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

Pseudo-public space – squares and parks that seem public but are actually owned by corporations – has quietly spread across cities worldwide. As the Guardian maps its full extent in London for the first time,  reports on a new culture of secrecy and control, where private security guards can remove you for protesting, taking photos … or just looking scruffy

  • Explore the map – and tell us what we’re missing
  • Bradley L Garrett: Be angry about the privatisation of public space

    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.

    In partnership with Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (GiGL), the capital’s environmental records centre, Guardian Cities has produced the first ever comprehensive map of pseudo-public spaces in the capital. The underlying dataset is publicly available. Readers are invited to help contribute information on both new and existing sites to help track and monitor land ownership in London.

    Under existing laws, public access to pseudo-public spaces remains at the discretion of landowners who are allowed to draw up their own rules for “acceptable behaviour” on their sites and alter them at will. They are not obliged to make these rules public.

    The result is that unless landowners choose to volunteer the information themselves, members of the public have no way of knowing what regulations they are bound by at some of London’s biggest open spaces and whether activities they enjoy a legal right to in other public areas – be they taking photos, holding a political protest or even simply sitting down and having a nap – are permitted, or whether they will result in removal by security guards.

    On the King’s Cross Estate – one of the largest redevelopment projects in London and including more than four acres of open and publicly accessible space – the Guardian was told by security officials that a list of private regulations governing users of the site did exist, but that the landowner did not wish to reveal them.

    Outside City Hall on the south bank of the Thames, home to London’s democratically elected mayor and assembly, private security guards working for the More London estate (ultimately owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait) prevented the Guardian from carrying out any interviews.

    Security officers intervened within moments of a reporter attempting to ask questions of members of the public, and immediately escorted him to the security office where it was explained that unsanctioned journalistic activity is banned on the site. When asked for an explanation of this rule and details of any other regulations that might restrict the rights of citizens passing through the area, the landowner refused to comment.

    This culture of secrecy on the part of landowners is scary,” Sian Berry, leader of the Green party in the London Assembly, told the Guardian. “Being able to know what rules you are being governed by, and how to challenge those rules, is a fundamental part of living in a democracy.”

    Her words were echoed by Daniel Moylan, a Conservative councillor in London who served as a senior adviser to Boris Johnson during his time as mayor. “It’s extremely worrying,” said Moylan, who has warned of a “democratic deficit” in the governance of pseudo-public space. “Private landowners have the power to coerce us in what appear to be public streets and squares. If they have power over us then we must at least know what those powers are, where they get them from, and how they are held accountable.”

    In response to the Guardian’s investigation, Jules Pipe, London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, said that a commitment to “genuinely open” public spaces will be a key part of Sadiq Khan’s forthcoming London Plan, which provides a framework for all planning decisions in the capital. The new London Plan will contain guidelines covering open spaces, he explained, and will seek to “maximise access and minimise restrictions, as well as enabling planners to establish potential restrictions at the application stage for new developments”.

    “While the mayor agrees that private developments have a right to manage their property,” added Pipe, “it is important those areas that look to all intents and purposes like the public realm are not policed in an overly aggressive or intimidating manner.”

    “That is private information.”

    But critics of pseudo-public space believe this doesn’t go far enough. “We could very easily legislate to say that all open spaces in the city are governed simply by the law of the land – both national law and the normal local authority bylaws, which are transparent and drawn up through democratic processes – and not by special, secret restrictions established by companies that vary from place to place,” argued Anna Minton, a writer and academic who specialises in the privatisation of public space. “It’s part of a crisis of accountability in our political culture at the moment. The Guardian asked a simple set of questions to landowners, and was met with a wall of silence. The message is clear: however public they may appear, these are private places, and that is private information.”

    The Guardian Cities investigation into the lack of transparency over how Pops are governed comes as it publishes London’s first comprehensive map of such sites. In several other major cities, including New York, Toronto and Rotterdam, the city authorities or other organisations already maintain publicly accessible maps to help citizens identify pseudo-public spaces and the boundaries that divide them from genuinely public land.

    Despite calls from campaigners, until now no such map has ever been drawn up for London, in part because details of land ownership are scattered between several different bodies, and information regarding public access provisions in planning agreements can be difficult to obtain from local authorities.

    In collaboration with GiGL, Guardian Cities has identified approximately 50 sites in London that meet our relatively narrow criteria for pseudo-public space: namely outdoor, open and publicly accessible locations that are owned and maintained by private developers or other private companies. They include major areas of open land around Paddington Station (encompassing both Merchant Square and Paddington Central), nearly seven acres of open space owned by Arsenal Football Club in Islington, busy shopping and dining plazas in Covent Garden and Victoria, and the pseudo-public area around one of London’s most iconic attractions, the London Eye. The dataset behind the map has been made public, and can be accessed on the GiGL website and the London Datastore.

