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The worrying commercialisation of Edinburgh's public spaces

Writing: Roz Biggs

There is in Edinburgh today a growing concern over the privatisation and commodification of the city’s public space. From ticketed events to privately managed spaces to gated-off private parks, there seems to be a trend for selling-off public space to private interest, and the past weeks have seen community meetings, book launches, and public lectures about the issue.

The major locus of concern is over the rampant expansion of Edinburgh’s tourism industry, which is felt to be working against the well-being of residents in the interest of private gain. CTZN, a campaign collective reimagining Edinburgh as a place for people not profit, has raised concerns over the ‘Disneyfication’ of Edinburgh as a result of the management of many public events by Underbelly. The events that Underbelly manage like the Christmas Market and Hogmanay celebrations, which are ostensibly celebrations of Scottish culture, are seen by many as crude, generic, and uninteresting, resembling theme-parks more than they do Scottish cultural traditions. Further, in a bizarrely Orwellian move, this December the company demanded that residents living nearby the Hogmanay celebrations apply for permits to invite more than 6 guests to parties in their own homes.

While corporate events like the Christmas market and the Hogmanay celebrations, which commercialise public space and take away the rights of residents to their own city, are troubling enough in themselves, Professor David McGillivray of the University of the West of Scotland proposes that they may be more sinister than they seem. McGillivray suggests that many privatised public events act as ‘trojan horses’ which covertly usher in the normalisation of advertising, gating off, and private ownership of places generally understood as public. These troubling phenomena tend to stick around after the events have ended, along with increased policing and CCTV, allowing private interest to insidiously ingratiate itself into everyday life without being detected by those who might oppose it. And Edinburgh is seeing more and more of its public spaces rented out or sold to private businesses - Queen Street Gardens, Princes Street Gardens, and potentially The Castle Gardens.

Worse, Edinburgh City Council is unwilling to deal with the problems that are arising. Corrupted by private interest (6 of the 11 members of the Edinburgh 2020 Tourism Strategy’s Strategic Implementation Group are major players in the tourism industry), the council favours the commodification and privatisation of the city’s public space over the well-being and rights of its residents; the very same public space that is explicitly dedicated to ‘the common good of the town’ in the Common Good Act of 1491. Blame cannot be entirely laid at the feet of the Edinburgh City Council, however, as it is the consistent underfunding of the council by the Scottish Government and the underfunding of the Scottish Government by Westerminster that has resulted in its need to generate income from the private sector. In perspective, the six-digit cuts being made to councils and the devolved government are concurrent with Priti Patel announcing a few days ago that £96 million will be sent to the Scottish Government exclusively to fund Police Scotland - it seems, unsurprisingly, that the community, culture, and rights of the Scottish people are far less important to the Tory government than is the enforcement of law upon its own citizens.

This is no more nor less than the inevitable consequence of the rampant and unimpinged expansion of Capitalist economy, supported by a neoliberal government that prioritises private gain over the well-being and rights of its citizens. Capitalism is in its essence predicated on unending expansion, and for this it must find and exploit new markets as old ones begin to stagnate. In view of this, Lenin famously warned against Capitalism’s inevitable need for imperialism, but we should also be wary of its inevitable and increasingly-apparent need to commercialise more and more of people’s lives. What is happening across the UK today is the Capitalist mechanism opening up and exploiting new markets like education, healthcare, and culture that have until now been understood as belonging to the communal interest. The commodification of our public space is thus not a harmless money-making scheme from a struggling council, it is the purposeful removal of the last semblance of common ownership from the community in order to provide an avaricious economy with new markets to exploit for profit.

And these developments and expansions are under the management of governmental institutions which, adhering to the neoliberal ideology that defines contemporary policy, understand the mechanisms of their influence as essentially entrepreneurial - geared towards the acquisition of wealth rather than benefiting their citizens or respecting the rights of those to whom common resources are meant to belong. National government, local council, civil management - today these are commercial bodies that are driven by an understanding of the state in which the government is a money-making enterprise and governmental resources like healthcare, education, and public space are commodities to be sold. We see now that public spaces have become valued for their price rather than their importance to the community, and policy-making focuses on the wants of the consumer over the needs and rights of the citizen.

So what can be done? The French, with their revolutionary splendour, in recent weeks brought a halt to their country in protest of Macron’s neoliberal policies and uncaring degeneration of workers’ lives; you won’t see it on the front pages, but Paris is presently at a standstill, with military police being used to violently quell a general strike while the President stands by his plans. The Chileans, similarly, have undertaken a massive uprising against the Piñera’s neoliberal policies, which have resulted in increased cost of living, increased privatisation of national industries, and a huge gap in wealth. They have been met with military force and at least 11 people have died. In a time like ours, when policy is defined by private interest and mechanisms of change are inaccessible to the masses, it seems the only course of action left for those who want a society founded on compassion, community, and understanding - one that resists the commercialisation of state apparatus and the commodification of life - is revolutionary.

Image: Duncan Stephen via

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