Private Spaces Are Stifling Protest

Occupy London's struggle to find a public space for protest reflects the increasing private control of our towns and cities

The right to peaceful public protest is an essential component of a healthy democratic society. Except, it seems, in the City of London.

The argument over whether the Occupy movement should camp outside St Paul's and the subsequent closure of the cathedral has served to distract from the main issue facing the protesters, which is that political protest is banned in the vast majority of the City's public places. The protesters did not intend to camp outside St Paul's but they found they had nowhere else to go if they wished to remain in the City - which is the focus of the protest.

Aiming to target financial institutions, OccupyLSX decided to set up camp outside the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, hence the name. But they were prevented from entering Paternoster Square, which is privately owned, by a high court injunction taken out to prevent members of the public from accessing the square.

It is no coincidence that the second camp opened by the Occupy movement is in Finsbury Square, which is on the edge of the City and falls outside the jurisdiction of the Corporation of London, the local authority responsible for the Square Mile. Under the jurisdiction of Islington council, Finsbury Square is a genuinely public square, unlike the majority of the City's so-called public places, which are owned and controlled by private estates.

A defining characteristic of privately owned "public" squares and spaces is conditional access. Members of the public are only allowed in if the company controlling the place is agreeable. This is private property in the same way that someone's house is private property, which means that the owner can decide who is or is not allowed to enter and what they are allowed to do there.

These are not democratic spaces. Instead rules and regulations are enforced by uniformed private security and round-the-clock surveillance. A host of seemingly innocuous activities such as cycling, rollerblading and even eating in some places are forbidden. So is filming, taking photographs and political protest.

Were the protesters to target Canary Wharf, they would get little further as that is also privately owned, as is London's other financial hub, the Broadgate Centre. At Canary Wharf recently a group of activists wishing to mount a protest were contacted by advertising company JDDecaux, which told them that the space was an "experimental advertising space" for which the daily rate was PS4,750. This is a model that looks at space purely as a place for investment rather than as an open democratic forum where people can meet freely and come and go.

It is no surprise that protesters targeting the UK's financial system have encountered so many difficulties as it was the finance system itself that was the driver for the privatisation of public space in Britain, a process that took root in the 1980s alongside the deregulation of the banks.

During the 1980s, Canary Wharf and the Broadgate Centre, the two emerging finance centres in east London, were virtually the only high security, privately owned and privately controlled places that functioned like this. They were also exceptional places created in response to the deregulation of the financial markets and "big bang" of 1986, with its demands for big banks and large trading floors.

Now, a generation later, this model has spread out, not only throughout the City but to towns and cities across the country that are increasingly characterised by privately owned places, from small "mixed-use" enclaves to enormous shopping complexes such as Cabot Circus in Bristol and Liverpool One, which spans 34 streets in the heart of Liverpool.

This is a very fundamental change, which is reversing democratic rights established along with the rise of parliamentary democracy in the mid-19th century. People often assume that the streets of London, and other cities, have always been public but that is far from the case. During the early 19th century, before the advent of parliamentary democracy and local government, cities such as London were parcelled up and owned by a small group of aristocratic landlords.

These places include some of the finest Georgian and early Victorian squares, but what we don't see today are the private security forces and gates that excluded the majority. Following growing public outrage, reflected by two major parliamentary inquiries, control over public space was passed over to local authority control and the streets opened up.

Since then, it has been common for local authorities to "adopt" streets and public spaces, which means that whether or not they actually own them, they control and run them. Now this process is being reversed, with huge implications for democracy. Protest is not allowed in the privately owned places that define our finance centres because they are not democratic places, a conclusion that is unlikely to surprise the protesters.

As for the area around St Paul's, it is owned by the church, which traditionally welcomes all members of the public. Today it seems even that is in question.

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