The Occupy movement may have yet to topple global capitalism, but its four-month encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral did raise awareness of something else: the growing power of private corporations over apparently public space. The protesters originally intended to pitch their tents outside the London Stock Exchange at Paternoster Square but were moved on when the owner secured a court injunction. It turned out that this space was private property, and that the public use it only as a “privilege”, which may be revoked at any time. Private ownership of public spaces is not a new phenomenon – the UK has always been a tapestry of leaseholds and freeholds held by landed estates, financial institutions, private and public sector organisations. What is new is the large-scale management of the public realm by private companies, and the ambiguity over whose rules apply in any given space. Supporters argue that it doesn’t matter who is responsible for a space, as long as it is maintained properly and managed with the community in mind – landowners and businesses have a greater interest and deeper pockets than local authorities. Critics fear that creeping privatisation suppresses democratic freedoms and promotes a narrow consumerist agenda, and point to petty restrictions on cycling or taking photographs and an overbearing security presence.
In this cover feature for the March issue of Modus (the magazine of the RICS) I asked property and policy experts why public bodies are so keen to cede control of public spaces, and what the long-term consequences might be.