Our public highways are under threat

As restrictions are gradually eased, it is heartening to see our public spaces once again being filled with shoppers, cafe-goers and those who just want to make the most of being able to socialise freely again. This should also prompt us to have a serious look at the value we place on our public spaces, for if we do not act soon, we could lose them without realising until it is too late.

A small but growing number of commentators and activists are drawing our attention to increased use of pseudo-public spaces – that is, those which to all intents and purposes appear to be public spaces but are in fact privately managed and owned. Vast swathes of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham (as well as many more) are under private ownership, but this is no longer an issue confined to big cities. Devastated by years of austerity, councils have been selling off land at alarming rates to private corporations and as a busker, this is more obvious to me than most. With the number of busking pitches available on genuinely public land reducing, it is now very difficult to make a living without busking on publicly accessible private land. It is not just in the large metropolises – I have faced attempts to move me on in Didcot, Stourbridge, Redditch and countless others. They will never try to argue that I am causing any genuine problems – simply that ‘management don’t allow it’.

I will almost always stand my ground, pointing out that, not only does a specific section of public highways law allow for privately owned land to act as a de jure public highway in many instances, but also that with trespass being a civil offence, there needs to be some evidence of harm being caused in order to compel me to leave. Where there is no material harm, I see no reason to leave. Usually, the security guards hired by these private corporations give up and let me continue. They’ve even, on one occasion, returned to buy a CD from me. But if they dig in, problems can occur, which has led to me being arrested for ‘breach of the peace’ in 3 different locations. In all of these instances, the police have admitted that I was not actually breaching the peace, nor did they have any evidence that I was likely to. But for a breach of the peace arrest, none of this is actually required. All that is required is for the police officer to believe that a breach of the peace may occur. Note that it is not legally relevant who will be causing that breach. The last time this happened, officers in Birmingham accepted my argument that they were effectively arresting me because, if I didn’t leave, the security guards might initiate a physical altercation.

Two new proposed laws threaten to escalate this to a worrying extent. One is Priti Patel’s much-publicised policing bill, which has rightly been the subject of mass protests. For me, it is almost laughable to see her argue that existing powers regarding Public Order are not strong enough, given my experiences of being arrested under the very laws that apparently do not give the police enough power.

The other, which will arguably have an even more significant impact, is the impending criminalisation of intentional trespass. Trespass is defined as refusing to leave an area of private land after being asked to do so by the landowner (or a representative of the landowner). It is clear that this proposal is aimed at traveller communities (which is appalling in itself), but the unintended (or perhaps entirely intended) consequences will be massive.

Considering that huge areas of our city centres and town centres are in private hands, we now need to consider the fact that, if the government get their way, any individual will now be committing a criminal offence if they are asked to leave the centre by a privately contracted security guard and they refuse to do so. There will be no legal onus on them to provide a reason for asking them to leave. So private companies will effectively be given a free rein to write their own laws and police our city centres.

This is not a hyperbolic, 1984-esque vision of a dystopian future. This system of corporate authoritarianism is already starting to take hold, and will flourish further if these new laws are passed. It is likely that few will notice the difference until it is too late. It is vital that action is taken now to safeguard our public highways.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham. He is a a co-director of Keep Streets Live

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  • DAVID LANGSHAW 23rd Jun '21 - 9:58pm

    It’s not just busking. I have been escorted off the premises (by security guards in a van) for cycling along a road on the Reading/Wokingham border, which is apparently “owned” by the Oracle corporation. And in the playground of a Glasgow shopping centre the security guards moved in to prevent me from taking photos of my daughter and her cousins. The latter incident was a few years ago, and might be a dead letter now that phones have cameras, but the point is still valid.

  • We have come across the same problems when canvassing in our town centre. The main square is privately owned and we were forced to retreat to a small area of public pavement, where we caused more nuisance than if we had stayed where we were.

  • @DAVID LANGSHAW “in the playground of a Glasgow shopping centre the security guards moved in to prevent me from taking photos of my daughter and her cousins. The latter incident was a few years ago, and might be a dead letter now that phones have cameras”
    Not at all a dead letter, the private ownership means you do need the permission of the owner to take pictures and that’s before we consider the taking of pictures of children, even if the children happen to be your own…

    This is all part of creeping privatisation; in the case of the NHS patient data grab by NHS Digital (the trading name of an organisation which is wholly separate to the NHS) deliberate.

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