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7 September 2022

Our public realm is being lost to private avarice

A freely available space where you can work, rest and pee – is that too much to ask?

By Amelia Tait

If I had a billion pounds, I’d open up a building on every British high street that was simply called “Space”. Inside, there would be comfy sofas, plenty of toilets, a tap to fill your water bottle, free wi-fi, an army of plug sockets, and tables and chairs. You could go there to tie your shoes and put down your heavy shopping bags. You could change your baby’s nappy and clean her face. You could pop in with your lunch box to avoid eating at your desk. You could charge your phone while figuring out directions or waiting for friends. Feel free to go to the toilet without buying a flapjack or an orange juice – at Space, you don’t need to spend any money at all.

I fantasise about Space pretty much any time I’m out and about. As a freelancer who wanders from café to café, I regularly crave somewhere I can just be – simply exist in public without the expectation that I part with my pounds. I spend a lot of time in my local library – the closest thing to my dream that currently exists – but I’m lucky to have one. Almost 800 libraries closed in the UK between 2010 and 2019, and in 2020 alone funding fell by £20m.

In July my local community centre closed – no prizes for guessing why. A block of flats will now sit where there was once a café with £1 cups of tea and 50p buns, not to mention a toddler group with an entrance fee of £1. In the building’s hall (spray-painted with vibrant cartoons from local graffiti artists) there were cooking and dancing lessons for kids, training classes for dog owners, and yoga sessions for anyone who fancied them. A food bank was also run here – and for teens there was an AstroTurf football pitch and skate ramps (now dismantled).

Since 2020 the New Statesman has chronicled the decline of the public realm in its series “Britain’s Lost Spaces”. The statistics are depressing but sadly no longer shocking. In the past decade funding for England’s parks has fallen in real terms by £330m a year. Almost 700 council-run toilets closed between 2010 and 2019, and the Royal Society for Public Health found that 56 per cent of us practise “deliberate dehydration” as a result. More than 4,000 public buildings are sold off by councils every single year.

As much as I am drawn to the idea, Space isn’t the solution – we have seen what happens when billionaires buy our buildings. In 2019 the coworking company WeWork was London’s largest private tenant – that year, its co-founder Adam Neumann was forced to resign after a series of controversies (now, naturally, the subject of a TV dramatisation, WeCrashed). The company plummeted in value from $47bn to $10bn, and London landlords feared unpaid rent. WeWork survived, but the affair revealed the tactics of many modern start-ups, which promise the good kind of disruption but leave us with the bad. In 2020 a Surrey council agreed to waive millions of pounds of rent payments owed by WeWork because of the pandemic – never mind that the council itself was facing unprecedented costs.

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Even without scandals, is WeWork really what we want? The company sells customers a privatised, sanitised form of “community” – or as Neumann once put it, a “physical social network”. Among the stylish furniture and bright lights of these buildings are the same yoga classes and skateboard ramps offered by my local centre – but a WeWork all-access membership costs £358.80 a month.

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It’s a disgrace that so many of us no longer have a public area where we can sit, chat, drink, eat, play and rest for free. It’s a disgrace that private investors are buying this space and selling it back to us, gaining millions of pounds of profit that is not invested into the community. In 2017 a Guardian investigation revealed the rise of “pseudo-public space” – parks and squares that were secretly owned by corporations. These privately owned public spaces, or “Pops”, are often guarded by security officers who can eject people for protesting or taking a nap.

As energy bills rise, councils across the UK are considering setting up “warm banks” where people can beat the cold and access phones with which they can contact their energy suppliers. It is yet to be seen where these warm banks will be situated – they can’t, after all, be housed in sold-off buildings. In June Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, asked for help from “anyone in the city” to find suitable space, asking “any organisations who would like to contribute” if they have “a place”.

Rees’s plea exposes just how much has been lost – no, stolen. Bristol’s historic Cheltenham Road Library was sold in 2017 to make way for flats, and the council sold 85 other properties between 2014 and 2019. Across the UK, austerity forced councils to sell more than 12,000 public places in those same five years.

The term “warm banks” has a dystopian ring: it would never have been coined in a country that already provided its citizens with adequate public space. There should always be somewhere people can go – not just to be warm, but to be together.

While the government fails to provide, I idly continue to fantasise about Space. Perhaps there would be little pods where you could take a nap. You could go there to rearrange your groceries after an Aldi cashier’s high-speed scanning forced you to shove your apples on top of your eggs. It would be the best place to hide from a sudden downpour; maybe there could be hairdryers in the loo. If all this sounds fantastical – impossible even – then it shows that austerity has robbed us not only of our spaces, but our hope.

[See also: The only winners of Wagatha Christie are the tabloids]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained