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Community Control Or “Fleecehold”: What’s The Future Of Public Space?

Mark Walton

Our ‘public’ spaces are increasingly privately owned and managed. The consequences for our major civic squares and plazas have been a concern for years, but what happens when residents lose control of the management of their local spaces, or how much those services cost them? Mark Walton takes a look behind some recent headlines.

The ways in which we create and maintain our public realm have been changing for some time, and now it seems the consequences of some of these changes are starting to bite.

It was 2009 when Anna Minton, in her book Ground Control, highlighted the proliferation and social consequences of privately owned public spaces in our towns and cities. The issues raised in Ground Control focus largely on urban squares and plazas and include commercialisation,  the erosion of citizen’s rights of assembly and protest, and the increase in surveillance and unaccountable policing by private security firms. It also points to a wider set of issues such as our changing understanding of nature of public space, and the erosion of citizenship and trust.

More recently headlines have focused on the spaces we use closer to home. It’s not just city squares that have been effectively privatised. Cuts to local authority spending mean that neighbourhood parks and play spaces in new developments are no longer adopted by the council. They are increasingly being built and managed by developers and management companies and paid for by residents (both freehold and leasehold) who pay a mandatory service charge to cover the costs.

These management arrangements take many forms, varying from developer to developer and from place to place. In some cases resident-led governance – for instance through a Community Development Trust of which residents can be members – means those paying for the service, and with a direct interest in its quality, have control over how those service charges are raised and spent. In other cases the developer may pass on the freehold of the open spaces (verges, parks, play areas) to a management company of their choosing, effectively giving them a licence to charge what they like and deliver a service that gives little consideration to the actual needs of residents.

Residents subject to these new arrangements are increasingly voicing their dissatisfaction, dubbing these arrangements “fleecehold”. They see the fees as a second tax, the management arrangements as unaccountable, and the whole murky business as untransparent and unregulated. In some places local Parks Trusts or social enterprises stand ready to take responsibility for new green spaces in ways that are accountable and focused on providing public benefits over profit, but local authorities have no power to require developers to use a particular service provider or ownership model for the green spaces they create.

Perhaps more insidiously those residents paying for the upkeep of the spaces are more likely to regard them as “private” spaces, resenting (or worse) any social housing residents from the development, or people from adjacent neighbourhoods, who do not pay a service charge but can still make use of them.

In some cases it seems developers are pre-empting the idea that different residents should have a different access to, or quality of, spaces around their developments. The case of the Lilian Baylis Old School development in south London has made national headlines in recent weeks because the developer Henley Homes had blocked social housing residents from using shared play spaces, despite marketing the development as inclusive and family-friendly. Designs were altered after planning permission was granted to block the social housing tenants from accessing the communal play areas. Following the public furore the developers have relented and agreed to open access to all residents.

"...buyers will inevitably start to question the fees and charges they are signing up for, and asking who will be delivering local services and what level of control they will have..."

As we increasingly see large urban extensions and a new generation of garden towns and villages being developed, this emerging issue will become increasingly pressing for developers. As concern spreads buyers will inevitably start to question the fees and charges they are signing up for, and asking who will be delivering local services and what level of control they will have.

It’s not just a question of transparency, equity and value for money. At a recent event celebrating the success of the NHS England Healthy New Towns programme it was notable that the idea that having ‘agency’ (a sense of control over what happens in your local area), is a significant factor in people’s sense of wellbeing. Good places need residents to be in control.

At Shared Assets we have worked with a number of local authorities, and most recently with Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, to develop forms of management and governance of green spaces that are financially sustainable, deliver local public benefits, and are accountable to local residents. We would be keen to hear from progressive developers who are wanting to ensure their developments demonstrate best practice in this area rather than risk being part of what is being called “the next PPI scandal”.

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