The Garden Bridge That Isn’t Top of the Pops


Or The Spirit of Kinder Scout.

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This isn’t about music. The POPS I’m talking about are Privately Owned Public Spaces.  A natty acronym for sure, but this is a murky issue that badly needs to see more  light of day.

At its core is the notion that although in practice some spaces are public, in law the land lies in private hands.  A great over-view of the POPS landscape from Mark Townsend appeared in the weekend papers.

Whereas you can readily see the upside of cash-strapped local authorities signing over land to  private developers  to  gentrify , there are plenty of less obvious and less comfortable parts of the package. Townsend cites the transformational Liverpool One project that has literally moved the city centre a good half-mile to the southwest . A main and clear concern  is the  despoliation  of the historic  buildings and ambience of the environment, especially  given plans that could obscure cherished (and significant)  views, create  ghettos of buy-to-leave residential  blocks and replace  architectural diversity  with stifling homogeneity.  It is not for no reason that certain views in, for example London, are protected by regulations.

But as Townsend acknowledges you can (and I would) go further. Political concerns arguably eclipse these cultural issues.  And I  am not referring to the  massive contradictions  of fantastic shopping centres in the midst  of  grinding  institutionalised poverty,  the glut of new homes with no-one  who can afford to live in them, the signing over of land  for (in the case of Liverpool One)  250 years.

No, the pivotal despoliation is how POPS and other diminutions in public space affect our democracy.  Let’s take the current highest profile “private vs public” land row – London’s Garden Bridge.

The bridge is undoubtedly a fantastic concept.  More green in an increasingly concretised capital and a new crossing  over a transport pinch point. But it becomes apparent that despite £40m of public money, this will be in effect, a private strip of land over which the public will be granted access.  But access will be conditional on many many restrictions and caveats. Walk (during opening hours only), Breathe? Sure, if you must (I jest).  But don’t play an instrument, fly a kite or give a speech (No, really).

This sort of restrictive covenant can already be found in already-constructed environments, like Granary Square  for example.

To be clear,  I am  not suggesting that  all space that either  was,  is, could or should be  publically accessible,  should  be open  to  all  activities.  I do believe that there should be a reasonable expectation of peace and quiet in certain places and situations.

But it also seems to me that we have got the balance wrong in our current public space policy. The  presumption  must be  for  de facto  public space –  to  be  protected by de jure  arrangements that  facilitate  active citizenship.  There are enough over-arching   laws to maintain public safety, curtail grossly offensive behaviour, and ensure we can all go about our business without let or hindrance.

The daft thing is that the private money going onto these grand schemes surely does not need such an oppressive overcoat to keep the returns of their investment safe.  I would argue that there is far more risk in trying to sterilise or seal off large tracts of land. It creates an imbalance that can’t be sustained.

Of course wealthy and powerful private landowners have been with us for generations. These debates are not new even if their scope is now different.  But we would do well to remember the 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout – now nearly gone from living memory – when up to 10,000 people claimed the right to have access to the moorlands between Sheffield and Manchester,  hitherto restricted to the landowner’s grouse–shooting  habits. The trespass and subsequent imprisonment of its leaders was viewed as integral to the creation of the National Parks, Pennine Way and the 2000 “Right to Roam” legislation.

We need a similar rebalancing of public policy on public spaces.  We shouldn’t need a mass trespass just to assert that public space should be seen as a utility that adds social value, not a commodity to be traded for short-term, narrowly defined private profit.

Walking recently along-side the Thames, not far from the site of the Garden Bridge, I see a myriad of warning lights atop cranes across the water.  They feel to me like the red-dot gun-sights of surrounding insurgents.  I inwardly shudder, and it’s not at the chill of the cold night air.

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Red dots overlooking the Thames (Photo Credit: Author)

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