The Communities and Local Government Committee (CLG) is calling for written submissions which examine the effectiveness of current land value capture methods, and the need for new ways of capturing any uplift in the value of land associated with the granting of planning permission or nearby infrastructure improvements and other factors.
By Thom Forester – 1st February 2018
When the late Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster -often credited with being ‘Britain’s riches man’- was asked what advice he had for young entrepreneurs, Mr. Grosvenor told The Financial Times, “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”
Although the Grosvenor family dates back to the Norman Conquest. Most of their fortune is rooted in the 1677 marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to the 12-year-old Mary Davies, heiress to 430 acres of boggy marsh between what is now Knightsbridge and the Thames in London’s West End. This bog would later became some of the most expensive real-estate in the world.
In 1066-7 William the Bastard declared that all land, animals and people in the country belonged to him personally. This was as alien to these Isle’s laws and customs as the colonial land-grabs were to the First Nations of America. Over a very short space of time, we went from a country in which >90% of people owned land, to a country of landless serfs, themselves owned by foreign lords. Our lands were parcelled up and given as payment to Williams mercenaries.
Still today, the monarch’s land monopoly remains, in theory and practise, a legal reality. Most of the largest land-owning families are direct descendants of the Norman Yoke and William the Bastard’s 22th great-granddaughter sits upon the ‘English’ throne. Meaning, in this ‘property owning democracy’, land distribution is -for the most part- still determined by ‘Right of Conquest’. Important to bare that in mind… especially if you run out of space whilst pegging your washing out on that increasingly thin-blue-line! 😉
In 1872 the British Government published ‘The Return of the Owners of Land’, only the second audit of land to have taken place in British history, the other being the Domesday book. After 2 years of gathering all the information the returns found that 1 million people owned freeholds, about 5% of the population. 10 Dukes owned over 100,000 acres each with the Duke of Sutherland owning 1,350,000 acres (1/50th of the entire country). Return of Owners of Land, confirmed that 0.6 per cent of the population owned 98.5% of the land and half of Britain was owned by 0.06% of the population. These findings are still well hidden till this day.
The reason for all this secrecy is because Britain has the worst land-distribution of any country on Earth (except Brazil). As it stands, AT LEAST 70 per cent of land in the British Isles is owned by fewer than two per cent of the population. Meanwhile Britain’s 16.8 million homeowners account for barely 4 per cent of the land between them… which is about the same amount as is ‘owned’ by the Forestry Commission.
I have to thank the late Gerald Grosvenor for his honesty, at-least he didn’t attribute his vast fortune to some ‘divine right’… although, he may as well have -it’s not like you peasants are gonna do anything about it… ARE YOU?!
MEET THE NEW LANDLORD – REITS: WHAT ARE THEY?
Real Estate Investment Trusts – a tool of asset accumulation as an escalation of the division of wealth and class separation in Britain and across the world:
REITs are trusts that buy commercial properties, such as apartments, office buildings, and shopping centres which produce income. When a person buys shares in a REIT, they become a part owner in all of the property holdings of the REIT. REITs are traded like stocks on the major stock exchanges, so they provide the liquidity of stocks with the diversification and income of commercial real estate. REITs first appeared in the US, after being approved by Congress in 1960 to offer small investors a chance to participate in the commercial real estate market. As of 2016, are were 224 REITs on the FTSE (London Stock-Exchange). The Internal Revenue Service shows that there are about 1,100 U.S. REITs that have filed tax returns in the USA, including more than 225 REITs in the U.S. registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission that trade on one of the major stock exchanges — the majority on the NYSE.
AGAINST REAL ESTATE INVESTMENT TRUSTS (REITs):
Throughout the world, Real Estate Investment Trust (REITs) are playing a rapidly increasing role in organising private financial investments in housing and cities. Real Estate Investments Trusts (REITs) are joint stock companies that primarily derive their income from real estate. They are free from corporate tax and they are legally forced to pay out high parts of their profits.
After a longer period of development in Northern America disastrous consequences on social housing are evident:
– Buying out of social, public and low-cost housing
– Rent increase and increase of heating costs, service charges etc.
