Letters: The battle over our communal spaces

Jeevan Vasagar uses the opening of the new Granary Square, King’s Cross (conveniently opposite the Guardian offices) as the hook for his piece (Sold-off cities – the rise in private ownership of public spaces, 12 June). In reality, Granary Square is a new, public space where people are welcome to meet, sit, eat their lunch, use the free Wi-Fi or simply wander through. Of course, the space requires some form of oversight, but that is true of all public spaces.

In this case, Granary Square creates new public areas where none existed previously. Nothing has been “sold off” or has “fallen” into private ownership. The new paving, seats, steps, fountains and lighting are paid for and maintained privately, for the benefit of the development and its occupiers (including the University of the Arts and its students), but they are also a public good. The planning agreement for the site provides a legal framework for genuine public access to Granary Square and other public spaces within the development, alongside roads that can be adopted by the local authority (Camden) with defined principles for the management of the public realm including maintenance standards.

High-quality, safe and well-maintained public spaces, like Granary Square, play a major part in the capital’s economy, environment and quality of life for both Londoners and visitors. So concluded the London assembly in its report Public Life in Private Hands. Vasagar cites the report, but not the part where it highlights King’s Cross as an example of good practice, where “open access to secure, attractive public space” has been secured.
Robert Evans
Director, Argent (King’s Cross) Ltd

•?Your report by Jeevan Vasagar deals with a critical issue, so it’s a pity that its description of Exeter is inaccurate and, as a result, is a missed opportunity to explain how such spaces should be owned and managed to public benefit. Princesshay, in the centre of Exeter, is owned by Exeter city council and is leased to Land Securities/The Crown Estate. This isn’t an arcane detail but the key to how the creation of public space in city centres should be handled.

There is a legal agreement between the council and the developer which requires the developer to allow public access to the whole area 24 hours a day. The gating of the area is specifically outlawed. There are two streets which are arcaded, where activities are limited, eg preventing the playing of radios or busking. All other streets are normal city-centre streets.

The developer’s security staff patrol the whole development but must operate in the same way as the council’s own staff. Shortly after the scheme opened in 2007, one overzealous security officer did challenge someone taking photos – a key public rights issue. The council intervened and reminded the developer that staff had no such powers. There’s been no repeat incident since.

It seems strange that some lobby groups complain in the article about “paved areas” in these schemes – would they rather have streets choked with traffic or a vehicle-free area with space to amble about in comfort and great public art? Residents and shoppers seem pretty convinced they prefer the latter.  

The lessons from Exeter are that the local authority needs to own the site – a tough but crucial issue when there’s a lot of pressure to sell off assets – and it needs to be clear that city-centre streets are part of the public realm with public rights enshrined in legal agreements.
John Rigby
Former director of development, Exeter city council

•?Your article (Park becomes battleground in fight to preserve communal land, 13 June) about Aberdeen’s City Garden project has distinct English overtones here in Withington, Manchester, where local residents are seeking to stop the appropriation of our historic village green by the University of Manchester.

In response to its plans to turn this well-loved green oasis into a sterile entrance “plaza”, residents have applied for village green status under the Commons Registration Act 1965/Commons Act 2006. Unsurprisingly, the university has objected: what is more disappointing is the resistance of our city council to the protection of a prized community asset.

We are optimistic though, for whereas our present musical inspiration may be Ray Davies, previously it was Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Our objections have already stopped the construction of a monstrous multistorey car park as part of this development.
Don Berry
Withington, Manchester

•?I welcome the scrutiny of what is happening to our public spaces in the UK. However it is misleading to equate the ideal of community ownership with public ownership, in place of private ownership. In reality, to create and sustain community ownership of public space now requires an active partnership of all three sectors (private, public and voluntary), as we have discovered here in Hackney. Gillett Square, Dalston, an Academy of Urbanism finalist in 2012, is a good example of this. It works on many levels, but is far from an easy win in a world still run by the 1%.
Adam Hart
Strategic director, Hackney Co-operative Developments

•?Your report of the privatisation of space in London also contains news of the move of the US embassy to the private land of Nine Elms. It makes one wonder how one will be able make a morally legitimate protest at a future immoral action of the United States.

The speeches of all the Republican candidates contain frequent references to international action which would be against international law. From your account it appears that protest outside the new embassy will be prohibited.Thus do the powerful remove themselves from the populus.
Rupert Gude
Tavistock, Devon

•?Your report called for readers to get involved in creating a map of privatised public spaces. They should also be invited to identify and celebrate the thousands of community-owned spaces that are being established across the UK.

These are run as social enterprises like Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire and Coin Street Community Builders on London’s Southbank. And in Scotland, island communities have purchased their local land and developed it to benefit the local population. Owned by and accountable to their communities, these spaces cannot be sold off for private benefit.

This is a rising tide that could swell greatly due to the rights enshrined in the Localism Act, coming into force this September. But it needs public understanding and the backing of local authorities. The funding crisis facing local government does not need to result in more privatisation.
Peter Holbrook
Chief executive, Social Enterprise UK

•?I was interested to read in your special report on open spaces about the battles over common-good land in Scotland and, in particular, Edinburgh. Another common-good debacle currently playing out is the City of Edinburgh council’s attempt to build on Portobello Park, which is also common-good land. As with Princes Mall and Inverleith Park, the council initially denied that Portobello Park was common-good land, until campaigners trying to save the park from development produced a legal opinion from an eminent QC, and also the deed for the sale of the park to the council back in 1898, that clearly showed the park was common-good land.

The council gave itself planning permission to build a school on this park, a decision that has not been subjected to any higher scrutiny, despite the fact that it stands to make £3.9m from the sale of the current school site. The council’s right, or otherwise, to use common-good land in this way is currently being contested through the courts and the judgment will have an impact on common-good land throughout Scotland. If the City of Edinburgh council prevails, we are going to see a lot more common-good assets being appropriated and citizens will have no redress against these decisions.
Diana Cairns

•?The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as the Olympic site will be known, will be publicly accessible and largely publicly owned when it re-opens after the London 2012 Games A democratic void in land ownership, 12 June).

The 20-year development plans include building new homes, bringing employment opportunities to the area and developing high-quality open spaces that are for and owned by the public. They will be beautiful, completely accessible and buzzing with community life, culture and sporting opportunities that will bring people together.

After the Games the park will re-open in phases between July 2013 and Easter 2014, revealing new routes through previously inaccessible land. There will be 102 hectares of open space, including 45 hectares of biodiverse landscaping which will be owned and managed by the Development Corporation – a public sector organisation accountable to Londoners through the London assembly. The directly elected mayors of Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and the leader of Waltham Forest are represented on our board.

A mixture of private firms and social enterprises will operate the venues, but they will all remain in public ownership. We are also bringing in private-sector investment to build up to 8,000 new homes and deliver 8,000 new jobs, because we believe these projects are best delivered in partnership.

However, as we negotiate with our private and third-sector partners, the interests of local people and other park visitors are paramount.

The future development of the park includes three new schools, nine nurseries, three health centres, 29 playgrounds, and 12 community buildings which will serve new and existing communities. When we say we want to create a “great London estate”, we mean that by building neighbourhoods that incorporate the best of urban design and estate management, we will create places where people want to live, as the great estates like Grosvenor and Cadogan did hundreds of years ago.

The transformation of the site is a democratisation of the space from an area previously closed off into a new public park for east London and to suggest otherwise is misleading.
Andrew Altman
Chief executive, London Legacy Development Corporation

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