Privatising the outdoors: who owns our public space

Help us to create a map of privatised public spaces in Britain so we can see just how much of land is under corporate control

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Interior view of the new concourse and roof at Kings Cross Station

Interior view of the new concourse and roof at Kings Cross Station. The new development around Kings Cross – will be privately owned. Photograph: David Levene

We’re in the middle of a creeping privatisation of public space. Streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment. It began with Canary Wharf but is now a standard feature of urban regeneration. In future, one of the biggest public squares in Europe – Granary square, in the new development around Kings Cross – will be privately owned. There are privatised public zones across Britain, from Brindleyplace in Birmingham to Liverpool One.

It’s not easy to track the scale of this change. You can search the land registries covering England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but you have to do it one location at a time – and there’s a cost attached.

Local authorities keep a register of streets which lists whether it is part of the public highway or is private. This list includes open spaces in the form of squares, but not parks. But this is only available to organisations which coordinate street works.

Click herefor the full map.
We’re asking readers to add to our map of privatised public spaces in Britain.

For the purposes of this project, we are not looking at enclosed shopping malls – only open spaces, from streets and city squares to village greens, beaches and riverbanks, where there’s a reasonable expectation that the space might be public.

The way to begin is by looking at re-developed spaces near you. Often, there’ll be signs informing you that the land is private. There are three ways of confirming ownership – via the Land Registry in England and Wales (but you have to pay £4 for the details online, £8 for a printed version), by contacting your local authority, or by getting in touch with the developer. In Scotland, the public has access, for a fee, to land ownership records at the Registers of Scotland which can only be inspected in person.

When you’ve identified a privately owned street, park, square or beach – contact us here with as much detail as you have – the name of the location, a postcode. Even if you can’t get any confirmation beyond the private property notice, that would be a good starting point for our reporting. You’re welcome to send in pictures and commentary too – is there a sign saying its publicly owned? Is the public space truly welcoming to the public? Is the space gated or patrolled by private security?

This isn’t necessarily an alarming development. Private investment can revive run-down public areas. But it’s one we need to be aware of.

Here’s our online noticeboard for you to add details. Join the Twitter conversation by using the hash tag #keeppublic.

To add a place to our map via n0tice.com

To add your own location is a quick and simple process as follows:
– on the first visit you need to sign-up to n0tice.com. You can do this via your existing Facebook or Twitter accounts or by creating a user name and entering your email address.
– once logged in, go to www.privatepublicspace.n0tice.com and click on ‘post a new report’
– you will be presented with a short form to complete asking for the basic details about location etc. please try to include as much information as you can for example, how do you know it’s private space?

 

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Comments

36 comments, displaying

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  • This symbol indicates that that person is The Guardian's staffStaff
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  • Andreas Panagidis11 June 2012 3:24PM

    This is a fantastic initiative, hope that the map slowly begins to reveal all such spaces that have sneakily been taken away from the public and compromised our rights. Then we can really see where things should change in favor of a local community instead of a couple of wallets who’s owners don’t live there.

  • donnygirl11 June 2012 4:03PM

    More excellent, campaigning journalism.Also bear in mind all the land and property which is being transferred from Local Authority ownership to the private trusts and companies running former community schools which are converting to Academy status. A huge transfer of land and resources from public to private ownership which is well underway and seems to be receiving worryingly little scrutiny

  • Gabrielquotes11 June 2012 4:07PM

    Local authorities keep a register of streets which lists whether it is part of the public highway or is private. But this is only available to organisations which coordinate street works.

    Surely this is why God gave us the Freedom of Information Act…?