– Demolishing of affordable complexes and replacement by more profitable buildings
– Disinvestments, neglect of/worse maintenance of the housing stock
– Pressure to leave on financially disfavoured tenants, replacements by wealthy residents
– the ending of social neighbourhoods programmes, participation process etc
– Construction on public spaces, privatization of public spaces
– Lobbying governments for weakening legal standards
– Exit to private funds
The large U.S. REIT AIMCO gave a shocking example how these investors
* Video on forced evictions by AIMCO at Lincoln Place
Although negative consequences in the USA, Canada and elsewhere are obvious, the introduction of REITs in most of the countries took place without protests and even without critical debate. They just happened in the extra-democratic spaces where financial lobbyists make their deals with governments.
HOW DO REITS WORK?
Lots of small investors can take part by owning shares in the Trust which owns the buildings. This means they can buy or sell their shares in the trust easily whenever they like exposing homes to the volatility of speculative markets. No tax is paid by the Trust; tax is only paid by the shareholder, with their dividend income return added to their annual taxable income. If the shareholder is a charity (such as a housing association which has a charitable arm), the shareholder may be exempt from paying any tax at all.
‘In the United States and France, REITs have lead to higher rents and to asset stripping; where the most profitable housing has been enhanced at increased rents, whilst the rest has been left to decay or emptied for redevelopment or demolition.’ From London Tenants.org
There are several different types of REITs available on the market:
 Equity REITs own and operate income producing real estate, such as apartments, warehouses, office buildings, hotels, and shopping centres.
 Specialized REITs focus on a particular type of property, such as shopping centres or health care facilities.
 Geographically-focused REITs specialize in a single region or metropolitan area, while others try to acquire properties throughout the country. Mortgage REITs lend money to real estate owners and operators, and raise income from the interest payments on the mortgages.
4] Hybrid REITs own properties and provide loans to real estate owners.
FINANCIAL MARKETS: ASYLUM FOR CAPITAL
Taken from FROM CRISIS TO CRASH
The financial markets prove to be an ideal place of refuge for anxious owners of capital. They are flexible and global. An IBM stock can be exchanged in a few moments for a Yen credit or a government bond. For big customers, the expenses are trifling. State incursions like taxes and restrictions tend to zero.
Profits were and are now gained from shares (dividend distributions based on business profits), national debts (compound interest financed by taxes), credits (interest payments from private or state debtors), organisation of firm takeovers or the purchase and sale of securities at the right moment. The latter is a very popular option since it requires the least waiting-time. Through deregulation and internationalisation, getting into and out of investments as fast as lightning is increasingly possible.
With this flexibility, pressure is exerted on everything that does not bow to the desires of investors. This structure is the central lever for the restructuring and realisation of better profit conditions for capital in general, not only the much reviled ‘speculators’.
Economic motives lurk beneath the surface of these proposed fines. The proposals were primarily supported by businesses in Stoke-on-Trent. This indicates that people are more concerned about the way that the city appears to tourists and consumers, than they are about those who have found themselves in desperately vulnerable situations. The charity Shelter recorded that 43 people in Stoke-on-Trent were without a home this year. It also noted a 22% increase in homelessness in the West Midlands in the last twelve months.
How do councils expect the homeless to pay these fines?
The prioritisation of appearance over reality is also revealed in the impracticality of these policies how does the council expect homeless people to pay the fines which are to be needlessly imposed upon them? This inefficacy forces us to interrogate the councils motives. Are the proposals designed to send out an intolerant message to the citys homeless?
A sinister behavioural system begins to emerge from behind the legitimate fa硤e of the councils policies: an effort is being made to criminalise the homeless. By trying to make sleeping in a tent an offence, and by attempting to criminalise aggressive and persistent begging terms which can be subjectively defined and thus manipulated councillors legitimise the stigmas which propelled them to punish rough-sleepers in the first place.They exploit social fears by forging an imaginative link between homelessness and crime. This validates their treatment of the homeless as criminals, excusing their perpetuation of prejudice by deflecting any criticism onto the idea of law and order. Through this, PSPOs (Pubic Space Protection Orders, which allow councils to criminalise activities within certain areas) become a series of legal loopholes, enabling unjustified punishments to be proposed.
