The measure of a city’s greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares.
— John Ruskin
Title Plan of Quakers Friars

In September 2008, David Mowatt, a Quaker, was handing out leaflets in a newly developed retail area in Bristol known as Quakers Friars inviting people to attend a debate between the manager of this new retail development and a Quaker economist advocating alternative models of wealth creation. On seeing him, a private security guard instructed Mr. Mowatt to stop leafleting, explaining that he was on private property where such activities were prohibited. The security guard directed him to a nearby public highway, the Horsefair, where Mr. Mowatt was able to continue handing out his leaflets instead.

When Quakers Friars and the surrounding areas were redeveloped into a shopping centre (Cabot Circus), they became private property, held on 250 year leases by a shell company (the Bristol Alliance) owned by two multinational companies, Hammersons and Land Securities. The freehold is still owned by the local authority, who compulsorily purchased buildings they did not own and granted planning permisssion for the regeneration project. While few Bristolians would have disagreed with the Council's assessment that these buildings 'sit in an austere and beleaguered environment surrounded by large areas of car parking and the ugly backs of Broadmead's shops' the city centre is now a 'property retail asset', producing rental income of £14.7 million in rents passing a year for two private companies. In Hammerson's 2012 Annual report they are included in a 'commercial property portfolio' including '20 prime shopping centres, 22 convenient retail parks and investments in nine premium designer outlets', together worth £5.5 billion, while Land Securities property assets are valued at £10.33 billion. Both Hammersons and Land Securities are Real Estate Investments Trusts (REITs) and so pay no corporation tax on their property income, instead shareholders pay tax on dividends (which can be as low as 10%). 

Register Extract of Quakers Friars

Does this matter? Are city spaces simply assets to be managed and included in a balance sheet? Or are they public spaces open to all? In England there is no doctrine equivalent to the American doctrine of 'public forum', so anyone who is not invited into a property - including a Quaker entering onto 36 acre site owned by the Bristol Alliance - can be evicted. This is what happened to Mr. Mowatt and was, as legal rules stand, perfectly permissible.   

The suggestion that this does matter and that we need to understand how 'laws of place' operate as well as opening up some private property as public spaces is developed in 'Shopping in the Public Realm: The Law of Place' (2010) Journal of Law & Society  412-441. This paper won the Socio-Legal Studies Association Best Article Prize in 2010.



Antonia Layard, University of Bristol. Contact.