In Anna Minton’s book from 2012, Ground Control, she touches on how not just London but the UK as a whole has become full of spaces that look public but are in fact private. These privatised public spaces are often in land that historically has seen ancient rights of way, yet have become owned by a developer who can set their own rules. This is something that Britain has sleepwalked into. Just as we have endured privatisation of our national trains, we have also seen the rise of land privatisation.
The Guardian’s investigation in 2017 revealed that public access to 'pseudo-public spaces' ('Pops' for short) remains at the discretion of the private companies. Details about their identity can often be opaque. This effectively means that land that should remain public is at the whim of landowners, who are often corporations – precisely why The Guardian and Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (GiGL)’s map of pseudo-public spaces in London is so important.
Take Dray Walk, off Brick Lane (pictured above), where the 1001 Club and Rough Trade East record shop are. It’s a trendy stretch, with tourists milling around and food stalls. I was once told late at night that I couldn’t walk through there, as a shortcut to Liverpool Street Station. When I asked why, the security guard pointed out that I had a beard and rucksack, and that I therefore theoretically could be a suicide bomber. He then pointed out the ‘Private Property sign’.
At the same time as London faces a housing crisis – touched on in my blog post below this one – among those public places that we can access are often private places in which corporations can do as they please. This has led to that most basic exercise of democracy – the right to protest in public squares – being denied, as when the Occupy movement’s rally at Paternoster Square, next to the London Stock Exchange, was disrupted by the police on the grounds that they were trespassing on private land. Furthermore, when the public are normally allowed to access pseudo-public spaces, there is often an effort to dissuade people congregating, such as the lack of places to sit. In addition, as Frontier Psychiatrist puts it, "certain behaviours and people [e.g., the ‘right’ kind] are encouraged whilst others are seen as undesirable and excluded". I wasn't allowed into Dray Walk that one time by that security guard. Yet others were allowed in – just not me, because I didn’t look like the ‘right’ kind of person in the mind of the security guard, who had discretion over who could be allowed into an ostensibly public space.
This continued erosion of our civil liberties by corporations on land that should remain common for all is a foreboding vision of where London could end up. It’s not hard to envisage a dystopian future in which more and more ‘public’ land is allowed to be public only at the whim of large corporations, and with numerous, often unfair regulations. Greater transparency is required on these spaces, as with other cities. It shouldn’t be forgotten that common land for all should be a basic right, not a privilege.