The privatisation of public spaces

It was NemesisRepublic who pointed me in the direction of a document by Anna Minton – on the privatisation of public space.

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?

8 thoughts on “The privatisation of public spaces

  1. Ground Control (by Anna Minton) is an great book

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ground-Control-Fear-happiness-twenty-first-century/dp/0141033916/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1319329330&sr=8-1

    If public law enforcement isn’t good enough for shopping centres then it isn’t good enough for the highway – both must be treated equally, as must the people using them.

    Privatisation of public spaces must stop and be reversed for many reasons. Not least – I was delivering election leaflets on a ‘private estate’ and a was threatened with removal (I think the treat was bogus, but an still not sure) – if candidates cannot access voters with leaflets though the letterbox then only the current big three (who can afford tv/radio/press ads – and already get massive news coverage!) will be the only parties that ever get candidates elected…

  2. I second that book recommendation. I’d lend it you, but I gave my copy to a Labour Councillor friend of mine.

    This sounds like a process that really should be open data, and integrated into OpenStreetMap — something that would be directly and immediately beneficial to the community at large.

  3. I’d write a lot of things about how limiting access even to places such as shopping areas is definitely not acceptable but Anna Minton has done a much better job. Ground Control should be taught in schools really.

  4. Thanks, its useful to have that kind of perspective on the rationale behind its introduction – but I don’t see anything here to suggest why you should still be in two minds about it? If what we seek is a balance between:

    – Allowing those with an interest in protecting commercial interests to do so by ejecting the unwanted.
    – Allowing those obeying the law to be present and to speak in any public space they choose, and maintaining that space in public ownership.

    then even if the arguments for the first have merit (i.e. that normal law and the police won’t suffice, and that it is ok to pre-judge and ban those who we think may disturb the peace or commit crime, that commerical interests can in circumstances be given priority over free speech in public areas) the task is surely to find a balance, rather than continuing to assume its a straight either-or?

    One solution might be to grant temporary licenses to move on individuals or groups under certain circumstances, which are reveiwed by councillors in partnership with democratic resident groups and removed when the owners are demonstrated to have abused them/been discriminatory/stifled legitimate and reasonable protest etc.
    But never to transfer the actual ownership of the space, and with it the ability to have this discussion at all? In this way, we are not ‘compelling them to allow’ certain types of presence, we are ‘permitting them to remove’ certain other types, guided by principles that real people lay down. The default power of competence should stay firmly on the public’s side.

    As an adendum, the notion that shopping zones should be (rather than just are) spheres in which we encounter no politics – no recognition that what we buy is a political act with consequences for places in which we live and don’t live, and no space for voices other than those with a high-stakes commerical need to persuade you to buy whatever they are selling – makes me very uncomfortable.

    But thanks for the post on what I at least think is an important issue – and for opening with a balanced perspective. And I may read Ground Control.

  5. > “A properly regulated right to protest”

    To me this fails before getting past the fourth word.

    Rights aren’t regulated, but privileges may be. Don’t let people confuse the two – or they will remove all your rights and make them privileges controlled by themselves.

    As far as I can see the people of the UK own all the land of the UK (we are the people who will ultimately be killed protecting it) – the citizens and landowners interests are one and the same. We the people grant some people a privilege of exclusive use – as long as that works in the public interest there are no problems – if it ceases to be in our interest then it needs reviewing. Just the same as ‘intellectual property’ – its all in the gift of the public and has no moral basis, just (potentially) a practical one.

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