    For the purposes of the map, other privately owned public spaces have been excluded, among them sites which are privately-owned by public bodies (such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, which is managed as a private site by the London Legacy Development Corporation) and those owned or managed by charitable trusts (including Jubilee Gardens in Southwark and the large area of land under the control of the Canal & Rivers Trust), as well as locations where users would not reasonably expect to be on public land – such as churchyards, school fields and indoor shopping centres.

    Julie Cox, partnership manager at GiGL, told the Guardian that although this was only the first iteration of a comprehensive map of London pseudo-public space, and would therefore inevitably contain some omissions and inconsistencies, the organisation plans to update and expand this dataset in the future and is keen to hear from members of the public on what land should and shouldn’t be included. “We’re in contact with many of our partners about these data, and there’s a lot of interest,” she said. “It’s something we’d definitely like to keep updating as part of the suite of datasets we are responsible for, and ideally something members of the public can contribute to as well.”

    Private control over large open spaces in the city is not without historical precedent. In the 19th century many areas of central London, including stretches of Belgravia, Marylebone and Pimlico, were effectively gated communities, sealed off from the general public and policed by private entities. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries public struggles were waged to force open land and ensure streets, squares and parks were adopted by local authorities over whom Londoners of all backgrounds – not just the influential or wealthy – could exert a measure of democratic control.

    In the past few decades, however, the creation of corporate-owned urban areas like Canary Wharf and the Broadgate development around Liverpool Street Station began to reverse this trend, and by 2007 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors was describing the growing private ownership and management of spaces that appeared to be in the public realm as a “quiet revolution in land ownership”.

    Since then, the acute budgetary pressures placed on local authorities by successive governments have encouraged municipal planners to cede control of almost all new open spaces in the city to developers; some academics now refer to a new era of ‘urban enclosure’, echoing the fencing and enclosing of Britain’s rural commons that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries.

    “As the austerity cuts hit non-statutory services such as parks harder and harder, London boroughs have been left stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Tony Leach, chief executive of the charity Parks for London. “They know that they need to provide and maintain new green spaces for residents, but they believe they cannot afford to do so themselves.”

    The nature of pseudo-public space in London was highlighted in 2011, when protesters from the Occupy movement initially attempted to rally in the open space outside the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, only to be removed by police on the grounds that they were trespassing on private land.

    Unsanctioned behaviour

    Leach believes that increasing public awareness is vital, and that the publication of a map detailing the locations of pseudo-public space is an important first step. “I’m not against privately owned public spaces in essence,” he said. “The question is about the rights we enjoy there. I’m a strong believer that parks are our last remaining truly democratic public spaces, and that should continue. A lot of our great protest and reformist movements started in parks because they were natural gathering places. These spaces are a representation of our freedom in society, which is little by little being eroded. I think a lot of people just don’t realise it.”

    On a recent visit to a number of different pseudo-public spaces in London, the Guardian found that this was true. After asking dozens of individuals across several sites about the ownership status of the area around them, only one – who happened to work for the landowner’s estate management office – said they were aware it was private land.

    Huge variations exist in how clearly land ownership is signposted, as well as in the number of amenities provided by the landowners and the level of security in operation. Many of the newest sites feature similar types of landscaped gardens and water features, free wi-fi and big screens showing summer sport, as well as activities like table tennis, climbing walls and outdoor gyms. Alongside these conveniences, and just as omnipresent, are signs of private surveillance and what experts refer to as ‘defensive’ architecture – from CCTV cameras to benches specially designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping there.

    “I’m allowed to lie down on the grass, but not to close my eyes,” one homeless man, who goes by the moniker Yankee Dan, said at the recently opened Pancras Square, part of the pseudo-public King’s Cross Estate. “I tried to take a nap the other morning, just for an hour or two, and every time my eyes began to shut I was woken up by security guards.”

    Another homeless man at King’s Cross, who did not wish to be identified, said that it was those on the margins of the society that came up hardest against the hidden rules and borders of the site. “To the ordinary person, there’s no distinction between here, and there,” he said, pointing first at a public pavement by the taxi rank, and then at a privately owned road that leads north towards Granary Square. “To me, the difference is everything, because I’m not the sort of person they want over there.”

    As things stand, corporate authority over who can and can’t access open spaces in the capital is only set to grow. Nearly all of the city’s ongoing major redevelopment projects, from the mammoth Nine Elms neighbourhood in Battersea to new construction in Elephant and Castle and at Shoreditch’s Bishopsgate Goods Yard, is set to include new pseudo-public space, but details of what rights Londoners will enjoy there – or the ways in which they can expect to be policed – remain a mystery.

