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Why are painters getting pushed out of public spaces?

15 July 2021

On 8 April this year, Carnaby Street was devoid of the throng of tourists that usually makes it one of the busiest streets in Soho. For Dave Crocker, an artist who has been painting outdoors in Soho since 2019, lockdown provided an opportunity to capture Carnaby Street without its crowds. But after he set up his easel and took a photograph, a security guard in a hi-vis jacket told him to move on. The guard’s explanation: the street was private, and Crocker wasn’t part of its ‘corporate image’. While it might seem like public land, much of Carnaby Street is in fact owned by Shaftesbury PLC: a private investment trust that owns 16 acres of real estate in the West End of London.

Crocker is one of a number of artists who have fallen foul of unpublished regulations associated with privately-owned public spaces (POPS) in the UK. Indistinguishable from the squares, parks and streets owned by local authorities, POPS are accessible to the public, but maintained and regulated by private developers and landowners. The number of these pseudo-public spaces in the UK has risen dramatically in recent years, fuelled by the sale of real estate to developers by local authorities anxious to pass on the cost of maintaining public space. Exact figures on POPS are unknown, since local councils and developers have not been forthcoming about agreed terms of ownership. But POPS are now a feature of major urban centres across the UK, from the 42 acres that make up Liverpool One to the new NOMA neighbourhood in Manchester.

The rules that govern POPS are rarely published, which means that users like Crocker don’t know that their behaviour is prohibited until a private security guard – hired by the developer – tells them so. The murkiness surrounding their terms of use has made POPS contentious spaces; in 2019, a report by the think-tank Centre for London warned that some restrictions are ‘potentially discriminatory against different groups of Londoners’. People who could be seen as a ‘nuisance’ – rough sleepers, protestors, or artists, some of whom, like Crocker, depend on the right to freely use public spaces for their livelihood ­– can find themselves being threatened by landowners.

In Crocker’s case, the local community rallied around him after he described his encounter on Twitter, and Shaftesbury PLC hastily backed down. ‘The Soho Society saw my tweet,’ Crocker tells me, ‘and they brought what had happened to the attention of Shaftesbury, who made some enquiries and acknowledged there was no authority to move me on that morning. The reaction of the Soho people was incredible.’ Crocker received an email from Shaftesbury telling him he had carte blanche to paint at Carnaby Street whenever he liked; but to him, that isn’t the point: ‘I wouldn’t want it just for me. I would want it to be for anybody.’

The enforcement of regulations in pseudo-public spaces can seem entirely arbitrary, as artist Ben Hope discovered in 2016. Hope – a painter who also works en plein air ­– had set up his easel on the south bank of the Thames, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, to finish a painting he had started there the week before. In an incident similar to Crocker’s, a guard in a fluorescent jacket told him he couldn’t paint there; he was told that the stretch of the river he had chosen was part of ‘More London’, a development owned by a Kuwaiti wealth fund. ‘It kind of makes you furious. It could be £1,000 that that’s costing you,’ says Hope. ‘There were loads of people walking by and I clearly wasn’t in anyone’s way.’ Hope wasn’t able to finish his painting in situ, instead completing it from memory in his studio. (Both More London and Shaftesbury PLC have been contacted for comment, but neither had responded by the time this piece was published.)

Ben Hope’s Tower Bridge from London Pier (2016) – begun en plein air and completed in the studio.

Ben Hope’s Tower Bridge from London Pier (2016) – begun en plein air and completed in the studio. Courtesy the artist

In response to cross-party calls from MPs to curtail the heavy-handed monitoring of pseudo-public spaces, the Mayor of London released a draft of the Public London Charter in 2020. The Charter aims to establish a common set of standards for using and managing public spaces, and explicitly makes reference to the need for owners of public space to make provision for ‘community-led and cultural activities, as well as public art’.

But do private developers have the necessary expertise to commission art for the public realm? Stuart Semple – a multidisciplinary British artist whose work includes major public art installations and interventions across the UK – doesn’t think so. ‘These developers are into shopping and commerce,’ Semple tells me. ‘They’re not actually interested in connecting the public around artistic ideas.’ For Semple, the solution to the commercialisation of the UK’s open spaces is one that benefits everyone, including artists: ‘We need commons back, common land where we can express ourselves freely and meet and create whatever the hell we like.’

The potential of common land – over which non-landowners have traditional rights – is a theme explored in the winning entry for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture this year. Curated by architects Madeleine Kessler and Manijeh Verghese, The Garden of Privatised Delights comprises six live installations, each developed by a different design team, in which a typology of public space – from the pub to the public toilet – is reimagined for the 21st century. ‘It becomes really scary when you don’t know what the rules and regulations are on the land you’re using, when you don’t have fundamental human rights like the right to protest,’ Kessler tells me. ‘Architects often step back from the political side of things, but building is inherently political […] We need to give people the tools to take more ownership over their public space, and realise as citizens that you have a lot of power over what’s happening in cities.’

Kessler’s pavilion was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which pictures heaven, hell and the sin of earthly pleasures in between. The exhibition is also intended to be experienced as ‘the middle ground between the utopia of the public commons and the dystopia of total privatisation’. It’s an apt reflection of the state of the UK’s open spaces today.  

Sadie Levy Gale is a writer based in London.