This exploitation is widespread: 36 local councils in England and Wales are working on similar policies involving PSPOs, including Newport City Council, which is trying to place a blanket ban on rough sleeping and begging. On a larger scale, the government is distorting the reality of homelessness in our society. At PMQs on 13th December, Theresa May brazenly lied about the situation, claiming that statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by over 50% since then. This implies that the Conservatives are responsible for reducing the figures. The truth, however, is that, while statutory homelessness did peak under Labour, this was a result of Conservative control from 1979 to 1996. Labour went on to reduce the number of rough sleepers to its lowest level since 1998. Homelessness only began to rise again once the Conservatives returned to power in 2010: the DCLG reports that the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by 65% since December of that same year.
This rise is irrefutably linked to Conservative policy. Since coming into office, the government has slashed benefits, cut council funding and reduced the availability of affordable housing. This pushes people into desperate situations and has left a considerable number of them homeless. For example, the DCLG has linked 28% of cases involving those who have become homeless since 2010 to Assured Shorthold Tenancies. Those who are victimised by government policy are then punished by the same authorities. This is exemplified by the situation in Stoke-on-Trent, where the recent proposals run alongside a plan to reduce support for homelessness services by 1m, due to budget cuts.
This forces people back into the vulnerable situations in which they started. Only now there is a framework which legitimises their callous treatment. To truly change the situation, the prejudice which encourages the formation of these policies and grants them legitimacy must be dismantled: systemic action is required to change the causes of the issue rather than the effects. We need transparency to ensure reality is no longer distorted and to avoid the manipulation of the public at the hands of authority.
Today, as the New Chartists the Chartist part now refers to the 1215 Great Charter (Magna Carta) we, too, have a list of six Requirements and because we are exposing proven and current High Treason and appalling financial fraud within Parliament, the Judiciary and the City of London not to mention the small matter that we also represent 99% of the people – we will not be overcome or dispersed until the job is done. We are going nowhere until all the injustice, hardship and suffering stops!
1. That the People are ultimately Sovereign by restoring the supremacy of our Trial by Jury Common Law Constitution, as confirmed by the 1215 Great Charter, along with the absolute right of a randomly selected Jury to annul bad and flawed legislation (statutes) passed by the agenda-driven, self-serving politicians in Parliament.
2. That Poverty and Austerity be ended immediately by the reinstatement of the fiscal process known as Sovereign National Credit whereby HM Treasury creates and issues debt-free and interest-free money that is based entirely on the wealth and labour potential (creativity) of our nation. This will involve restoring the 1914 Bradbury Pound which prevented a financial collapse at the outbreak of the First World War. To support this, we will be making a full exposure of the fraudulent activities of the privately controlled Bank for International Settlements and its debt-creating central banking system, which includes the Bank of England.
3. That Children must be protected from Establishment-led abuse by abolishing the secretive and corrupt Family Courts, along with the setting up of a new and properly run public inquiry involving a randomly selected Grand Jury to investigate thoroughly, without fear or favour, the alleged abuse of children by people in positions of trust and authority, some of whom, it is alleged, are holding, or have held, positions at the very highest levels of government.
4. That our Armed Services and Police Service be shielded from further cut-backs by immediately withdrawing from the proven and treasonous process to unify our already deliberately depleted Armed Services with those of the European Union; whilst at the same time annulling the process to privatise and corporatise our Police Service, including giving private security firms the powers of arrest. Those men and women who are seeking to serve and defend us are being deliberately emasculated so as to allow our treasonous political class to end our countrys ancient freedoms and sovereignty and our Common Law Trial by Jury Constitution.
5. That the fraud and deception of our Legal System be ended by exposing and collapsing the alien and parallel legal system that some say evolved from the 1666 Cestui Que Vie Act which seemingly allows Legal Fictions to be created when our parents are compelled to register a birth and so receive a Birth Certificate for their new-born. There is provable evidence that a legal, but definitely not lawful, system of deception and entrapment exists (using the deliberate and unfathomable language of legalese) where you find that our Courts of Justice are listed by Dun and Bradstreet as corporations so as to make them places of business and not justice. It is a system whereby Roman Civil Law (also known as Maritime Law and Napoleonic Law) is allowed by open treason to operate without hindrance in our Common Law Trial by Jury country with the open acquiescence and complicity of the Judiciary.
