal arrangements related to the regeneration of the area. Harding (1996) argues that the urban regime it is more flexible and adaptable than growth machine theory to different cross-national contexts, hence the power relationships of Spitalfields under a regime coalition could be fixed in a more accurate manner.

Stone (1993) defines four typologies of regimes: (1) Maintenance Regimes, (2) Development Regimes. (3), Middle class progressive regimes and (4) Regimes devoted to lower class opportunity expansion. Among them,  it could be argue that ‘Development regimes’ has mayor similarities with the case in the first period. This typology is understood as a voluntary process of coalition-building “concerned primarily with changing land use in order to promote growth or counter decline” (p 19), mainly driven by elites isolated from popular control, fostering the change of social and economic patterns within the place.

The second stage, after the economic downturn included a new influential actor, the civil society who despite being fighting to protect the market place in the entire process, the effective influence started to appear in this period. With the renovated market use, sustained in parallel with processes of regeneration based in both physical and social outcomes through state promoted partnerships (City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget), the area reached unpredicted strength forcing the private interest to consider seriously the communities’ claims. At this stage,  the coalition tended to change its actors configurations, where positions of empowered organized residents and the consolidation of local commercial stalls alongside with the process of ethnic regeneration in Brick Lane provided a new resource for the coalition: the diversity through the local development of the area.

Aligned with, Ward (1997) provides a pertinent analysis of the link between the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and the presence of a regime. It is argued the existence of factors that conform a coalition area framed by institutional selective incentives (resources through competition), encouraging actors to be related among them to engage in the decision-making process. The case of Spitalfields reflects how the coalition established a new and ‘feasible’ agenda, another regime feature, under the rules of the state financing programmes. Thus, it seems that the agenda setting through SRB “is feeding into existing arrangement” (Ward, 1997, p 1503) predetermined by the long-term economic growth focus.

From the typologies of regimes, it seems that the ‘development regime continued at that stage, though might be possible to identify partially some features of a ‘middle class progressive regime’, in terms of major involvement of the community (some groups), and also major level of accountability, adding the development regime “the organizational capacity to inform, mobilize, and involve the citizenry” (Stone, 1993, p 20). Nevertheless, from the case of Spitalfields, remain questions about the degree of effective involvement of communities in the coalition, are they effectively included in the governing coalition? Or rather are temporal actors which emerge to face actions against them, for instance from the risk of displacement?


The power relations around the Spitalfields market regeneration provides proximities with the idea of coalition building of urban regimes, through its public-private formal and informal arrangements for growth. The case of Spitalfields showed that although some relevant changes in the configuration of the coalitions, mainly produced by circumstantial economic constraints, the main agenda remained stable across different alternations of power in the government, both local and national level. However, coalitions are developed essentially at the local level, and once the agenda is defined, are flexible in relation with the interested parts as well as the nature of their relations. Hence it might be possible, despite strong national framework influences as in the case of UK, move towards more democratic and participatory arrangements locally.

Urban regimes comes from the base of political economy (Stone, 2005) and according to Fainstein (2001) regime theory is situated as a synthesis of the structuralist and liberal pluralistic understanding of power. Hence, being recognized the control of capital as the key expression of power, it also recognized “the logic (of capitalism) is itself fabricated through human activity, including resistance by other groups to capitalist aims” (Fainstein, 2001, p16)

Resources are relevant to exert power and to have effective representativeness in the coalition, but also reflects an expression of the inequalities in the society. The second stage of the Spitalfields regeneration showed how the part of the community could obtain tools and gain levels of power throughout the process, being at least from a position of resistance, part of the decision-making. This experience provided some evidence about the relevance of community engagement as a manner to move towards more just developments. However, profound political changes and new institutional arrangements, including those related to planning are still needed for build effectively representative coalitions and democratic spaces of decisions.

[1] Problem-solving does not means that urban regime agendas are focused only in short-terms goals. Stone (2005) clarifies from his book in Atlanta’s regime, that what he calls as selective material incentives in the city redevelopment, responds and depends on long-terms objective and agenda setting.


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Timothy Alsip robs bank for so he can get free health care….

Timothy Alsip robs bank for so he can get free health care…..

Timothy Alsip robs bank for $1 so he can get free health care….

Timothy Alsip

Timothy Alsip

Man robs bank for $1 so he could be arrested and sent to jail for free medical health care.

A homeless Oregon man, Timothy Alsip went on to rob a bank on Friday to the tune of $1. His motive? He didn’t have the necessary funds to tend to medical concerns so he mused if he made it to jail he’d get it there.

Upon walking into a local Bank of America branch in the town of Clackamas, Timothy Alsip, 50 years old presented the following note below to a teller:

“This is a holdup. Give me a dollar.”

From there, Alsip went on to calmly sit in the lobby before going on to be arrested on suspicion of second degree robbery with bail set at a whopping $250 000.

Mark Nikolai, a spokesperson with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office went on to tell KGW that Alsip had been exhibiting strange behavior over the past week (you think?), including flagging down citizens so they would call 911.

Nikolai went on to tell that Alsip even went so far as to call 911 on himself to complain of imaginary problems such as being hit by a car, suffering from dental pain and overdosing on drugs.

Told Nikolai: “His behavior today is consistent with the behavior he has displayed over the last week.”

Timothy Alsip went on to tell cops that he had no permanent address, that he did not have a previous criminal record in Oregon and that he was in dire need of medical attention.

At present it is not understood as a homeless man why Alsip did not qualify for medicaid or the nature of his illness, never mind the nature of society’s illness that citizens are increasingly resorting to incarceration in the hopes of receiving basic amenities that one would consider a basic human right. Then again nothing is really free unless you can afford it, right….?