The push to open ‘locked and bolted’ green spaces in UK cities | While walking
JThe ragtag crew of Dickensian characters scale the giant wooden upright and, cheering, weave their way through the spiked fences and thickly hedged defenses of Cadogan Square Gardens in Knightsbridge, London. An ersatz Scrooge scolds a fake Oliver Twist, who hoists a sign saying, “Please sir, can I have more?”
Usually only accessible with keyrings and keys, the garden is lovely. But who would know that? Apart from the demonstrators, no one is there. Nobody appreciates ornamental beds, exotic plants or vast lawns. No one looks at the sculptures, competes on the tennis court, or walks through the “pollinator meadow.” It’s Sunday afternoon but there are no children in the playground.
It’s no coincidence that the 7.4 acres of rural idyll are empty. Those who own the surrounding properties live far away because these houses aren’t homes: it’s one of the UK’s trophy postcodes, largely owned or rented by a global elite of billionaire tycoons and English aristocracy. Action on Empty Homes identified these properties as ‘buy to leave’: mansions bought and left empty to store capital, literally using the UK’s prime property as a bank.
It’s far from just a London problem: the campaign group behind Sunday’s protest, Right to Roam, wants to highlight the extreme disparities in land ownership of our urban green spaces that are prevalent across Britain and what they say is its radical impact on all our lives, whether in the form of access to housing or access to nature.
“It’s a system that is often invisible in our political conversation, yet influences almost everything in our society,” said Jon Moses, the group’s national organizer.
The group calls for public access to private parks and green spaces, which they believe should serve as a shared asset for all UK city residents, by expanding roaming rights legislation and bringing the campaign and the Act 2000 rights of way to our real thresholds.
To achieve this, Right to Roam suggests that local authorities make access a condition of payments received by many large landowners from the public purse. “We already have examples of such provisions being used as negative relief,” Moses said. “For example, inheritance tax breaks in exchange for ‘permissive access’ to private land on large estates.”
Many cities in the UK are incredibly green. Half of London is classified as green or blue space, but only 18% of it is accessible to the public. 21% of London households do not have a garden, compared to 12% in the UK, and only half of Londoners live within 400m of their nearest officially designated local open space.
Due to the murky nature of the land registry and the network of anonymous land companies located in overseas tax havens, land ownership in England is nearly impossible to pin down. But MP Caroline Lucas said the issue needed to be addressed.
“A disgracefully low proportion of urban green space in the UK is accessible to the public,” she said. “Instead, much of it is currently the locked down, locked up preserve of the mega-wealthy absentee elite. This further reinforces inequality, especially for low-income people and people of color, who already live in the most nature-poor communities in the country.
Lucas pointed out that we have clearly seen in the pandemic how important nature is to people’s mental and physical health, and how so many people living in urban areas across the UK have struggled with a chronic lack of ‘access. Blacks in England, for example, are four times less likely than whites to have no outdoor space at home.
“Urban access to nature and the health benefits it brings shouldn’t be the preserve of the privileged few,” Lucas said. “It is time to open up our urban natural spaces for the benefit of all.
Labor proposed an urban right to homelessness in its Land for the Many report in 2019: the first time such an idea had been proposed. Anna Minton, the author of Ground Control, said it wouldn’t take much to change the status quo.
“We could very easily legislate to say that all open spaces in the city are governed simply by the law of the land – both national law and the normal regulations of local authorities, which are transparent and developed through democratic processes – and not by special laws, secret restrictions set by companies that vary from place to place,” she said.
Brett Christophers, author of The New Enclosure, said the argument for the status quo was not viable: “Private landowners have long been asking local government to sell their public lands if they are not being used. “, did he declare. “So how is it acceptable for private landowners to sit back and not use their assets in useful or socially productive ways?