Jeremy Corbyn has called for Britain’s pseudo-public spaces to be reclaimed from corporate interests, after a Guardian investigation revealed the extent to which private ownership and secretive rule-making now dominate many of London’s most prominent squares and parks.
The Labour leader added his voice to a growing chorus of concern from across the political spectrum after the Guardian found that the vast majority of landowners of pseudo-public space in the capital – open areas which look and feel like public space but are actually privately owned and subject to private restrictions – refused to divulge information about what citizens were allowed to do on their sites.
“We must reclaim our public spaces from the corporate interests who want to control them,” Corbyn said. “Our country’s laws should govern public space, not secretive private rules. City life is made rich and exciting by our varied shared spaces. They should be run in the interests of the many not the few.”
The Labour leader was joined in his criticism by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who vowed to do everything in his power to address the issue, but blamed successive budget cuts by Conservative-led governments for the private sector’s growing role in managing public spaces.
A spokesman for Khan said the mayor understood “the strength of feeling about public spaces and is concerned that the government’s ongoing austerity measures will continue to push cash-strapped boroughs into working with private companies to deliver new, additional public space it cannot afford to create and take on itself.
“The mayor will go as far as the law allows in his new London Plan to ensure rules applying to such spaces are no more onerous than those that apply on publicly owned land,” he added.
Khan is under increasing pressure to act after the Guardian contacted the landowners of more than 50 pseudo-public spaces in London, ranging from some of the world’s biggest financial institutions to the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait, which has ultimate ownership of the land surrounding City Hall.
Landowners were asked to provide a list of the restrictions and behaviour codes they operate on their sites, as well as details of the private security companies used for enforcement, and information about how ordinary citizens could hold them accountable. All but two of the companies declined to answer.
Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, described the revelations as “deeply concerning” and demanded that private landowners of publicly accessibly open spaces publish their list of rules immediately.
“They are clearly unwilling to act in a transparent way about the restrictions they have in place for use of their land,” she said. “The public sphere has been degraded in many ways in recent years – from the selling off of public services, to the streets on which we walk going into private ownership. The government should look to legislate as soon as possible to ensure that open spaces in our cities are governed by the law of the land, not secret regulations drawn up in boardrooms.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, said “councils should protect all public spaces and in particular ensure that rights of way remain open. They also need to make it a clear condition of granting planning permission that the public are given every reasonable access.”
The leaders of both the Labour and Liberal Democrat groupings in the London assembly also condemned what some critics have labelled as a “crisis” of democratic governance in the city.
“This investigation claws back the veil of secrecy that has shrouded London’s pseudo-public space – perhaps most shocking of all is that many of us will be using these spaces with complete ignorance of the laws that govern them,” said Len Duvall, Labour’s leader at City Hall.
“It’s welcoming to read that the mayor will be publishing guidelines on how they’re governed, but landowners should also be taking it upon themselves to increase transparency by making public their notion of ‘acceptable behaviour’.”
As part of the Guardian’s investigation, every local authority in London was asked for information relating to pseudo-public spaces in their borough, but most rejected the request. Some local councillors are now taking actions into their own hands and attempting to force landowners into being more accountable.
Anood Al-Samerai, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Southwark, told the Guardian she had written to More London, the private estate beside the Thames that includes City Hall – and where the Guardian was stopped from carrying out interviews by private security guards because of “unsanctioned journalistic activity” – demanding clarification on their policing of the site.
“It is deeply concerning that a space, right on the London mayor’s doorstep, has been shrouded in a controversy which wouldn’t look out of place in North Korea,” she said. “No one should feel intimidated or unwelcome in the area surrounding City Hall.”
Mark Thomas, the comedian and campaigner who has previously organised mass trespasses to challenge private restrictions in pseudo-public spaces, said it was up to citizens themselves to push back against corporate control.
“In terms of political institutions, there is not enough political will to change things,” he told the Guardian. “It will be grassroots activities that make a difference: we need an urban ramblers movement that demands proper mapping, proper transparency, proper accountability and most importantly fights for the principle that basic, public rights cannot be trumped by private property rights in these open ‘public’ spaces.”
The Guardian contacted Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, to ask about accusations that the government’s austerity measures were fuelling the growth of pseudo-public space, and to seek his response to calls for legislation in this area. His department declined to comment.