Conrad Landin

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Private space for public good? There’s no such thing.

The protesters have occupied St Paul’s Cathedral. Why? Because they were “denied access” to Paternoster Square, the home of the London Stock Exchange. But this doesn’t usually happen, does it? When protesters took to Whitehall last November, they – or should I say we – were kettled there, but not denied access.

When I first heard that the protests would be targeting Paternoster Square, I have to confess that I couldn’t quite picture it in my mind. I don’t know the City that well, apart from the immediate areas around Bank and Threadneedle Street and the Barbican centre. A casual googling takes you to their website (ie. that of the property developer that controls the fairly-redent development that it is). Here, as we can expect, they boast of their “mixed-use development” and a “piazza to be enjoyed by pedestrians”.

The boasts continue:

Thus the new Paternoster Square, linked with the landscaped churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral, offers a pleasant environment for office users and tourists together with a series of shops and restaurants providing services and amenities.

Convinced? This is, after all, the language we have come to expect from private property developers who now control much of what would traditionally be known as public space. While the space is owned by developers with an interest in making profits, we are constantly told, that doesn’t mean that they’re not working for our good as well. So we too, and not just the bankers of the London Stock Exchange, can enjoy Paternoster Square. Thanks!

I’ve been concerned for some time now about the contradiction between maintaining public space in the interests of the public and representing the interests of private profit. It all started after I read Anna Minton’s brilliant polemic, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City, which fundamentally exposes the corporations behind private developments and the Business Improvement Districts – business lobbies which take over existing town centres – for focusing everything on creating an atmosphere of retail and profitability, while the other uses of public space, and the interests of the public, are lost.

One of these other aspects of public space is political protest. I don’t need t0 point out that Britain has a long and proud tradition of protest, nor that the rights of protesters – such as the right not to be gunned down – were won by our ancestors after years and years of standing up for the just.

But political protest takes developers’ commitment to the ‘public realm’ to the test. So the other day, when I heard that protesters had been denied access to Paternoster Square as it was “private property” and an injunction had been taken out against public access, I was not surprised. But I can’t think of a better expose of the myth that these truly benevolent property developers are committed to the ideal of public space for public access.

On the contrary, they are committed to public access if it’s beneficial for them. If it’s a bunch of tourists posing in front of dogs dinner of “public art” they erect, then that’s great – publicity for their corporation. If it’s yummy mummies – or yummy daddies, for that matter – congregating outside the development’s branch of Giraffe, then go for it – more profitability for the development. But if you’re going to put off tourists, if you’re going to annoy the profiteers, then the space is very much private property.

It only takes a second look at any of these developments to see that their space is always private property. Their only interest in the public is the opportunity to make financial gain out of it – whether in the short run – through commercial sales – or in the long run – through enhancing the profile of their portfolio.

It sounds cynical, but the closure of Paternoster Square for the convenience of bankers isn’t the only example. Other developers have ruthlessly pursued protesters. In the USA, the home of private involvement in “public” space, it has been reported that business lobbies have hired criminals to beat the living daylights out of the homeless – as rough sleeping apparently reduces “profitability” and “public appeal”.

And as I investigated for the West End Extra earlier this year, the business lobby controlling Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street is so worried by the possibility of a “neighbourhood forum” of residents being established that they wrote to the council to try to prevent it. And they want to take over licensing enforcement from the City of Westminster authority. Where will this end?

So have no illusions. The privatisation of public space may make areas nice and shiny, but as far as the rights of the public are concerned, don’t let anyone convince you that it doesn’t make a difference.

NOTE: Point of clarification (in brackets) added to second paragraph after initial publication.

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1 Comment

  1. steve says:

    Interesting article. One point missing here is that Paternoster Square is the site of a cenotaph memorialising those who gave their lives in the Great War and the Second World War. Does the legal injunction also extend to prevent public access – and potentially access of the deceased soldiers’ descendants – to the cenotaph? Having been down to the site myself, I was informed that you could only go in if you were going to a shop, and then you would have to be escorted, but I got round it on account of wearing a suit – just about anyway. The large, eastren european gentleman guarding the entrance was quite keen to keep me out shall we say. My actual destination today? Pret a Manger!

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