6. That true Justice in the Courts be restored by bringing to trial those rogue judges, lawyers, auditors and bankers who are, or have been, involved in fraudulent bankruptcies that have stolen billions of pounds from totally innocent victims, not to mention carrying out large-scale money-laundering exercises in order to hide their criminally obtained money.
The Winchester Declaration
All of the above Requirements are covered by the 2016 Winchester Declaration which was unanimously agreed upon on November 17th 2016 at a specially convened and very well attended meeting of the British Constitution Group at the Winchester Guildhall. The Winchester Declaration calls for Parliament to accept and pass the Restoration Amendment that would meet and satisfy all of the above Requirements and thus completely restore the Rule of Law and Financial Sovereignty to our country.
The Landworkers’ Alliance launched a Crowdfunder, aiming to raise £25k to get their policies into a post-Brexit agricultural policy. The crowd funder has less than one more week to go in case anyone wants to make a donation to support the orientation towards a just and sustainable agricultural policy after Brexit.
Go to the crowdfunder page here: https://tinyurl.com/yanu8rpc to make a donation that will help the Landworkers’ Alliance defend small-scale family farms, and try to build a future where farmers and new entrants can make a decent livelihood producing good food.
Who are the Landworkers’ Alliance? The Landworkers’ Alliance is a grassroots union of farmers, growers and land-based workers from across the whole of the U.K. They are a member led organisation campaigning for the rights of small-scale producers and a better food system for everyone.
More farmers, Better Food – The Landworkers’ Alliance launch crowdfunding campaign to change the future of agricultural policy and they need your support.
In Spring 2018 the government will outline a new UK post-Brexit farming policy. This is the most significant moment in generations for those who want to see a socially just and environmentally sustainable food system. The Landworkers’ Alliance are seeking to defend the needs of small-scale and ecological farmers against agri-business interests. They launched a nationwide funding campaign ‘More Farmers, Better Food’ on 23rd December 2017 to influence post-Brexit agricultural policy, aiming to raise £25k through public donations to support their work campaigning and lobbying for a policy that will guarantee a fair future for farmers in the UK.
The future of our food and farming depends on this policy; it is the most significant moment in generations – they need your support to reach the target and make sure the voices of small-scale and ecological farmers against agri-business interests are heard.
Why do we need to be part of shaping a post-Brexit Agriculture Policy? (with reference to multi-pronged list of objectives outlined by the Landworkers’ Alliance):
So that the voices of small-scale and ecological farmers are heard instead of only those of agri-business interests who usually assume the voice of the UK farming lobby (usually represented by the National Farmers’ Union and Country Land & Business Association – my insert)
In the 10 years following the implementation of the 2003 Common Agricultural Policy reform, 35,000 farms left the land in the UK; most of these were small-scale and family farms. The Landworkers’ Alliance assert that we need to ensure that British Agricultural policy will not repeat the same mistakes of previous agricultural reforms. On the contrary, reforming the CAP within the EU should have been focused upon one of the original tenets of the Treaty of Rome to “ensure the optimum utilisation of the factors of production, in particular, labour”. For a post-brexit UK outside the CAP as well as for countries remaining in the CAP, maximising the utilisation of agricultural labour should mean properly rewarding that labour – a skill set which in certain areas of agriculture such as the uplands is fast dying out. And yet, working in the food and farming sector is characterised by insecure, precarious and unpredictable labour conditions. 64% of farmers earn less than £10,000 a year, 8 supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market, and farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets. Meanwhile, there is hardly any support for new entrant farms or funding for farmers producing on less than 5 hectares (12 acres) of land.
The UK has one the highest levels of concentrated land ownership in the world, and the price of land has trebled in just over 10 years. In 2015, just 100 landowners received a combined total of £87.9m in agricultural subsidies, of which £61.2m came from the single payment scheme. This is more than the combined total paid to the bottom 55, 119 recipients in the single payment scheme over the same period.
The UK is the 6th largest economy in the world and yet in 2014, over 8.4 million people living in a UK household reported having insufficient food.
The Landworkers’ Alliance have developed a range of policy proposals aimed at protecting small scale, traditional and family farms, creating more environmental farming systems without losing sight of production, and giving new entrants more support to set up and scale up.
