Monday
Jul242017

Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London

Our public spaces are increasingly privately-owned and policed by corporations - part of a crisis of democratic accountability in the city

-A series of investigative stories, published in the Guardian
-London, July 2017

An exclusive set of stories uncovering the growing phenomenon of public spaces falling under private control – and the secret restrictions imposed by corporations on citizens that walk into them.

A Guardian Cities investigation has for the first time mapped the startling spread of pseudo-public spaces across the UK capital, revealing an almost complete lack of transparency over who owns the sites and how they are policed.

Pseudo-public spaces – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – are on the rise in London and many other British cities, as local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves.

Although they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites – also known as privately owned public spaces or “Pops” – are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies.

The Guardian contacted the landowners of more than 50 major pseudo-public spaces in London, ranging from financial giant JP Morgan (owner of Bishops Square in Spitalfields) to the Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Estate (owner of Paternoster Square in the City of London) and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (owner of the open space around the ExCeL centre).

We asked them what regulations people passing through their land were subject to, and where members of the public could view those regulations. All but two of the landowners declined to answer. We also asked all local authorities in London for details of privately owned public spaces in their borough, via the Freedom of Information Act; most councils rejected the request.

In response to the Guardian investigation, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has now vowed to publish new guidelines on how these spaces – some of the city’s most prominent squares and plazas – are governed…

Read the full investigation on the Guardian website here, and explore the map of London’s pseudo-public spaces here.

The story provoked a huge response from both members of the public and national political figures, including Jeremy Corbyn who made a statement condemning corporate restrictions on public space.

Jeremy Corbyn has called for Britain’s pseudo-public spaces to be reclaimed from corporate interests, after a Guardian Cities investigation revealed the extent to which private ownership and secretive rule-making now dominate many of London’s most prominent squares and parks.

The Labour leader added his voice to a growing chorus of concern from across the political spectrum after the Guardian found that the vast majority of landowners of pseudo-public space in the capital – open areas which look and feel like public space but are actually privately owned and subject to private restrictions – refused to divulge information about what citizens were allowed to do on their sites.

“We must reclaim our public spaces from the corporate interests who want to control them,” Corbyn said. “Our country’s laws should govern public space, not secretive private rules. City life is made rich and exciting by our varied shared spaces. They should be run in the interests of the many not the few.”

The Labour leader was joined in his criticism by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who vowed to do everything in his power to address the issue, but blamed successive budget cuts by Conservative-led governments for the private sector’s growing role in managing public spaces.

A spokesman for Khan said the mayor understood “the strength of feeling about public spaces and is concerned that the government’s ongoing austerity measures will continue to push cash-strapped boroughs into working with private companies to deliver new, additional public space it cannot afford to create and take on itself.

“The mayor will go as far as the law allows in his new London Plan to ensure rules applying to such spaces are no more onerous than those that apply on publicly owned land,” he added…

Read the full follow-up story on the Guardian website here.

Lack of transparency and accountability over pseudo-public space is a problem that has spread well beyond London. In another follow-up, several of Britain’s biggest cities were asked to share basic data about privately-owned ‘public’ spaces, but the vast majority refused to provide it.

Many of Britain’s largest cities are refusing to reveal information regarding the private ownership of seemingly public spaces, the Guardian has discovered, fuelling concerns about a growing democratic deficit within local city government.

A Guardian Cities investigation earlier this summer revealed for the first time the spread of pseudo-public space in London – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – and an almost complete lack of transparency over secret restrictions imposed by corporations that limit the rights of citizens passing through their sites.

The Guardian has since requested data on pseudo-public spaces, which are sometimes known as privately owned public spaces (Pops), from the country’s biggest urban centres beyond the capital.

Councils were asked about the extent of existing pseudo-public spaces in their area and details of any upcoming development plans that will include such spaces in the future. They were also questioned on how local citizens could access information about pseudo-public spaces, and about the nature of any private restrictions imposed by corporate landowners which may prevent members of the public from holding protests, taking photos, or exercising many of the other rights they are entitled to on genuinely public land.

Out of 14 local authorities contacted, only two – Cardiff and Cambridge – provided some details of pseudo-public sites under their jurisdiction. Belfast and Edinburgh councils said they were unable to share that information. Other city administrations, including Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle, declined to comment.

“It’s really shocking,” said professor Richard Sennett, a prominent sociologist at the London School of Economics whose work explores the politics of urban development. “What are local councils so afraid of? Conditions could be placed on new developments that force the creation of real public space and full transparency about land ownership and public rights.

“But in Britain we’ve long had this attitude of appeasement towards developers. If planning authorities were strong, rather than constantly bending over backwards to show how development-friendly they are, they would find that the companies fall into line.”

Read the UK-wide follow-up, including news on the London Assembly passing a motion urging the mayor to take a stronger stand on the issue, on the Guardian website here.

The genesis for this investigation lies in a related Guardian story produced in 2015, in which Jack Shenker and public space activists Anna Minton and Bradley Garrett attempted to walk a stretch of the Thames Path in east London, only to find it blocked in several places by private developments. You can read the full story – which delves further into the politics of both public space and the regeneration of the Thames – on the Guardian website here.