Wednesday, 01 June 2011

The assault on the public When I was in France recently I was a bit shocked at the prevalence of private beaches, in a country which I had thought took liberté and égalité seriously. Perhaps it will get as bad in the UK before long. I vaguely recall, but cannot find evidence of, an early Thatcher attempt or threat to sell stretches of the British coastline. And I've been wondering, what will it take eventually to spark a serious debate about the nature of 'public' in this country? The government's determined assault on what is public encompasses a scary disinterest in formal care services for vulnerable people; spiteful bullying contempt (especially from here) for local-elected bodies almost by definition; the washing of hands on policy for public libraries; the idea of selling off nature reserves; and the outrageous attempt to sell off publicly-owned woodland. And we have a London borough apparently serious about charging children to use an adventure playground. That should get rid of the riff-raff. I daresay there are plenty of similar examples, as the Haves seek to drive home their advantage and accentuate what Geoff Mulgan described as the 'evident imbalance between private affluence and public poverty.' The other day I was in a London square where I was told that you weren't allowed there if you were wearing overalls. Presumably if a worker is needed to fix something, he or she has to be brought in behind screens or under cover of darkness: the leisure of the wealthy should not be spoiled by the risk of catching sight of hoi-polloi. It was, presumably, pseudo-public space - privately owned, the developer having extracted from the local authority pretty much whatever they wanted in return for providing pavements and conditional access. Bless them, the London Assembly recently published a report which 'identifies a number of concerns relating to the shift in the ownership and management of public spaces from local authorities to developers, and recommends solutions.' But last month's BBC programme about the street without services suggested to me that there is a lot to be done before people will join up the evidence of these various little skirmishes and recognise them as a war. How late is too late?

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