  • cretophile11 June 2012 4:31PM

    East Devon District Council have been selling off publicly owned land, and are hell bent on selling off more and more. In selling off former public toilets (though locals demanded that the land be kept for reinstatement as toilets when they could afford to run them) so that a seaside holiday town now lacks adequate toilet facilities for its locals and visitors.Short sighted or what? The local hall, Elizabeth Hall, having been cynically allowed to deteriorate for decades, is now up for sale despite a 9,000 signature (and growing) petition not to sell it. The council have also spent a rumoured £50,000 to get rid of covenants that were given to protect the seafront from ‘development’. It goes on and on and on
    A FOI asking for details of all sales has now been submitted- but don’t hold your breath waiting for a reply . Look EDDC up on whatdothey know.com and see how many FOIs remain unanswered ! The organiser of a save Elizabeth Hall group was effectively banned from taking part in a recent charity event on public land unless she agreed not to lobby for saving our hall from developers. Local Democracy???
    On the positive side, Mary Portas standing up against the Hay on Wye supermarket is, on the face of it, encouraging. All those councils who supported her hoping to get a grant of £100,000 must be cussing now because she is not likely to support Tesco/Asda or whoever buying that piece of public land the councils all over the country wanted to flog off.

  • Nimbus02011 June 2012 4:33PM

    I suspect this has been going on for years – look at Nottingham Broadmarsh centre – this was plonked straight on a trad road network in the city centre probably in the mid to early 1970s – (it may have even been built by the council originally – it’s a typical ‘arndale centre’ type development recently owned by Westfield and now by another such centre owner)

    The site was built across a key north south road linking one railway station to the city centre. This was retained as pedestrian access and remains open 24 hours a day with a gated section that allows you to walk through at night (not sure if it is a right of way but have always presumed it was) – with security guards to prevent access to the rest of the shopping centre area – so in that sense it is publicly accessible – but it is privately owned.

    The mention above by donnygirl of school land transfers is pertinent – not to be forgotten in this vein are the former Polytechnics and such colleges – once owned by the local council now essentially semi privatised in that same sense.

  • Nimbus02011 June 2012 4:55PM

    One of the strange things about this is that it’s not this clear cut – the land is private – but they let the public in

    I’m not sure it was ever public space to start with was it? – surely Granary Square is ex railway private land as it is ex goodsyards of the Kings Cross station complex (historically the only access to most of it would have been railway employees)

    ok it was in public ownership between 1948 and the 1990s when the railways were nationalised (but they were bought off the shareholders who owned it before by the then government). Before that it would have been owned by the LNE railway – and before that the GN Railway – both private companies – it is the current private owners who have decided to open it up and let the public in – but the public are not forced to go on to the land are they? The open space in front of the stations etc are presumably owned by Network Rail (a state owned company), and you need to go on that to catch a train and I presume the railway has not yet got so daft as to ban passengers from going into stations?

    I realise this is a significant issue, and I’m unhappy about it myself – but if we take this example of Granary Square at what stage was this a publicly owned, public space?

  • JeevanVasagar11 June 2012 5:34PM

    Staff

    True that in lots of these cases – Granary Square is one – these are newly created spaces, and that developers have made an investment in creating this new space. The question is whether we’re happy for new public spaces to be created on these terms. Or just resigned to that fact at a time of austerity.

  • JeevanVasagar11 June 2012 5:36PM

    Staff

    Thanks for the tip-off cretophile. I think the disappearance of public amenities is an important part of this story. It would be great to extend this to seafront/riverside areas too, which are commonly assumed to be public.

  • NottinghamFlorist11 June 2012 6:12PM

    Why are they? EVERYWHERE.

    As Anglo Saxon’s we don’t understand words, like ‘public’, ‘community’, or ‘civic’ – they are alien to our cultural and political psyche. We do, though, understand words like ‘private’, and ‘detached’/’semi-detached’.

    In technocratic/policy terms its about ‘defensible space theory’ – a race to the bottom that inverts everyone into a defensive ‘my home is my castle’ mindset.

