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What happens when public spaces become privately owned?

Photo: Alfie Lake and Maria da Silva

We might like to think that Bristol’s open spaces belong to us, the public, but the reality is quite different – if hard to find out. More and more of our streets, parks and squares in the city are becoming owned and controlled by private companies, but land ownership data is surprisingly difficult to get hold of. The Land Registry data for the UK is incomplete, holding details on as little as 50% of all land.

I met with Antonia Layard, Professor of Law at the University of Bristol, who researches how property law affects the making of cities. “There isn’t actually a legal definition of public space,” she tells me, “and in terms of land law there isn’t public or private land, there’s just the individual landowner.” Land is simply registered as belonging to landowners – whether they are local authorities, individual landowners or private companies. This makes it really difficult to keep track of the handover of our public spaces to private companies.

Despite this lack of official data, the sale of public land by local authorities has been a key part of recent government policy, with billions of pounds in sales already recorded. Bristol was one of the first councils to take part in ‘The One Public Estate’ programme, a government initiative started in 2013 designed to “release the value of public sector assets–specifically land and property – that would be better managed in the private sector”. UK local government asset sales are projected to total £13.3 billion between 2015/16 and 2017/18. A serious sum in times of austerity, but what are the longer term implications?

Knowing who owns Bristol’s spaces is important because it changes who can go there and what it can be used for. As public spaces are being sold off to private developers, pre-existing public rights are eroded. The traditional ‘right’ of property owners is the right to physically exclude whomever they wish from their property or restrict particular kinds of conduct. This means, as author Anna Minton explains, “certain activities, such as handing out leaflets, busking, selling The Big Issue, cycling or rollerblading, can be banned, as well as any political protests”.

Whose streets?

cabot circus, banner in the foregrond as folks wander pastPhoto: Alfie Lake and Maria da Silva

One of Bristol’s clearest examples of this change in land ownership is Cabot Circus. Following the grant by Bristol City Council of a 250 year lease, this 36-acre site is effectively owned by a shell company of global property developers called The Bristol Alliance.

A metal sign on a shop wall reads: ‘These streets are private land owned by The Bristol Alliance. The public are permitted to pass through them when they are open. The owners do not intend that any permanent rights are to be created by prescription or otherwise. The owners reserve the right to introduce rules and regulations’.

Some of these rules and regulations are spelled out on another sign in pictures, which forbid smoking, dogs, drinking, cycling, and skateboarding. Layard tells me proudly “When you look at the sign you’ll see that the no filming and the no photography ban has been etched out, because they owners had to retract it – that small battle has been won”. The ban on photography by the private owners was lifted after a public outcry some years ago but the other rules remain in place.

Shutting people out

Privately owned spaces are created to pursue profitable activities based on business, finance centres and shopping. Any activities deemed to interfere with the business of the private owner is prohibited and enforced by private security. In a nutshell, if you aren’t spending money then you aren’t welcome.

Anna Minton argues that today’s privatisation of space actually reflects a return to Victorian practices of private landownership, when the poor or otherwise undesirable were locked out of certain spaces in our towns and cities. When ‘public’ spaces were later handed over to local authorities they began to play a key role in the development of a democratic, diverse and vibrant culture. Citizens are able to use public spaces as they like – whether it is for picnicking or protesting. Private owners can instead shut people out.

I asked Antonia Layard what we can do to help keep Bristol’s spaces public. She sighs, before becoming animated, “In the countryside we have the Right to Roam but we’ve got nothing like that for urban spaces. In Scotland you have more, you have a right of reasonable access anywhere, but here in England we have pretty much nothing. We need to keep as much public as we can in every single development, claw back every inch of public space that we can, and certainly don’t say to private developers ‘here you are, have 36 acres’.

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