All of their policies and representation comes from their members who are farmers, growers and land-based workers who have direct experience of the issues they campaign on. They will use the crowdfunding campaign to fund 5 key areas of work:
To deliver political training sessions, that will equip members with the skills and confidence to advocate for a better food system.
To send representatives to Westminster on a regular basis to make sure we have a place at the table.
To write, print and get our post-Brexit Agriculture policy proposals into the hands of political decision makers.
To organise stunts and actions that ensure our voices are heard.
To highlight our issues by organising study tours of innovative farms, direct marketing and new entrant initiatives for MPs and civil servants.
Their crowdfunding campaign ‘More Farmers, Better Food‘ intends to fund their work lobbying and campaigning to influence the policy making process. It will support them to ensure the future of the UK food system guarantees farmers and food workers are able to work with dignity and earn a decent living, and everybody is able to access nutritious and affordable food.
Now more then ever the future of our farms, our land, our food is in our hands. Let’s put control over the food system back into the hands of our communities!
Same place, different time. It was in the early 1990s that I first walked down Falkner Street in Liverpool. Twenty-five years later and I’ve been back to make the BBC Two series A House Through Time, which tells the story of a single house and the generations of people for whom it was home.
Thinking back to the 1990s, when I was a student in Liverpool, I struggle to remember ever taking much notice of the city’s grand Victorian houses. Part of what made them unremarkable was that they were where many of us students lived and partied. It was only when friends studying in other cities came to visit, and were astonished by the grandeur of the houses local students called home, that we were reminded that these elegant terraces had been built for an altogether better class of occupant.
As a history student I had some insight into the forces that had made Liverpool rich, and then plunged it into a precipitous decline, but back then I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about houses. My lack of interest was, in hindsight, an incredible luxury.A lot has changed in the years since. The area around Liverpool University is neater, busier and richer. Like pretty much everything else, it has also been rebranded. It is now the Georgian Quarter, a title guaranteed to add a few thousand to any estate agent’s asking price. The houses of the Georgian Quarter were built in the middle of the 19th century for the merchant elite of a city that was then rapidly becoming one of the richest in the world. Neither the financiers who built them nor the well-to-do Victorian families who became their first residents would have imagined that one day a bunch of students would be sitting in their grand drawing rooms drinking and smoking.
I didn’t think about houses or how much they cost, because what I vaguely imagined was that if I worked hard at university, went on to get further qualifications and entered a profession, home ownership would be one of those things that would probably just happen somewhere along the way, like getting married, putting on weight or having children.
What I did not realise was that I was a member of the last generation who could take such a passive view of home ownership. My cohort, the students who graduated in the mid- to late 90s, were the last to slip through a fast-closing door, a postwar portal to social mobility and home ownership that was about to be slammed shut in the faces of the generation just behind us.The students who now sit in the lecture halls I once frequented think about property and money in ways I never did. They are all too aware that unless they are in line to inherit wealth from parents they cannot presume they will ever own their homes. When they walk through Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter what they see is vast concentrations of wealth beyond the reach of all but the already privileged.
Something like this had been the general idea when the area was built in the 1840s. The four-storey townhouses on Falkner Street were aimed at the Victorian middle classes. Liverpool’s troubled history meant the buildings went on to have a turbulent life story. By the 1940s and 1950s much of what is now the Georgian Quarter was packed with slum housing. The area has come full circle. Homes in the Georgian Quarter are today worth two to three times the UK average.
The first resident of No 62 back in 1841 was Richard Glenton, a rather underwhelming customs clerk. Glenton was only able afford to live in such a big house because his wealthy father subsidised his lavish lifestyle. Again the story feels circular. According to a report by the Social Mobility Commission, a third of those who manage to scramble on to the bottom rungs of the property ladder today are only able to do so with help from parents.
It was while a student that I first heard the phrase “housing crisis”. It appeared in history textbooks, prefixed with the word “Victorian”, and I wrote a dissertation about it. Whereas today the big money is in building one- and two-bedroom flats in cities, in the 19th century developers got rich by building big houses for the wealthy.