    It’s like D.H. Lawrence said, as English people we’ve been urbanised for a hundreds of years – yet we still do not really know how to live in cities, add the near total primacy of the car and business interests into that equation and all you get is privatisation and the pursuit of privacy, i.e. a defensive, closed mindset, and lots of urban ugliness, or as JK Galbraith aphoristically diagnosed it – private affluence, public squalor.

  • EugeneKaufmann11 June 2012 7:20PM

    Been living in Spain for a couple of years. It took time for us to appreciate the benefits of being able to walk absolutely anywhere, plus having other people walking across our garden etc. In Britain ownership and privacy are intrusive, with signs everywhere prohibiting access and freedom to roam.

  • EugeneKaufmann11 June 2012 7:26PM

    Been living in Spain for a couple of years. It took time for us to appreciate the benefits of being able to walk absolutely anywhere, plus having other people walking across our garden etc. In Britain ownership and privacy are intrusive, with signs everywhere prohibiting access and freedom to roam. Britain remains easily the best-mapped country in the world – mainly due to the continued obsession with privately-owned land, property and wealth.

  • donnygirl11 June 2012 8:43PM

    If private, vested interests are so keen to engage in a land grab of previously publicly owned land – then a Land Tax would either discourage their rapacity – or cost them dear. Perhaps the more progressive political parties might re-engage with a Land Tax, cost it and promote it enthusiastically ahead of the 2015 general election. Public attention needs to be drawn to the loss of public land and amenity. Once lost, it will never be re-gained.

  • Christo6011 June 2012 10:39PM

    All river access on the Jubilee pageant route was sealed off and guarded by private guards, or used for paid for seating. So I assume someone had the ‘right’ to limit access
    I was also on a Saturday morning guided walk in the City which was asked to leave a terrace accessible from the street which belongs to a Rothchilds building. Our tutor wanted to show us the garden behind an old church. city of London guide too.

  • MorethanExist12 June 2012 1:07AM

    Truly horrifying that our public spaces are being privatized wholesale to the corporate fascists.

    It should concern everyone!

  • weegy112 June 2012 1:54AM

    Why doesn’t the guardian pay for this research to be done and then print the results?

  • Jiminoz12 June 2012 4:12AM

    You need to be clear about what was previously private space, that the public is now allowed access to, and space that was previously public (like public roads) that has become private. It seems that the first option is a step forward, not backwards, for the public, if before they were not allowed access anyway.

    Of course, all land was really stolen by the rich and powerful anyway, either through armed conquest, or by passing enclosure bills in a non-representative parliament.

  • Antonymous12 June 2012 9:37AM

    By passing a FOI bill which includes the right to freely request information about land and property ownership.

    This is an absolute scandal.

    Investigative journalism costs money – often informants are paid tens of thousands of pounds. So why doesn’t the Guardian spend a little cash and get some big names on that map TODAY?

  • Liverpoollife12 June 2012 9:51AM

    This is ,certainly, not the case in Liverpool. If it had not been for Grosvenor then a huge swathe of city centre streets, walkways and parkland would have continued to be blighted for years. This blight is what “compromised” the people of liverpool and took away their “rights”, not the stunning redevelopment that we now see.

    Liverpool One has added, immeasurably to the city and to the people of Liverpool.

  • Liverpoollife12 June 2012 9:59AM

    There is a measure of truth to what you say. In the case of Liverpool, the city had little other option – having been abandoned and subject to a ‘managed decline’ by successive governments.

    It was not even a time of national ‘austerity’ when Grosvenor stepped in.: Liverpool had been suffering under austerity for decades whilst Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle prospered.

  • JeevanVasagar12 June 2012 10:07AM

    Staff

    Because many pairs of eyes are better than one or two. And one goal of the project is to consider how we think about our public spaces; how concerned are we about private ownership? The only way to answer that question is to ask people what they think. Traditionally, that might be done with a poll of course – but this is an attempt at a more collaborative form of journalism.

  • zavaell12 June 2012 11:23AM

    Please add St Catherine’s Walk in Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire. I can’t upload via your notice board as I do not ‘do’ FB or twitter.

