Steps forward in securing truly public spaces

New policies are at last being talked about to stop the privatisation of London’s public spaces.

When I stood for election as Mayor I campaigned hard for a policy of restricting the privatisation of public space in London, and helped to organise a demonstration on the ‘More London’ space outside City Hall itself.

More London is a prime example of a place where arbitrary rules on public behaviour are imposed by a landowner, policed by private security guards who are completely unaccountable when they stop people – for example – taking photographs or filming interviews.

When the Guardian launched a campaign on this issue last summer, I said that “Being able to know what rules you are being governed by, and how to challenge those rules, is a fundamental part of living in a democracy,” and condemned the culture of secrecy on the part of landowners, most of whom refused to even tell the Guardian what rules applied on their spaces open to the public.

I’ve continued to push this in City Hall and in a motion I proposed in September the Assembly asked for asked for the Mayor to set planning rules for these spaces to ensure transparency and accountability.

The Mayor has now responded to my motion promising new planning policies and a “Public London Charter, setting out the rights and responsibilities for the users, owners and managers of public spaces, regardless of ownership.” This sounds good but the details of what he puts into these new policies will be crucial.

There are other green shoots in this battle, which the Mayor should look at when writing his new charter.

Several of the largest private public spaces in London fall in my own borough of Camden, concentrated particularly on Kings Cross railwaylands, where developer Argent has created four major new open spaces north of the station.

I worked from 2004 with campaigners from the Kings Cross Railwaylands Group trying to get more council homes and small business space, among other public benefits, on this huge brownfield site, and we thought we had won a victory when the planning agreement said that ‘public realm’ should be adopted and run as public land. This has not been stuck to, as Guardian Cities found, and when I asked the council why, they said that these squares have since been defined not as ‘public realm’ but as something called ‘development realm’.

This is an infuriating fudge, which means that arbitrary rules now apply to these spaces, with security guards patrolling Pancras Square, Granary Square, Lewis Cubitt Park and Gasholder Park in the same way as we see daily around City Hall.

I’ve been a councillor in Camden now since 2014 and have been pushing for better planning rules to stop the same kind of privatisation of public space happening again. A new draft planning guidance document now published by the council is an example of which the Mayor should take notice.

It commits the council to only allowing public spaces that are “welcoming and inclusive for everyone” and says that all developments with new public spaces will need to make rules transparently, with consultation, and with similar reasons given as for any local authority by-law. If concerns are found with the way a developer is managing a private public space the policy also threatens ‘break’ clauses in planning agreements for the Council to take over, with the cost of maintenance still charged to the developer for ten years.

In my response to the consultation on Camden’s new rules I’m welcoming all this but also asking Camden to enhance its policy further, with a commitment to more transparency in how the rules are made and how they can be amended later by local people, along with requirements that any rules agreed are always made clear to people using the spaces.

For the Kings Cross area, I’m still waiting to see the documentation that created the slippery concept of ‘development realm’ and I hope we can persuade the council to challenge this too and take these spaces back into public control.

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