‘Appeasing the developers’: even Labour controlled cities keep extent of privatised ‘public’ space secret

Manchester’s Spinningfields business quarter, where the parkland is privately owned.
Manchester’s Spinningfields business quarter, where the parkland is privately owned. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

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.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said 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’
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‘[Open spaces] should be subject to the same laws and rules as everywhere else in our country and not indistinct restrictions’ … Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe

“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.

The Liverpool One shopping development, which involved the corporate enclosure of several previously public streets.
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The Liverpool One shopping development, which involved the corporate enclosure of several previously public streets. 

“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.”

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