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These chartered streets?

Words: Simon Wicks

Some people see the blurring of lines between private and public spaces as threat to public liberty. But do we really need a charter to guarantee our freedoms in the ’private public realm’?

If William Blake were to walk along the Thames today, would he recognise the city he evoked in verse in 1793? It would be vastly different to the eye – but the radical painter-poet was less concerned with the visible surface of the capital than with its invisible divisions. In his London, the streets are “charter’d”, as is the Thames itself.

Chartered, meaning chopped, charted and mapped. Or a city established by charter. Or bodies corporate (such as City livery companies), their rights enshrined by charter. Chartered – meaning ownership, entitlement. Privilege.

Blake had in mind their opposites, too – dispossession, disenfranchisement, detriment. His London was a divided city where the faces of the people were marked with “weakness” and “woe”. It was a city in gestation; to a considerable extent, the aristocratic landowners of Georgian London established the street plan and the basic visual character of the metropolis we know today.

They built smart enclaves such as Mayfair and Covent Garden and shielded them from the hoi polloi with gates and security and even tolls. Protest at such exclusion provoked Parliamentary inquiry; this in turn gave rise to the principle of public ownership of commonly accessible streets.

“The way most people understand streets and public spaces is that they are public and open to all and everyone can do what they want in them, so long as they follow the laws of the land,” says writer and journalist Anna Minton.

“But in the last 10 to 15 years, increasingly large parts of the city are being taken over by private owners and centralised estates with very different rules and regulations that govern them – laws, really.”

Minton’s book, Ground Control, describes the creeping “privatisation” of public spaces and the increasing presentation of private spaces as if they were public – commonly in the form of “open mall” retail developments.

In the six years to 2013, a reputed 67 football pitches’ worth of publicly owned land was passed into the private sector in London alone. But the creation of “private public realm” is also prevalent in Liverpool (Liverpool One), Birmingham (Brindley Place), Bristol (Cabot Circus) and elsewhere.

There are pros and cons. Such spaces may be better maintained and policed than fully public realm, allowing owners to market them to tenants and potential customers as cleaner and safer. But Minton finds them typically “sterile”, “homogenous” and swept clean of any social problem. They are often zealously controlled: More London beside the Thames is notorious for its intolerance of what is normal in public space elsewhere. Skateboarding, cycling and Rollerblading are all prohibited, as are photography, leafleting, busking, begging, sleeping rough and conducting any form of protest.

A price worth paying? Glasgow’s George Square development

In an email exchange with The Planner, a spokesman for the
Restore George Square campaign said:

“We believe the council are determined to pursue an events agenda for George Square because of a number of factors – the main one being linking the development of the space to the Buchanan Galleries major extension – a development effectively being subsidised by public cash. This is a massive gamble with citizens’ cash – and gives the developer [Land Securities and Henderson Global Investors] increasing influence in the city centre. We know that retailers, when asked, want more events in George Square, for the short-term footfall they provide. From Glasgow City Council’s point-of-view they might say the sacrifice of George Square as a genuinely public space is a price worth paying for continued investment in the city centre.”

A Glasgow City Council spokesperson told The Planner that the Buchanan Quarter development comprised a “mixture of ownerships and leasehold interests”, with a “significant part of the underlying title” belonging to GCC. “It is not envisaged that there be will be any public private areas” and “GCC’s interest in George Square will not be alienated in any way”, the spokesperson said. However, he concluded: “It is not known whether there is to be private management of any part of the development which is publicly owned.

Private management

“When the financial crash happened, the economic model for this type of development fell apart because it’s based on property companies being able to borrow very large sums of money and then pay back on the rents from the development,” Minton explains. “I thought that meant we might have a space where we could stop and look around and see if we could do things differently.”

But, in an economy gathering confidence, private public realm is on the up. In Elephant and Castle, now undergoing significant remodelling, residents’ group the Elephant Amenity Network has expressed concern to the London Borough of Southwark that  the currently public roads and paths in the development, and the proposed “public park”, will in fact be policed and managed privately, in the way More London is. This means management policies will be able to be invented by the developer on a whim with no democratic control. Officers say in their report they don’t see any difference between this and council management. If this is so, why not stick with council management, as the community has requested?

