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Britain’s New Enclosure

Less than 1% of the population own half of England's land, and with every passing year public right of access is diminishing – enclosing swathes of green spaces to be enjoyed by the rich alone.

Credit: David Burton / Getty

80 percent of the UK population lives in towns and cities, where green and open spaces are limited, and access to them is often restricted. Given that, it was no surprise that murmurings about temporarily closing city parks and gardens as part of last year’s Covid response were met with widespread indignation.

For urban populations, recent restrictions on social contact and an inability to gather in beloved cafés, pubs, and clubs has not only fuelled a collective desire for al fresco socials and reconnecting with the great outdoors – it’s also created a shared awareness that we are, in fact, often pretty squeezed for space. And as we ride a possible third wave into the heat of a second precarious summer, heading outdoors to enjoy grass beneath our feet and tinnies with our mates has once again become a contentious issue.

Restricting Access

Earlier this month, a noticeboard was erected on Grantchester Meadows in Cambridge displaying a list of outdoor leisure activities now prohibited along this charming strip of the river Cam. It acted as a belligerent nudge to remind bathers, barbequers, and boaters that this popular nature spot is in fact private property, use of which remains at the discretion of the deed-holder – King’s College.

Although the land was bought by King’s College in 1452 from medieval Chancellor of the Exchequer Henry Somer, the meadows have nonetheless been a space for collective joy for hundreds of years. A petition went online the day after the noticeboard was put up demanding that the meadows be kept open for public use, and at time of writing, it has over 20,000 signatures.

The petition acknowledges that there are several factors that have resulted in a swell of people visiting the meadows over the past sixteen months, citing ‘closure of facilities due to the pandemic’ and ‘more people seeking Covid-safe diversion from lockdown’, but the organiser maintains that ‘these are extraordinary circumstances and not firm grounds on which to base such drastic action’.

King’s College has now announced that it will not enforce the ban, and will amend the signs to instead reflect the need for ‘responsible use’ of the river. The initial heavy-handed approach, however, remains unnerving, and is a bleak reminder that despite the social significance of the meadows to the local community, the land is not actually theirs to use as they wish.

Young Londoners have recently received a similar reminder. Owned by the Crown, Primrose Hill Park was made public in 1842, and was until recently the only London Park to remain open 24 hours a day. For this reason, in light of nightclub closures and a ban on late-night venues, the park has been a hot spot for after-dark parties.

But at the end of May, in response to complaints from the Hill’s predominantly wealthy residents about loud music, late nights, and littering, the Royal Parks charity—which manages the parks on behalf of the Crown—made the decision to erect nine-foot tall fences around the park. The fences are locked with padlocks at 10pm on weekends to prevent any night-time revelry; this is the first time the Hill has been physically off-limits to the public in over half a century.

Again, an online petition was set up to demand that the park be kept open to the public, with the petition’s organiser, Amy McKeown, saying that ‘If you just slam gates on the problem now, it will be easy to go from that step to saying there’s a need for permanent gates, and that’s what we absolutely do not want.’ It’s the fear of this temporary exclusion setting a precedent for the future management of our open spaces which is concerning to so many – and rightly so.

Creeping Privatisation

These examples—just two among many other similar cases of park closures and restricted access since March 2020—are shadowed by a broader process of covert privatisation taking place in our common spaces. As a 2017 Guardian Cities investigation into ‘pseudo-public spaces’ in London revealed, new developments in the capital—including those in Tower Hamlets, Westfield, and Nine Elms—invariably result in the privatisation of once open spaces.

These municipal squares, walkways, and shopping areas are placed under private jurisdiction with new rules and regulations on use and access – rules which are often only disclosed to you after you’ve broken them. Nine Elms Park, for example, claims to be creating a green corridor ‘entirely open to the public’, but when it comes down to it, who will have jurisdiction over decisions about access and use? It’s not hard to imagine that buskers, rough sleepers, and groups of young people won’t be welcome guests.

In an article from 2019, journalist Dan Cox also drew attention to the increasing commercialisation of London’s parks specifically, as local councils have taken to regularly hiring them out for large music events. Figures obtained by Freedom of Information requests revealed that parks in Enfield are cut off to the public for around 42 days a year, parks in Brent for around 41 days of the year, and full public access to Blackheath—despite it being one of the largest areas of common land in Greater London—can be restricted for almost half of the year. So it turns out that you can party to loud music at night in a park with your friends, but only if you’re paying full whack for it.

New Enclosure

The above-mentioned restrictions on access and use are often just temporary measures, but the wider trend of policing public space is also increasingly consolidated in law. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its third reading in the House of Commons last week, is laden with restrictions relating to spatial justice.

For example, the sharpening of trespass laws in the bill will inflate the power of the police to seize vehicles parked on privatised land, directly targeting GRT communities and the verges and roadside clearings upon which their lives and cultures depend. There is a chronic shortage of Traveller sites in England, and instead of addressing the need for more space, the government is choosing to criminalise people trying to find any space at all. The bill also allows police to decide ‘reasonable’ levels of noise, annoyance, and impact, and to make arrests if these levels are breached – undermining any belief we might have that ‘these streets’ are indeed ‘our streets’.

Although no ownership deeds need to change hands, certain rights of access and use are being stripped away, mirroring the infamous Enclosure Acts which vastly changed the landscape of Britain over the last 1000 years. These acts stripped away common rights—that is, the rights of normal people to use private feudal estates—from around 6.8 million acres of land. Both aspects of the bill dictate how we are permitted to use our collective space, and under what terms; to this end the bill is part and parcel of a ‘new enclosure’.

A Vicious Cycle

In the twenty-first century, when less than one percent of the population own half of all the land in England, and a Right to Roam applies to just two percent of land in the UK, it’s not melodramatic to be concerned about new restrictions being placed on the space we still have access to. People, particularly young people, are increasingly desperate for free places to socialise, but those that are available are increasingly policed. Once there, those that use them are being met with knee-jerk reactions that seek to solve problems of overcrowding, littering, and noise with yet more restrictions.

This self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking space and restricting use—of being outraged when the symptoms of overcrowding and pent-up frustration over lack of space arise, and rectifying it by shrinking space even further—is surely nonsensical. If you keep squeezing, expect something to burst.