The Garden Bridge That Isn’t Top of the Pops

 

Or The Spirit of Kinder Scout.

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)

Cameron’s EU deal fast tracks Human Rights showdown

 

David Cameron’s attempts to bus-in support for what most people seem to think is a lack-lustre deal on EU reform could back-fire spectacularly.
In crude terms, what the PM hasn’t secured in the reform package will be delivered by means of a bill guaranteeing the superiority of rulings from British courts over those from – well, anywhere else. Well, if not quite anywhere else, then certainly from “Europe”.
The detail of what is in this “British Bill” will be even more intensely scrutinised than the final terms of the EU package. Why? Because of the risk of unprecedented levels of emotion and confusion being generated by the debate, destabilising the political landscape with no clear outcome.
Dystopian melodrama? Not a bit of it. Consider the following:
The EU referendum will be intensely debated and divisive on the let as well as the right. The debate will probably be most toxic in the Conservative Party. Twenty five years after Major decried the “bastards” in his own ranks, the tensions on this issue are a s taught as ever.
This would be the case even in a stable two party landscape. Factor in a significant anti-establishment vote – UKIP – and the political scales start rocking like a Newton’s Cradle.
And the debate will be impassioned. Notions of national sovereignty and identity are powerful at best, but in an uncertain world, with widespread pejorative reporting of mass migration, and in a an economy badly fractured between those who have plenty and those who have barely enough (or less), the prospects of keeping calm and concentrating on the facts and nothing but the facts are ……nil.
So that’s just the EU. Now throw in the “British Bill” and see what happens.
First, it will square rather than simply double the volume and everything else associated with the referendum.
Second, depending what the Bill says, we are poised to stick two judicial fingers up at some , er, interesting international bodies, to whom we have treaty obligations. Like the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
I can understand why the PM may take a punt – cock a snook at the ECJ and just hope that our own courts will agree with any ECJ judgments that could potentially cause a conflict. But the ECtHR is a different kettle of fish. Uncouple ourselves from the ECtHR and we opt out of the European Convention of Human Rights too. Do we want to be that delinquent? Do we want to pick a fight on that turf?
Well of course the answer is that some people do. Some do because they confuse the two courts and believe leaving the EU erases the influence of both. (Allowing such misunderstanding to exist, incidentally, does nothing for anybody, so I wish more media outlets had adopted a Mirror-style clarification.)
Some do because they actively want to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute. This is of course both a Conservative “hotspot” in terms of policy, but also something that they have been unable to vigorously pursue because of the excellent campaign work of Liberty and the objections of MPs such as David Davis and especially Dominic Grieve.
And therein lies a further dilemma – and it may be on this one that the PM gets his fingers badly burned. Either he includes the ECtHR in his list of courts whose rulings are subordinate to British ones or not. It seems he cannot duck this issue now.
If he does, he brings on a political row that he has struggled to avoid throughout his premiership – and with good reason because he fears he will not win. And who knows what trying this and the EU referendum will do to the vote on the latter?
If he does not, he stands open to a furious charge from Eurosceptics that he has sold them short. That the vital totem has been desecrated by its omission.
This could turn into a process with extra-ordinarily high stakes – and that’s without all the other hugely controversial pieces of legislation that will creep through under cover of what looks like being a ferocious political firefight.
Irrespective of the vote to stay or leave the EU, the “British Bill” – or more particularly a British Bill of Rights – could well be smuggled through the wake of the referendum. But then again, perhaps that is what the PM most truly desires.

 

Full disclosure;  I am a member of Liberty’s Policy Council, writing in a personal capacity

This piece also appears in  the Huffington Post.

Death of the High Street?

Or…be careful what you wish for.
What would you say if the last two bookshops in your town closed – apparently having been spurned by the landlord who is taking advantage of a lease break to rake in the rent from a US-based fast-growing bank?

A tragedy? Outrageous? A metaphor for our times?

Well, despite the recovery in the paid-for printed word some hard commercial realities and the whiff of a suspected scandal have collided with fireworks in south west London. Wimbledon’s last two retail bookshops closed within days of each other – as the space was re-let to Metrobank .

This has all the hallmarks of a good old heroes-and-villains, right-versus-wrong, culture-against-mammon dust up. But the truth, as much as can be gleaned, reveals a different picture.

Lease-breaks happen, so no surprise there. But locals have claimed the failure to offer sitting tenants first refusal on a renewal is far from best practice. Waterstones and WH Smith’s clearly identified the lease-break as the reason for their departure – but one declined to name the landlord and the other has yet to confirm (to me, at least) they want to stay in the area.

So has the landlord metaphorically stuck the knife into doughty beacons of culture and learning on this high street – passed them over to make a bigger buck out of new tenants?

In fairness the landlord – Hermes– has a pretty good pedigree when it comes to acting ethically – the Frank Barnes school at Kings Cross being a case in point. So maybe Waterstones and Smith’s are themselves subject to some controversy.

If they wanted to stay, why not a vigorous search for alternative accommodation as soon as jeopardy emerged? Are local business rents prohibitively high? (A little but perhaps not ruinously – around £45 per square metre per annum seems commonplace ) Is no accommodation readily available? (A bigger problem, perhaps) Or are feet being dragged because Crossrail2 may destroy half of Wimbledon town centre and blight the other 50% starting in as little as two years’ time? Were they in fact made an offer that they felt they couldn’t refuse?

One thing is clear – the incoming business is cheerfully expansionist. Metrobank is the creation of Vernon Hill (a colourful but dated pen portrait of him from 2001 is here) who has a clear vision of what he wants, business-wise, and a well established model of operating. Perhaps ironically, it is a model that is based on high levels of footfall in each branch. It may be that Metrobank could pay more than Smith’s and Waterstones, but did they? And if they did, so what?

Because, in a neat twist, Hermes has a responsibility to get the best return it can on its assets, for it is the recipient of inward investment by many pension funds. The actual and prospective pensioners are possibly just the same people who would prefer to see bookstores than banks.

Cue a predictable spat on social media!

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Whatever further may yet emerge, there is one inescapable point: Clicks to confirm purchases from on-line retailers add up to a seismic shock to traditional booksellers. They have to reconfigure, rationalise, and search for a revised niche. None of this is news to those in the trade – but can we really cry foul at the consequences of our own actions on town centres and high streets?

Does this illustration – which I think is probably a repetition of something seen frequently over the last years on our high streets – herald the demise of the bookshop?

I foolishly believed that something approaching a full service would be kept at these shops right up to the point of closure. So looking for a particular book, I crossed the thresh-hold and immediately felt the stale atmosphere of resignation. Whole units removed, open packing crates everywhere. Space empty or emptying before my eyes.

The books may be off the shelves, and e-books may be a fading novelty, but the writing is certainly on the wall.

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The only place in central Wimbledon where you can still buy books (Credit: Author)