In Glasgow, the substantial Buchanan Quarter redevelopment incorporates George Square, which has been transferred into the ownership of an “arm’s length” pseudo-public body, City Property (Glasgow) LLP (see box). Many in the community are unhappy with the apparent encroachment of commercial interests on to a valued public space. The public portion of the overarching development is being funded through a pilot use of the TIF (tax increment financing) mechanism, which releases funds for public improvements against anticipated future income from business rates.

“I thought the financial crash meant we might have a space where we could stop and see if we could do things differently”

Towards a new public charter

What is to be done? Matthew Carmona, professor of planning and urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, has also addressed the privatisation of public spaces in Capital Spaces: The Multiple Complex Public Spaces Of A Global City.

Matthew Carmona’s ‘Charter for Public Space Rights and Responsibilities’

All public space users have
 the right to:

  • Roam freely;

  • Rest and relax unmolested;

  • Associate with others;

  • Use public space without the imposition of petty local controls on drinking, smoking, safe cycling, skating, and dog walking;

  • Collect for registered charities;

  • Take photographs;

  • Trade (if granted a public licence);

  • Demonstrate peacefully and campaign politically; and

  • Busk or otherwise perform.

Public space users have a responsibility to:

  • Respect the rights of others to conduct their business unhindered and unmolested;

  • Respect public and private property;

  • Act in a civil and safe manner at all times;

  • Keep the peace.

Owners and managers of public space have a responsibility to:

  • Respect and protect the rights of all users;

  • Keep spaces safe within the context of the actions of any reasonable person;

  • Keep spaces clean and well maintained; and

  • Keep spaces open and unrestricted at all times (or otherwise in line with regulatory stipulations).

More sanguine than Minton, he argues that the pattern of land and property ownership in our cities is so layered and nuanced that we ought not to exercise ourselves about the actual ownership of our public spaces.

“There are so many spaces around our cities that you think are public, but are not. They’re owned by developers, the church, charitable trusts, and so on. It’s not so straightforward,” he says. “My argument is that it doesn’t matter who it belongs to. Fundamentally, what matters is rights that we have as the public to use it.”

These rights, he suggests, need to be “locked down” at the planning approval stage. The best way to do that, he argues, is with a charter. “It’s about striking a balance and it’s about striking that balance everywhere,” says Carmona. “Whether it’s public, private or pseudo-public, we would have a set of rights and responsibilities that we all agree with.”

He concedes that this is unlikely to make it to legislation. “It comes down to our local planning authorities because it’s at that stage where our rights and responsibilities are established. It comes down to local policies and development management. Councils have not been good at negotiating how space is used.”

Negotiating democratic rights

Any charter should be rejected on principle, counters Minton, regardless how broad the rights it enshrines. “It’s basically negotiating about democratic rights. That’s just giving up on the question,” she stresses.

Besides, it is an issue that has already been resolved. “I don’t really see what’s wrong with the way we’ve been doing this for the last 150 years,” she adds. “It’s not as if the private sector has turned round and said ‘If we’re not allowed to control the streets and public spaces, we’re not going to invest in cities’.”

The creation of private public realm, she argues, is a “policy model” driven, at least in part, by compulsion to align planning with economic growth. “I think planners are in a really difficult position because they don’t really seem to have the influence they once had,” says Minton. “Most jobbing planners working on schemes like this wouldn’t be able to do much about it.”

“My argument is that it doesn’t matter who it belongs to. Fundamentally, what matters is rights that we have as the public to use it”

Social capital

Is the commercial imperative now so pronounced that it is undermining the democracy of our cities and the integrity of our planning system? However we choose to answer this question, says RTPI chief executive Trudi Elliott, British cities are built upon the liveliness of their streets.

“We do have a lot of activity and vitality in our public spaces and on our streets,” she notes. “That adds to the social capital and environmental quality of a place, and it adds economic value. It would be very unfortunate if we got into a big fight over who owns it rather than how it functions, looks and feels.

“How do we persuade everybody, including operators and landowners, of the benefit of activity?” she continues. “If you get open space well maintained with vibrancy and life you are halfway there. But we need that debate first [before
considering introducing a charter]. We need to have a conversation about well-maintained and vibrant space.”