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.

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.