The first time I stumbled across this as a concept was during my Brighton days when anti-capitalist types in the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre (where I was a volunteer in the information resource centre during its Gardner Street days) told me that people could not protest inside the Churchill Square Shopping Centre because it was legally private property.
Years later, when the soulless Cambridge Leisure Park was constructed, I stumbled across the technicalities behind what this concept was all about. Essentially it seemed to be about anti-social behaviour – and having the right to get rid of those who were being anti-social. Back in the mid/late-1990s I was a regular at a number of club nights at The Junction. During those days part of the land was derelict – it was an old cattle market. I still call it by that today because when I was at primary school, livestock was still being traded from that site. There were also a number of roads where people had highway rights.
During my Cambridge civil service days – in the months before my transfer to London, I spend some time working on planning casework. This was run-of-the-mill processing work but gave me a number of interesting insights into tree preservation orders (and their appeals which I dealt with) and “stopping up orders”.
Most people don’t know what stopping up orders are. I didn’t until I started work in this area. These can often be found both in the London Gazette and in local press. My then line manager had to sign off a number of these orders that I had drafted – which had to be written in civil-service-speak (but in a form that even some civil servants didn’t understand). These orders are normally associated with redevelopment projects that amend the road layout of places to stop people having highway rights that would otherwise say give the general public the right to walk through someone’s front room. It is here that the public are invited to respond to the requests for stopping up orders. But if no one opposes, they go through.
Cambridge Leisure Park is legally private property. There is a notice on the building by the bus stop on Cherry Hinton Road that says the public have been granted a license to enjoy the facilities on the park but that rogues, ruffians and rapscallions can be kicked out and banned from the park. I can see how this set of circumstances arose here locally. In the mid 1990s after some of my mates got set upon outside The Junction on one club night, we all complained (which in part led to CCTV being installed soon after). Having these rules in place – i.e. designating the entire site as “private property” allowed them to deal with trouble-makers more robustly.
In terms of people going about their daily business, I think it is completely understandable for those running shopping centres or leisure facilities – as well as those using them to feel the way that they do and to be in favour of such measures. The problems arise regarding the unforeseen consequences regarding protests.
At Paternoster Square where the London Stock Exchange is, I spotted a sign (shown here) that stated the licence that had previously been granted to the public had been revoked. The thing is, the archway in front of the square has a nice description of its history – as well as some old engravings and photographs that seem to indicate that the archway and the road through it was once one that the public had highway rights in. No longer. As St Paul’s Cathedral is next to that arch, protestors by the looks of things camped out in the nearest place that was there – the grounds around the Cathedral that I visited today. (Even dragon fairies were locked out).
In the grand scheme of things, the privatisation of public space has also meant the depoliticisation of public space. Protestors are regularly ejected from (or automatically refrain from) protesting in places where people are likely to be. For some people this may be a good thing – especially if you do not want to be pestered by demonstrators when doing your weekend shop. On the other hand, it’s another barrier to trying to re-engage the general population back into politics at a time when we are facing one of the biggest economic crises of many generations.
What I’m trying to say is that a solution that is trying to deal with a ‘law and order’ issue is one that has had unforeseen impacts on issues that go far beyond that – i.e. legal and peaceful protest and campaigning. The ‘solution’ mentioned above isn’t really a solution – it simply moves on the problem to somewhere else – the police still have to deal with it.
What is the solution? Should the owners of public spaces be compelled to allow peaceful demonstrations and/or stalls/tables from protesting/campaigning organisations? Or should shopping centres be politics-free zones? Is the privatisation of public spaces even an issue that people should be worried about?
I’m in two minds about this. Nominally it gets rid of the immediate problem of anti-social behaviour in places where the general public congregate, but at the same time I’m concerned that these also become places where political issues cannot be raised. And if they cannot be raised in places where lots of people are, does this mean we’re exacerbating the problem of political apathy?