In both cases the result was market failure, the oversupply of some types of houses, the undersupply of others. Wherever Victorian developers built more grand houses than there were rich buyers, or whenever the exclusive new districts they created fell out of fashion, their big houses became big problems. Grand middle-class houses were subdivided and rooms rented out to the poor. Homes that had been built for single families became tenements in which multiple families were packed together. Overcrowded and unfit for purpose, these once-elegant townhouses became miserable slums.
While I was busy studying the causes and effects of the Victorian housing crisis, the conditions for the current one were being slotted into place. Now, as then, a poorly regulated housing market is failing to meet the country’s housing needs. Supply does not match demand. The revival of beautiful Victorian homes such as those in Liverpool has been accompanied by what feels like a return to Victorian levels of inequality. They had soup kitchens, we have food banks. They had tenements, we have thousands of families living in B&Bs. Conditions I once read about in history books are now on the nightly news.
• David Olusoga is a historian and presenter of BBC Two’s A House Through Time
Trump also criticised the Obama administration of selling the current site for “peanuts”. “Bad deal,” he added.
Although we don’t know how much the current site was sold for when it was flogged to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund in 2009, experts estimated it was worth as much as £500m – but that was before it was given its Grade II listing.
The current site is also the one of the few US embassies in the world to which the US does not own the freehold. A report by the LA Times in the 1980s suggested back in the 1940s, the second Duke of Westminster, whose Grosvenor Estate owns the freehold, was asked to hand it over to the US government. He responded by insisting he would only give it up if the US returned 1,200 acres of prime Florida real estate which had been confiscated after US independence. It politely declined.
The single-lane road cuts through an almost empty grassland plateau. Every so often there are signs warning drivers not to wander, at risk of death from unexploded bombs. A burned-out tank punctuates the horizon, its gun raised in salute. The road continues like this for a good twenty minutes before reaching a small car park outside a village church. On the morning of New Year’s Day the car park was almost full. People were getting out of their cars and making their way up the hill to the church: families with children and elderly relatives, a dog-walker in a camouflage anorak, a young couple in quilted jackets and Union Jack wellies.
Several times a year, the church at Imber, a ghost village on Salisbury Plain, is opened to the public. In 1943 the Ministry of Defence, which owns much of the surrounding area, evicted Imber’s 150 or so residents so that the village could be used to train American troops preparing for the D-Day landings. The villagers thought they would be allowed back when the war ended, but the MoD kept them out, instead using Imber to train successive generations of soldiers in urban combat. Most of the original houses have been demolished and replaced with a replica of a 1980s Belfast housing estate. More recently, soldiers have been trained here before deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The church, built in the 14th and 15th centuries (the earliest recorded mention of a settlement at Imber is in the 10th century) has been preserved, its yard surrounded by a chain-link fence with signs that tell visitors not to stray out, and soldiers not to stray in. On 1 January there was the atmosphere of a fête inside. Tables with gingham cloths were set out for guests; a stall offered mulled wine and orange squash. Display boards told the history of the village, alongside black and white photos of thatched cottages. The visitors peered at the boards, or sat and chatted quietly. A set of 15th-century frescoes have been removed to a safer location, but I could make out what looks like a horned figure traced in red pigment where a painting of the Seven Deadly Sins once sat.
At first, nobody was allowed to visit Imber at all, but in January 1961 two thousand protesters forced their way past the security checkpoints that surround the MoD training ground, to demand that the community be allowed back. Today, the MoD permits access for up to 50 days a year, although this is often curtailed at short notice. ‘We were supposed to open for three weeks in summer, but they only let us open for three days,’ the woman pouring drinks said.
In The Village that Died for England, Patrick Wright explores Tyneham in Dorset, another settlement that was forced to make way for the war effort. Once abandoned, Tyneham was ‘reborn’ in media coverage ‘as a perfect English village of the mind’, with patriotic villagers who dutifully left their homes when the hour came; a fantasy of England as rural, pre-industrial, white, enduring. A number of Tyneham’s buildings have been meticulously restored and the village has been used as a film set. Imber is too diminished by use for that. Looking downhill from the church, you can see the ‘Belfast’ houses. They are made of brick, and have sloping metal roofs, but there are no windows, and scorch marks line the walls. As one version of England is briefly revived inside the church, another carries on outside.
