The Corporation of London claims it has no objection to protest, yet the erosion of the public realm makes it all but impossible
The high court has ruled that the defence of the public highway is grounds for evicting Occupy London protesters from St Paul’s. This could not be more ironic, given that the removal of public space in the City is at the nub of the row between the protesters and the Corporation of London.
Over the last 20 years, since the corporation quietly began privatising the City, hundreds of public highways, public pathways and rights of way in place for centuries have been closed. The reason why this is so important is that the removal of public rights of way also signals the removal of the right to political protest.
The protesters never intended to camp outside St Paul’s. But as the land around the church remains just about the only public land in the City, they had nowhere else to go. The rest of the Square Mile has witnessed the gradual erosion of the public realm as the corporation gave the go-ahead to the patchwork of private estates which have taken over since the 1980s.
Hand in hand with the spread of new private estates has been the closure of public highways and public rights of way under an obscure piece of planning law, known as “stopping up orders”. This little-known process, mired in the jargon of highways and transport legislation, allows local authorities to close roads permanently to allow new developments to be built. It has taken place in towns and cities across the country, where large private estates such as Liverpool One, Cabot Circus in Bristol and Westfield Stratford City have privatised streets and public places, banning a host of activities including taking photographs, filming and political protest. In Liverpool, Grosvenor now owns and controls 34 streets in the heart of the city and London’s Paternoster Square, just behind St Paul’s Cathedral, is a typical example. Home to the London Stock Exchange it was Occupy London’s initial target. But because the square is private land the owners were able to issue a court injunction that banned the protesters, who went on to base the protest on the public land around St Paul’s, which is owned by the Church of England and the Corporation of London.
As the dispute around St Paul’s intensified, Paternoster Square revealed just how much power the owners of private estates are able to exercise over the public. Security guards manned the archway in front of the square blocking access while a makeshift sign pinned to a board outlined the legal situation. The sign read: “Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter the premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass. Access will only be granted to tenants of the adjoining buildings and their authorised visitors on proof of identity.”
For months the windswept square has been virtually deserted and outlets such as the Quality Chop House and Pret a Manger have never been quieter. Clearly the response by owners Mistubishi Estates has been designed to prevent protesters getting in – but in the process they have also kept out the public.
The irony of what has been going on in Paternoster Square verges on the Orwellian. Since the beginning of the dispute the businesses in the square have complained that they have lost business, implying that the protesters have driven custom away. In reality, it is the owners who have banned the public from entering.
The design of this development was very controversial when it got the go-ahead, owing to the sensitivities of the site with its proximity to historic St Paul’s. What no one debated at the time were the implications of closing ancient public highways and curtailing public access and democratic protest.
This is the context for the corporation’s case, which is seeking to evict the protesters because they are obstructing public highways. The corporation claims that it has no objection to peaceful protest but that it is opposed to camping. The truth is that it has presided over the removal of the right to any protest, not only in Paternoster Square but throughout the City of London.