There is no secret ingredient in running public spaces

Green Park, London

6 Nov 2017

Policy area: Town centre & Retail

BPF Director of Policy Ian Fletcher shares his views on public spaces.  

I was at City Hall the other day and was made to leave from the back of the building because of a protest. Sure enough, when I looked up, daubed across the glass in bright red letters was the slogan 'CLEAN AIR NOW', and a crowd with placards was growing outside.

I was intrigued by this protest, not because of the cause on this occasion, but because of the location. A lot is made of City Hall falling within privately-owned public space and the landlords of that area requiring permission before protesting. As far as I could ascertain, the protest unfurling before my eyes had not sought permission, and certainly not to slap paint all over City Hall's glass facade.

Of course it was always a nonsense that the citizens of a country that has protested to great historical effect on everything from universal suffrage to the fight against fascism, were going to be dissuaded by some written rules and a couple of private security guards in high-vis jackets, who were just being joined by six van loads of policemen as I left.

None of what I have described though would suit the narrative of those who want to have a pop at POPS (Privately Owned Public Space). My worries about their narrative is that it is driven by ideology, rather than pragmatism, a lack of understanding about why landlords retain ownership of public space, and where the balance should be struck between a vocal minority and silent majority.

My first worry is that those who drive this debate are often simply playing out their belief that public-ownership is virtuous and private ownership is somehow not, rather than caring about what works. 'Public' is equated with 'democratic', but 'democratic' doesn't necessarily equate with the ability or right to realistically challenge and overturn. Even if that was not the case, the practical reality is that local authorities do not have the resource to manage such spaces and can already exert 'democratic' control via requirements they build in via planning permission.

Land owners, like pension funds, will be investing hundreds of £millions and sometimes £billions of their pensioner's hard-earned funds for decades at a time and will want assurance that land they hand over for the public space surrounding their investments will be managed well. Therefore even if local authority budgets were miraculously to be restored, it is not just a case of this year's budget or next year's, but having the confidence that such spaces will not be subject to the vagaries of public spending over their lifetime.

Landlords, however, do not take on the stewardship of public space lightly and often I sense take on such responsibilities with some trepidation. There is no secret ingredient in balancing the sometimes competing priorities of occupiers and different groups within the general public. It is messy and whoever is acting as broker is not going to keep all of the people happy all of the time.

The latest call for those against POPS is for transparency, on the policies and rules that private-owners are applying. I have some sympathy for that, but not every scenario can be anticipated and there also has to be some element of judgement and common sense applied by those who are policing such schemes at the coal-face.

I like to walk across Trafalgar Square every day, which is about as public a space as you will get in London. The days I can do that, however, are becoming fewer and fewer as the square seems to have become an events venue, with regular works setting up stages, lighting, etc. I take affront to the limitations on my right to walk across the square, but knowing the rules and whether these are set by the Mayor or Westminster City Council isn't going to change the fact I am in a minority, and somebody is rightly putting what the majority want ahead of what I want, where there is conflict.

My biggest worry on this whole issue is that small, but well-organised and vocal minorities will challenge any rules and seek to besmirch the name of many a good landlord in the process, simply so they can foist what they want on a silent, and no need to be organised majority, most of whom are delighted with how these spaces look and are run.