  • hipslinky12 June 2012 1:42PM

    Local authorities keep a register of streets which lists whether it is part of the public highway or is private. This list includes open spaces in the form of squares, but not parks. But this is only available to organisations which coordinate street works.

    Anyone can find out if a street is private or public. Call the local authority and ask to speak to the person who deals with highways searches. Some councils also show this information in map form on their websites.

    Lots of roads are adopted several years after a development completes, so just because a road is private now, doesn’t mean it always will be. Private roads are not maintainable at public expense, so saving your taxes, by the way.

  • Llabradwr12 June 2012 1:48PM

    It entirely depends on the owners as to whether or not this is good or bad. Look how much land the National Trust owns – they’re private, and I have no problem with their ownership of land (in fact I’d like them to own even more)

  • markbrownhole12 June 2012 1:58PM

    the riverside between battersea bridge and albert bridge in London, on the south bank.

    the landowners have been trying to evict boats there for years – despite in fact allegedly not owning the actual frontage – and use the usual corporate armoury of bully boy tactics and limitless funds to get their way.

    All along the riverside, even as the river walkway opens up, ownership is private and access is granted only on limited and unaccountable terms, which can be taken away. so smokers from the offices: ok. skateboarders: not ok.

  • JohnGHarvey12 June 2012 2:43PM

    I feel that this article is too simplistic. Some points need to be appreciated

    1 Private ownership of public open space is nothing new.

    S9 Open Spaces Act 1906 provides for the creation of a PoS where a parks authority “undertake the entire or partial care, management, and control of any such open space or burial ground, whether any interest in the soil is transferred to the local authority or not”. It does not even require the agreement to be in writing. In fact such spaces can be better protected than if land is vested in the parks authority. If the land is owned the authority can sell it after following the procedure in S123 Local Government Act 1972 and extinguish public trusts. There is no similar statutory power for bringing an agreement without conveyance of title to an end.

    2 Transfers are not all to commercial organisations.

    My favourite is the Lingfield Nature Reserves. See http://lingfieldreserves.org.uk/index.php/home Don’t make it unattractive for councils to do things like this.

    3 The Land Registry does not give a complete picture.

    A Arrangements can exist which not appear on the register

    B The position with roads is complicated thanks to (Google them) the “general boundaries rule” and the “ad medium filum” principle.

  • JeevanVasagar12 June 2012 5:44PM

    Staff

    Interesting response on Twitter from ‏@camdentheo, who is Camden’s cabinet member for finance, on cost as a driver for this change:

    “costs abt £1m for 16+ streets+ 7k residents. If LAs want to adopt they pay more-Bsns Rates dont cushion even with changes.”

    This is a reference to the cost to Camden of adopting the KIng’s Cross development.

  • Diodorus12 June 2012 6:39PM

    In the small towns on the south side of Bay of Naples that are dominated by the Camorra, which of course controls all development and building, almost all public spaces have been deliberately eliminated. It is of a piece with the long-standing effort by the Camorra to undermine all public provision of services, such as schools and hospitals. (Uneducated people with poor health care under a hopelessly corrupt government bureaucracy are much more likely to be dependent on and “loyal” to their local Camorra boss.) There are a few open spaces still left in front of churches, the railway station, if there is one, and the town hall, and that’s about it. Everywhere else has been covered over by gimcrack apartment blocks thrown up by Camorra-controlled businesses. The housing is gradually creeping up the sides of Mount Vesuvius. I confess that I sometimes hope it’ll erupt again.

  • rebeccazg12 June 2012 9:07PM

    yes. Perhaps the answer is some sort of private land registry agreement, that all private owners of public spaces have to agree to , if there is not one already. Perhaps this can limit their pwer in evicting members of the public from open spaces that have previously been public. Or a form of leasehold, that lasts for 20 years or so, for example, so that the sale of some public land ( eg in cities) does not last forever…

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