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January 6, 2010

Who owns our streets?

A worrying trend in regeneration south of the border is the extent to which public space – roads, pavements, civic squares – have fallen into the private ownership of developers. With the pressures on public spending this is a trend which could become increasingly attractive to cash strapped councils and should be of concern to us all. A recent article in The Guardian highlights the issue.

Urban regeneration has seen entire districts pass into the hands of private companies – and their security guards.

The Guardian reporter Paul Lewis, who fell foul of anti-terror legislation last week, is the latest in a long line of alleged miscreants stopped and questioned after straying on to private land. Lewis was stopped and searched by police under section 44 of the Terrorism Act for taking photographs of the Gherkin, one of London’s landmark buildings.

This monitoring and surveillance of innocent activities, which does not necessarily require anti-terror laws, is taking place all around Britain as a result of the growing private ownership and private control of cities. Liverpool One, which spans 34 streets in the heart of Liverpool, is effectively owned by the Duke of Westminster’s property company, Grosvenor, which leased the entire site, including streets and public places, from the council for 250 years. Cabot Circus in Bristol, Highcross in Leicester and what promises to be the biggest of all, Stratford City in London, are all owned and run by property companies.

These areas follow the model pioneered by Canary Wharf and the Broadgate Centre in London in the 1980s. Then, these districts were exceptional places, created to meet the needs of business. Now this is the template for all new development, large or small. With its 170 acres, Stratford City – one of the main sites for the 2012 Olympics – will be a private city within a city.

In their defence, politicians and developers point out that people like these places and flock to shop in them. But they also raise a challenge to the kind of public life, culture and democracy that has been taken for granted in British cities for the last 150 years. A host of seemingly innocuous activities – skateboarding, rollerblading, even eating in some places – are routinely banned, along with filming and, of course, taking photographs. So is begging, homelessness, selling the Big Issue, handing out political leaflets, and holding political demonstrations. It’s a very different and far less democratic idea of the city and citizenship. In place of the diversity of high streets we are creating sterile, high-security enclaves, policed by private security and CCTV. And rather than making us feel safer, the emphasis on security is a reminder of ever-present danger, fuelling fear of crime.

The last decade has seen more construction in Britain than at any time since the 1960s. The industrial era, with its tower blocks and arterial roads, put its particular stamp on the country’s cities, while the remarkable opportunities of the post-industrial period have seen riverfronts, docksides and former factory buildings offer themselves up for change. But just as the centralised planning of the modernist period had disturbing consequences, the regeneration of the noughties, bringing with it the private control of streets and public places, is no less concerning.

Yet few people are aware of the changes literally underfoot. The assumption is that because the streets have always been public, they will continue to be so. In fact, during the early 19th century, before the advent of local government and local democracy, cities like London were owned by a small group of private landlords, mainly dukes and earls. Their old estates include some of the finest Georgian and early Victorian squares, but what we don’t see today are the private security forces that were employed by the estates to keep out those who did not belong there – and the many gates, bars and posts.

After growing public outrage, which paralleled the rise in local democracy and was reflected by two parliamentary inquiries, control of the streets passed over to local authorities. Since then it has been common for local authorities to “adopt” the streets and public spaces of the city, which means whether or not they actually own them, they control and run them. Now this is being reversed, as property firms assume control of entire districts. Photographers may be among the first to notice, but they are far from the only ones affected. But as people start to wake up to the consequences of these enclaves, can anything be done to reverse the trend? New thinking, from a perhaps unexpected quarter, may be at hand.

It seems ironic that the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, the seat of democratic government in London, is in More London, another privately owned and controlled enclave. However, last month mayor Boris Johnson published his “manifesto for public space”, in which he explicitly states his opposition to the private control of streets and public spaces. He also points to the development at King’s Cross where, unusually, the local authority is retaining control of the streets. “This has established an important principle that should be negotiated in all similar schemes,” he says.

The mayor has considerable planning powers, and can direct boroughs to refuse permission for new schemes that do not meet these criteria. Given that virtually all new development is quietly allowing the control of streets to pass into private hands, this is a significant policy statement. It is up to us to make sure he acts on it.