Lockdown has made the limited space we are allowed to occupy uncomfortably stark. We are being told to stay at home, to exercise outdoors only once a day, and to only go to certain places when we do.
As the government dictates how we occupy and move between spaces, the coronavirus pandemic and consequent lockdown has shone a penetrating light on deeper-set issues concerning our access to land and housing, and the limits on our right to occupy common space.
It’s a matter of space, not finances.
On a very basic level, the government’s #StayHome strategy is an instruction based on the assumption that everyone has a home in which to self-isolate, which of course is not the case.
With coronavirus forcing the government to acknowledge the issue of homelessness, last month, local authorities were given 48 hours in which to house all of the UK’s 280,000 homeless people.
Councils called upon landlords and property owners to help provide temporary accommodation, but despite being allocated a £3.2m government package to speed up proceedings, it is finding the space that is proving to be the real difficulty.
This is of course deeply ironic given that there are an estimated 226,000 properties lying empty in England alone. Some will painfully recall that in 2012 David Cameron’s government added insult to injury by criminalising squatting in residential buildings – before that it was just a civil matter.
Although the UK government has attempted to limit housing precarity by placing a ban on evictions for the time being, stories from the ground have emerged to show otherwise. An autonomous homeless shelter in Brighton and an occupied space in south east London have both suffered evictions since the ban was introduced.
What becomes apparent is that it’s not the physical space needed to house people that is lacking, but the political will to make that space available.
We’re not all lucky enough to have a garden.
Even for those who do have a home to isolate in, the issue of space still remains pertinent. Many of those living in cities, for example, are forced to rely on common urban spaces for respite, exercise and fresh air.
In London, councils began announcing the closure of parks shortly before lockdown was announced, with many councils across the UK following suit. Brockwell park in Lambeth completely shut its gates on the first Sunday of this month, as people using the park the previous day were accused of sunbathing and congregating in large groups.
The park reopened again the following day – albeit with strict restriction on what types of activities are permitted – but these blanket closures of common spaces have troubling implications.
Government measures should be concerned with enforcing social distancing, rather than restricting space.
These police-enforced restrictions of public space mirror existing – although decidedly more covert – enclosures of urban common spaces and stifling of common rights.
In 2017, Guardian Cities helped to compile a database to reveal the growing number of pseudo-public places in London – open spaces which appear to be public but are in fact owned by big corporations, who then have the power to limit public access. With rules of use enforced by private security firms, the removal of cyclists, buskers, and rough sleepers have become common occurrences.
This is part of a wider trend of privatisation. In his book, The New Enclosures: The Appropriation of Land in Neoliberal Britain, Brett Christophers notes that 2m hectares of previously public land – 10% of Britain’s landmass – has been privatised since the late 1970s.
Instead of denying access, create more space.
After crowds of people descended on Snowdonia and the Peak District last month, the National Trust announced that it too had decided to close its parks and gardens.
Pushed for options, some people turned to golf courses for their outdoor recreation. Complaints predictably ensued, but land justice campaigners made a call for all golf courses to be made open for public use, as many lie on land belonging to local authorities or the crown.
Author and activist Guy Shrubsole subsequently launched an online petition, pointing out that “there are 300,000 acres of golf courses across the UK – ten times more space than we give to allotments – and 48,000 acres of golf courses within London and its Green Belt alone.”
According to the Land Justice Network around 90% of the land in England and Wales is off limits to the public, with creeping enclosures further perpetuated by current land policy.
Last year, the Conservative party pledged to make trespass a criminal offence rather than a civil one. If they follow through on their promise, what may be cause for celebration among the landed gentry would be a devastating loss for the freedom of ramblers, wild campers and swimmers.
Not only would this serve to limit society’s interactions with the outdoors, but it could also engender grave political implications by criminalising protestors on grounds of trespass, as well as strengthening police powers to confiscate the homes of gypsy, Roma and traveller communities.
Lockdown is a wake up call.
Coronavirus has exposed the importance of space in the fulfilment of our day to day lives and wellbeing.
Since lockdown the public has been blamed for not adhering to government restrictions and vilified for occupying public spaces.
We are told that there is not enough room to accommodate us all; that occupying space is not a right but predicated on systems of ownership and exclusion. But that is a lie; and something that the government must both admit and resolve.
There is enough housing, we’re just denied the right to occupy it; and there is enough space, but that space is becoming increasingly privatised in a world where corporate interest trumps the common good.
When the tide of this pandemic ceases and lockdown is lifted, we must demand a land reform which affords space for us all, and defend our liberties to occupy, roam, squat and enjoy our collective space.
Yali Banton-Heath is a freelance journalist and an editor at The Norwich Radical.