In the churchyard, some gravestones are clearly postwar. They are memorials for former villagers – the Imber ‘diaspora’, as a local newspaper article puts it – who died in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the older stones are completely overgrown, covered by clumps of uncut grass, and starting to look like miniature Stone Age barrows – remnants of another culture that had its own ways of imagining the eternal, to which England now lays claim.
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.”
The revelation comes as pressure mounts on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to use his forthcoming London Plan – which provides an overarching development strategy for the city – to push back against the creeping privatisation of public space.
Following the Guardian’s initial investigation, national political leaders including Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the Liberal Democrats’ Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas of the Green Party all spoke out on the subject.
Shortly thereafter, a motion was passed in the London Assembly urging Khan to take a firm stance on the issue.
“Being able to know what rules you are being governed by, and how to challenge them, is a fundamental part of democracy,” said Sian Berry, a London Assembly member for the Green Party who proposed the motion.
“Increasingly, London’s public space is in private hands and there is very little transparency around which individuals and groups can have access,” added Labour’s Nicky Gavron. “These are Londoners’ outdoor living rooms and it is appalling that access can be restricted.”
Several assembly members pointed out that City Hall itself is located on open but private land controlled by the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait, which refuses to allow journalists to operate in the area without corporate permission.
The Mayor of London has vowed to establish new guidelines covering privately-owned “public” sites, designed to “maximise access and minimise restrictions, as well as enabling planners to establish potential restrictions at the application stage for new developments.”
But Gavron insisted that this was not enough. “The next London Plan should go further and establish real public transparency and accountability for setting rules to govern these spaces through the lifetime of developments, not just at the application stage,” she argued.
Although London is at the centre of Britain’s trend towards the creation of pseudo-public spaces, budgetary pressures on local authorities and growing partnerships with the private sector have resulted in a number of similar developments emerging in other cities, including Liverpool One – a huge retail and leisure complex on the city’s waterfront which involved the corporate enclosure of several previously public streets – and the Spinningfields and First Street districts of Manchester.
Manchester’s under-construction NOMA neighbourhood, which is currently the largest development project in the north-west of England, is set to include two pseudo-public spaces; when asked about what agreements Manchester’s planning authorities had reached with the landowner regarding protecting public rights on these sites, the city council refused to comment.
Directly elected mayors responsible for some of Britain’s biggest urban regions told the Guardian that transparency and accountability in the governance of supposedly public spaces was vital.
“I’m deeply committed to creating a civic realm that is open, accessible and democratic,” said Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region. “This is an integral part of civilised urban life and any erosion of public space or the privatisation of the civic realm is something that I would seek to oppose in terms of my powers and influence as Metro Mayor.”
A spokesperson for Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, told the Guardian that all of the city’s open and public spaces “should be subject to the same laws and rules as everywhere else in our country and not indistinct restrictions. While landowners have rights over their property, the Mayor believes it is crucial all of our public spaces are welcoming and genuinely open.”
Huw Thomas, the Labour leader of Cardiff city council, echoed those sentiments. “With council budgets being slashed we have had to find new ways of delivering for Cardiff and its residents,” he said. “We believe in positive partnerships with the private sector, but this doesn’t have to mean citizens lose their rights.”
James Palmer – mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the only Conservative local leader to respond to the Guardian’s enquiries – said that it was “only fair that individual owners decide how to manage their property when it is privately owned,” but added that “it is vital that those areas which are enjoyed by the public, and appear to be within the public realm, are not policed in an inappropriate, or aggressive, fashion.”
All the leaders quoted claimed that pseudo-public space, and associated issues regarding public rights and democratic accountability, were not as pervasive in their areas compared to London. The directly elected mayors of Bristol, the West of England and the West Midlands declined to comment.
Ultimately, some experts conclude, any widespread challenge to the spread of pseudo-public spaces may come from citizens themselves rather than top-down institutional leaders.
“The planning process is supposed to be democratic,” Adam Fineberg, an expert adviser on public services, observed. “The people responsible for drawing up planning policies and sitting on planning committees are elected representatives. So if citizens are concerned about this issue in their local areas, they can campaign and put pressure on representatives through the ballot box and try to ensure that future planning applications by developers are required to meet clear and strong conditions regarding public access and open governance. There’s nothing stopping planning authorities making approval dependent on those conditions being met. It’s a question of local democracy.”