London has seen a growth in privately owned public space – More London around City Hall (pictured) and Granary Square in King’s Cross, to give two prominent examples – and regulation needs to keep pace.
That’s the message of a new report from the Centre of London, commissioned by City Hall to help inform Sadiq Khan’s promised Public London Charter, which will set out how these hybrid spaces should be managed in the interests of their owners and their users alike.
While privately-owned public space is not a new phenomenon in London, recent developments have provoked controversy, as the report acknowledges, with some commentators criticising private ownership as an “undesirable form of privatisation”.
In many cases though, the report says, privately-owned public spaces “do not represent the privatisation of a public asset, but rather the opening to the public of what was once private and inaccessible.” It cites the Thames Path, in multiple ownership, as “one of the most popular” accessible spaces in London.
Via surveys of users, the report finds that privately-owned spaces are generally considered safe, welcoming and well-looked after, with no evidence that those users are less diverse than users of publicly-owned spaces.
However, the report did find that some areas are over-policed, with opaque rules going beyond what was required to conform with the Mayor’s draft London Plan objective that “these spaces should only have rules restricting the behaviour of the public that are considered essential for safe management of the space”.
Contentious rules included bans on taking photographs, collecting signatures or conducting surveys, cycling, skateboarding, drinking alcohol, peaceful protest and begging, as well as rough sleeping, which under Home Office guidance cannot be banned by local authorities – “needless and petty restrictions”, according to Professor Matthew Carmona of University College, cited in the report.
Concerns were also reported about commercialisation – “we don’t do anything that would attract an audience that is not in keeping with our retailers,” said one landowner – private or paid-for events compromising public accessibility, and unwarranted data collection.
Councils overseeing developments have been more concerned about design than about management of new public spaces, and private management was patchy, “dependent on landowners’ resources, ethos and attitude,” the report says.
Rules restricting behaviour should be clearly publicised and be the minimum necessary for safe management, “protecting citizens’ rights to use the space as they wish without causing a nuisance to others”, the report recommends. Landowners should create opportunities for “informal stewardship”, perhaps by ground and maintenance staff rather than uniformed security.
Regulations should be subject to consultation with users as well as residents, local businesses and the local authority, and private events should not “unreasonably compromise the accessibility and enjoyment of the space for other users”.
Importantly, the report recommends that local authorities should strengthen their hand in overseeing new public space, by adopting land as a public highway or designating public rights of way where possible, and through tightly-drawn planning consents and Section 106 obligations on developers.
Commenting on the report, Professor Carmona, an early proponent of a charter of public space rights and responsibilities, said the research confirmed his own findings: “Privately owned public spaces in the city have the potential to add huge value to the lives of Londoners, but at the same time our rights as citizens need to be guaranteed. The report presents five simple means for achieving that.”
The Public London Charter is expected to be published alongside the final version of the overall London Plan, early next year.
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