Edition number 54; dateline 17 July 2012

The public realm: safe in whose hands?

The sport, leisure and culture sector has been focused for so long on the post-Olympic landscape that athletes actually arriving at Heathrow and beginning their trek to the Olympic village comes as something of a surprise. With our Games tickets on the TLR mantelpiece, we are looking forward to making the same journey and we hope that we will be able to enjoy it as the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of sport and sportsmanship, of endeavour and fraternity that the Olympic rings promise. We will be turning the setting on our critical faculties down to ‘low’ and we have been warned  by the directeur sportif in charge of the trip that no wry commentary will be required or tolerated for the duration.

I hope that putting on my Games face will not be as difficult as I fear it may be. I’ve already been issued with clear instructions regarding what I can and cannot wear, how I can and cannot spend my money on site, what I can and cannot put in my soft-sided bag, and what I will and will not be able to put in my empty plastic bottle brought specifically for drinking purposes. I hope my fears that the memory of London 2012 will be of a military lock-down rather than a celebration prove ill-founded. I desperately hope that the Games will be about people and their remarkable achievements rather than about government and corporate control. I hope that the post-Games memories will be shaped by what happens on the field of play rather than what happens on the way into the stadium.

All too quickly the Games will have gone and the sport, leisure and culture sector will be required to assess what has been left behind. We may need to be reminded that things have been going on while our attention was focused elsewhere. The Leisure Review’s round table debate on the new management structures put in place to manage the canals and waterways system is a case in point. A massive portion of the public realm has recently been transferred from British Waterways, a government-sponsored agency, to the Canal and River Trust, a charity. It has taken several years to negotiate and arrange, involves the transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of assets and responsibilities out of ministerial control, and has passed largely unnoticed amid the media attention given to torch routes, security issues and another battle over David Beckham’s eligibility to move elegantly but largely ineffectually around some public greensward.

Our exploration of the waterways happens to be particularly timely as the transfer of responsibilities for the network happened barely a week before publication of this issue. It is also, I believe, particularly relevant as much of the debate centred upon issues of responsibility for the public realm. There were strong feelings on board (in time-honoured TLR fashion we held the debate about the future of the waterways on a narrowboat) regarding the ability or willingness of ministers to protect public interests and public assets from abandonment to profit-making corporate entities, feelings that were matched in their ferocity and countered in their assumptions by arguments that removing public assets from ministerial responsibility takes them away from public accountability. If the public realm is taken out of the control of the public’s elected representatives can it still be said to be the public realm?

It is a question that is being asked more often across the UK as public parks are put under the ownership and management of private entities, and squares and open spaces in our towns and cities are found to be managed and policed by property companies. While the headlines in every newspaper every day belie the myth of private sector efficiencies and competence, ministers patiently explain as if to a stubborn child that ministerial responsibilities for failure end when the contract is signed. Even as they step in to pick up the pieces of another failed corporate promise, whether in the shape of the fantasy of PFI, the laughable ineptitude of G4S or even the fairy tale of quantitative easing, they are still happy to explain that this is the only option, the only possible way to secure the public interest.

It is a measure of just how far the status of parliament and politicians has fallen when managers with a heartfelt affection for and commitment to their piece of the public realm are desperate to remove it far from the hands of our elected representatives on the grounds that they fear for its future if it is left in their control. The inference is that were politicians to be left in charge they would be tempted to flog it off or fuck it up through the special combination of greed, self-interest, arrogance and incompetence that many see as the inescapable hallmark of modern ministerial rank.

If such a view is unfair it is also understandable. The London Olympic Games has been a case study of how government and their agents work. While LOCOG has quite rightly been lauded for its ability to get the job done on time, the government has quite rightly been extensively criticised for the sort of nation it has allowed us to become. What impression will the Olympic park, this most modern and most telling aspect of the public realm, leave on its visitors?

With the Local Government Association predicting a future in which local government has no role in the provision of leisure services and a national government apparently determined to pursue policies that exacerbate and enshrine inequalities in society, the debate about the public realm – who owns it, who is responsible for it and who can access it – will be high on the agenda after London 2012. With the post-Olympic landscape looking so bleak, there is a real possibility that the Games themselves, however vibrant and entertaining they may prove to have been, will quickly come to be seen as an expensive irrelevance.

I’m looking forward to going to Stratford but I suspect that, having got  used to being told what shirt I can wear on my back, soon I’ll have to be careful about the thoughts I hold in my head.


Jonathan Ives



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“The inference is that were politicians to be left in charge they would be tempted to flog it off or fuck it up through the special combination of greed, self-interest, arrogance and incompetence that many see as the inescapable hallmark of modern ministerial rank.”

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