    The Guardian asked the development consortium behind Nine Elms, as well as Hammerson and the Ballymore Group, developers of the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, for information regarding future restrictions and permissions on their pseudo-public spaces, but none were willing to comment. Neither were the councils of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth or Wandsworth – the relevant planning authorities for the two sites.

    “Public space, whoever owns it, should be open and free to use, and these things need to be guaranteed at the time that we as a society give permission for developments to happen,” observed Matthew Carmona, a professor at the Bartlett School of Urban Planning. “But cities like London have always had diverse combinations of ownerships, predominantly public but also private and semi-private. There’s all sorts of complications and nuances which I think fail to be understood by claims that all privatisation is bad, and all public ownership of public space is good. I’m not interested in using the issue of privately-owned public spaces as a surrogate for a larger political argument. I think there are many instances where private spaces are well-used and enjoyed, and contribute socially and economically to the city.”

    For Anna Minton, however, the aesthetic appeal or otherwise of pseudo-public spaces misses the point. “The architecture of any period, including the production of space, reflects the socioeconomic forces of that period and in that respect the growth in pseudo-public spaces is a reflection of the neoliberal city,” she argued. “This type of development is not inevitable: it’s a very Atlanticist model, seen primarily in North America and here, and not so much in Europe, and it involves local government and the private sector working together in such a way that it is really undermining our democratic rights over the city.”

    Alternatives to pseudo-public space do exist. In one suburb of Paris, a citizen-run project has taken control of more than 5,000 sq m of land and is helping to fuel debate about the creation of the ‘urban commons’ – commonly owned and managed spaces that are not subject to the logic of the market. In Aberdeen, plansto hand over control of the city’s historic Union Terrace Gardens to a consortium of business interests were recently abandoned in favour of keeping the site in public hands.

    Meanwhile, in London, private ownership of apparently public spaces continues to increase. Circus West Village on the Nine Elms complex, marketed as “the first chapter in Battersea Power Station’s unfolding story”, has just been opened, and boasts a familiar array of pseudo-public features by the Thames: outdoor chairs, art installations, sloping walkways and potted plants.

    Watching over them, dressed in a hi-vis jacket, was a private security guard. The Guardian asked him what rules he was enforcing, and he shrugged. “Whatever the owners tell me to,” he said, jerking his thumb towards his walkie-talkie. “It’s their land, after all.”

    A note on the investigation:

    Guardian Cities contacted the landowners of more than 50 pseudo-public spaces in London, asking an identical set of questions: what restrictions are in place covering users of your land, how are these enforced, where can members of the public see a list of these restrictions, and what conditions are there in the relevant planning agreements regarding public access to your land? We also asked whether a series of public activities – including peaceful political protest, non-commercial photography, non-commercial artistic performances and rough sleeping – would be permitted on their site.

    Of all the landowners contacted, only two – the Canary Wharf Group, which owns large stretches of land in the Docklands, and East Village, a new development on the site of the old Athlete’s Village near the Olympic Park – provided a full set of answers. The Canary Wharf Group said that it was “very anxious to ensure that there is public access to the common areas [of its land] at all times” and that it wanted visitors to “feel that the common areas can be used as public spaces.” East Village told the Guardian that the company is “committed to making East Village as welcome a neighbourhood as possible, and any policies we have are focused on maintaining the public realm for everyone’s safety and benefit.” Both landowners insisted that they would not restrict political protests on their sites, although it should be noted that the Canary Wharf Group has previously taken out a legal injunction to prevent anti-capitalist protesters from rallying there. Both landowners also said that homeless people attempting to make a bed would be asked to leave the site but would be directed towards relevant support services. East Village said that permission was needed for any photography or filming on its land; Canary Wharf Group said that non-commercial photography and filming was allowed. Both landowners said advance permission was needed for artistic performances and requests would be considered on a case by case basis. Neither landowner provided a definitive list of rules and restrictions in operation at their site that could be accessed by members of the public.

    Of the other landowners contacted, the companies British Land (owner of Regents Place and Paddington Central) and CC Land (owner of the space around the Leadenhall Building) both provided short statements that did not directly address the questions asked. The remaining landowners contacted – including the Grosvenor Group (owner of Brown Hart Gardens in Westminster), Land Securities (owner of New Street Square and Cardinal Place), the Westfield Corporation (owner of open land around its shopping centres in Stratford and Shepherds Bush), and all the other landowners mentioned in the main body of the article – refused to comment.

    Editor: Chris Michael; reporter: Jack Shenker; research: Naomi Larsson and Athlyn Cathcart-Keays for the Guardian, Julie Cox and Chloe Smith for GiGL; production: Nick Van Mead; graphics: Pablo Gutierrez

    Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive

    Original Aritcle: theguardian.com 

 

 

 

Interest(s): Date: August 8, 2017

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