The Big Society on Parliament’s front lawn?

July 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm Leave a comment

By Simon Bracken

On Sunday, protesters lost their battle to remain in their tents in parliament square. This followed months of heated debate. The arguments against the continued existence of the protest camp seem strong. Some critics have argued that the square – particularly as a world heritage site – should not be treated as it currently is, with poor sanitation, a tent-full of rubbish to clear up everyday and areas of the square being used as allotments. It has been reported that “MPs repeatedly expressed concern about reports of vandalism and drunken behaviour after several homeless people joined the camp.”

Colin Barrow, the head of Westminster council wrote an article in May supporting Boris Johnson’s attempts to remove the camp. While using imagery of a “permanent Glastonbury” his argument to remove the decamped protesters was based on the statement that “London’s public space belongs to all.” His point is strong in that it argues that the square in its current state can neither be used by visitors nor by other protesters.

I am one of those that, despite recognizing the problematic nature of the camp, will mourn the symbol of grassroots active democratic life that the existence of the camp was able to convey to those that passed by – not least those in the building opposite who have the job of turning the political will of its citizens into policy. On top of this, some of the insinuations and the language used by those in criticism of the protesters was sometimes less than enlightened. On top of the common point scoring associations between homelessness and alcoholism, Colin Barrow yesterday commented that “this decision will mean that ordinary Londoners and visitors can once again use the square.” Which begs the question: in what way are activists and the homeless considered not ordinary?

With many of the protesters not willing to leave lightly, there is still a great appetite and commitment to setting up a permanent protest site in the area. Protest organiser Chris Knight said yesterday: “this is part of a much wider protest,” said. “We’re not going very far and we’re not going away.” This seems to point to a situation in which a dispute about the use of public space is going have to be settled through force.

Both sides of the dispute could benefit from a change of perspective on this problem. In Kristine Miller’s book “Designs on the Public” she observes this:

“Public space, if it is going to play a role in democratic life, must be a hybrid of actual physical places and active public spheres. To tie public spaces to public spheres we must investigate the constantly changing intersections of physical places, the laws and regulations that govern them, the people who claim them through their use or demands, and the government officials to answer these demands… even if we do acknowledge a role for public space beyond relaxation and recreation, it is difficult to trace the ways in which public spaces relate to immaterial concepts like democracy.”

Allowing public space to play a full role in democratic life is indeed quite a challenging task for those in government and citizens, but one which should be confronted. The camp could be read as a desire for a public space that can be used for ongoing open, active political statements which reflect the permanent political activities that go on in the building opposite. With many supporting the existence of the camp, could it be time for a wider public debate about how this strategically located space at the heart of Westminster is used? This certainly links to a much wider debate about how public spaces could be used to support a new age of public engagement which one hopes will be at the heart of a ‘big society.’ What should these spaces look like and where should they be? Should politicians and citizens engage only in public service institutions or is there room for more publically located engagement? It is not enough to say that the space is owned by the public without at least allowing a debate about how the public would like to use it. Eventually, real decisions need to be made about what type of activities different public spaces are for.

It is safe to say that Parliament square is not a world heritage site because the square itself is of outstanding natural and architectural beauty, but instead because of its association with democratic history. It is a square originally aimed at improving traffic flow, not at beautification. A progressive society needs also to progress in its use of space and it seems fitting that one of the world’s most important democratic sites be used – as well as a site to view impressive architecture and statues of important political figures of the past – for activities which support a contemporary democracy.

It is clear that many of the problems used as grounds for evicting the protesters on this occasion – sanitation, access for visitors, rubbish – could be dealt with if there was a political will to do so from the GLA, who own the land. When the square is not used for protests it is rarely full to capacity, and it would presumably been possible to maintain areas for those who want to use the square for recreation purposes as well as passages through the square for those wishing to traverse it. Appropriate external management could be set up to guard against the monopolising of the square by one group.

It would at least be fascinating to consider the possibilities and different perspectives. Could it, as a public space, counteract the exclusive political spaces that surround it? As a strategically located and symbolic space at the heart of one of the world’s most important cities, could it create new ways in which parliamentarians engage with its population on an everyday level (one suspects that if the camp was legitimised, many other than Tony Benn would be in the queue to speak to the citizens camped out opposite their places of work)? On the other hand, perhaps overwhelming numbers of people would rather the square remain, on a day to day level at least, a place for taking pictures and eating sandwiches. And perhaps parliamentarians do not want the big society on their backyard, or their front lawn.

The most modest benefit of transformation the square into a more political space would be for to act as an everyday reminder to those sitting in their offices across the square that we want a government that can see us as active citizens and hear our voices. This was the overriding message of the camp in the first place.

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Entry filed under: Local Innovation, Public Services, Social Innnovation.

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