Behind a story about swings, slides and children lies a deeper scandal about how modern capitalism is stealing the ground from beneath our feet.
Children at the Wren Mews estate in Lambeth, south London, were recently banned from part of their new housing estate.
Children from privately-owned flats were allowed to enjoy the playground. Those who lived in social housing in adjacent blocks were not.
The news was met with outrage, branding their exclusion as segregation. This is about the exclusion of ordinary people from public space. But it’s also a result of a gradual whittling away of free spaces where children can play and enjoy themselves.
It is well-known that libraries have been closed, as have Sure Start nurseries for early years. But the closure of playgrounds seems to have passed under the radar.
According to The Association of Play Industries (API), councils across England closed 214 playgrounds between 2016 and 2017.
By the end of this year, another 234 are set to have been closed.
Mark Hardy from the API said, “Something we all took for granted—safe, local and free spaces in which to play—is disappearing.
“Unless action is taken now, we are in danger of losing playgrounds.”
Local authority funding for parks has been gutted. Between 1979 and 2000 funding for parks and green spaces was slashed by £1.3 billion.
In 2001 the public parks assessment found that only 18 percent of historic public parks were judged by the people who managed them as being in good condition.
A 2006 report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment put it bluntly, “As there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to fund green space, the influence of green space managers in the budgetary decision-making process is often limited.”
So savage cuts are made. Either that or the funding comes from elsewhere. Sometimes parks hire themselves out to music festivals in order to produce revenue. So something that is technically publicly-owned becomes private for a day, a weekend, or a week.
For instance, Mile End Park in east London generates 50 percent of its costs through commercial ventures, such as renting out pavilions and commercial spaces to parties or private firms.
It’s just one part of the wider attack on public space.
Playgrounds and communal areas were built largely as a result of the huge social struggles in the wake of the Second World War. Army bases were occupied by families, which eventually forced the state to begin housing them.
Now the gains of that period are being rolled back.
From parks to libraries, common spaces that should be at the heart of public life are up for grabs.
There are hundreds of examples of this across Britain—from “poor doors” for social housing tenants on private housing developments to sham public parks.
“There is segregation and hierarchy built into developments” such as Wren Mews, argued south London campaigner Jerry Flynn. “The key problem is with the hierarchy of space—people have restricted access and different types of tenure are divided up into different blocks on a development.”
It all comes down to political decisions, which makes the handwringing of politicians over the Wren Mews scandal (see box) all the more hypocritical.
Everywhere ordinary people are excluded from control of their local environment and reduced to gazing at a world they are barred from.
Modern capitalism increasingly blurs lines between public and private.
The fake public space for the rich is just that—another barrier erected for them to feel secure. But it is also designed to give a false sense of social inclusion to the people who feel guilt when confronted with poverty.
“To the ordinary person, there’s no distinction. To me, it’s everything—I’m not the sort of person they want,” one rough sleeper told the Guardian newspaper. He was talking about the private land designed to look like a park which is part of the Kings Cross development in north London.
It’s part of the phenomenon of privately-owned public spaces, so-called Pops—policed by security guards.
Housing campaigner Glyn Robbins argues that this process can be traced back to the privatisation of London Docklands in the 1980s.
“In that transition there was an opportunity. A political decision was made to go in a certain direction,” he said.
Now the area is filled with the glittering steel and glass spires of the financial sector, with sterile grass and concrete parks arranged in between them at ground level.
Since 1979 almost 50 percent of Britain’s public land has been sold off to private interests.
Margaret Thatcher began privatising public assets in the 1980s. Land was a part of a gold rush, along with the privatisation of council housing under the Right to Buy scheme.
Councils and the health service have taken the biggest hit. Local authorities have sold 40 percent of their land in the same time period, and the NHS 70 percent.
In the years since it is has become a common sense that funding would no longer come from the state for public spaces.
For instance, since 2010 local authority funding from central government has been cut by 50 percent.
In 1998, then Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott ordered Lord Rogers of Riverdale to “establish a vision for our cities”.
At the heart of his “vision” was private capital. Rogers believes that “Private sector institutional investment is an essential part of the regeneration package,
But this wasn’t just Rogers’ vision. It was part of the pro-big business ideology shared by leading politicians and across the world, in all mainstream parties.
Report after report backed it up. There was no alternative.
There was a trade-off. Parks and communal areas apparently couldn’t be funded by local authorities anymore, businesses were asked to build and maintain them in return for planning permission.
The problem is, if you prostrate yourself before private capital it will kick you in the ribs. And that’s exactly what happened.
If including a social housing quota isn’t economically “viable” for a developer, councils will back down. Or developers will simply lie at the planning stage, knowing councils are so desperate they likely won’t object when they discover the deceit.
Politicians of all stripes hold up their hands and pretend to be shocked at the state of social housing and access to public areas.
But they are responsible for the selloffs and the sell-outs that have created this situation.
Labour council hypocrisy
Outsourcing lay behind the Wren Mews scandal. All of the parties involved were happy to enforce the rules or to claim ignorance of what happened.
Political decision makers swooned in mock outrage.
But public pressure made them eventually back down—this time.
Tory housing minister James Brokenshire said, “I condemn this in the strongest terms”—ignoring that the Tories have created a housing system where ordinary people are treated with such contempt.
So did London mayor Sadiq Khan—never mind that he took money off Henley Homes for his election campaign for London mayor in 2016.
The firm donated £75,000 to the Labour Party in 2016, according to their accounts.
Further down the political food chain lies Lambeth council. In a letter in February, it could only manage a mealy-mouthed plea to Henley Homes suggesting that the playground should be open to all.
“This is a civil matter regarding the management agency and it is only within your gift to ensure that all play spaces are available for all children to use,” it read.
Lead councillor for housing in Lambeth Matthew Bennett has described the scandal as “completely unacceptable”. But it was apparently acceptable for Lambeth council to close down three libraries in the borough and turn some into private gyms.
The response from every section of the political class is grossly hypocritical. Lambeth has been at the forefront of the drive to turn public services and space private.
In 2017, the last year accounts were available, Henley Homes made almost £7 million profit on a £120 million turnover.
Its website describes it as having a “focused approach to customer care”. As soon as the scandal broke the firm’s chief executive Tariq Usmani was quick to point out that Wren Mews is “a freehold owned and managed by the Guinness Partnership”.
The Guinness Partnership was equally quick to pass the buck. “We are now working with Warwick Estates, who manage the private development,” one of their representatives told Socialist Worker.
Warwick Estates is one of the bottom feeders of London’s complex private housing ecosystem. They didn’t respond when asked for a comment.
They play a useful function for the bigger fish, which is true of all outsourcing in modern capitalism—plausible deniability.