The Eviction of the Public

Plenary presentation by Quintin Bradley at the Housing Studies Association Conference, 11 November 2020

In this plenary session I want to talk about the eviction of specific, informed and concerned publics from public services.

In this talk, I identify three modalities or ways the public has been represented in town planning and housing studies.

Hostility to informed and concerned publics is clearly visible in the Planning White Paper published in England this summer with its promise to close down opportunities for debate and remove democratic oversight.

I argue that the antagonism which now greets an informed and concerned public is the latest episode in a politics of banishment or the eviction of the public from public services and from the collective political projects of human need. 

Our public services were created by self-determined publics, mobilised by their concern. They waged rent strike to create council housing, and mass trespass to create town planning. 

The Skeffington report in 1969 is commonly regarded as the beginning of public participation in English planning. 

But I argue it marked the beginning of the end of planning as a public service. Skeffington was an unusual government report in that it was illustrated. We know from its line drawings that Skeffington had a very clear idea of the public that was to be disciplined by participation. 

This illustrated public was organised and collective. It was the local amenity groups and civic societies networked nationally by the CPRE and what was then the Civic Trust, now Civic Voice.  These two organisations joined a broad public mobilisation of social movements that created the town and country planning system in its post-war institutional framework. They created its most popular institutions: Green Belt, National Parks, Conservation and Heritage. This public established the values and aims of planning as a public service. 

The modality of the public advanced in the Skeffington Report presupposed that planning was not a public service but a statutory one. Skeffington codified the engagement of the public in participation. It channelled public engagement into a ritual in which the issues, the outcomes and the legitimacy of the public themselves was to be defined by the producers. It established a pathology of participation in which the civic actors who had been the architects of planning were denounced as the ‘usual suspects’ and replaced by the imaginary of an innocent public that was open to instruction, yet continually hard to reach. 

What does it take to transform the values of a public service, to turn it around so that it serves the private extraction of value? We can point to privatisation and outsourcing and to the introduction of market devices: tools of calculation drawn from financial services industry.  But the essential first step in the marketisation of a public service like town planning is the containment and dissolution of the organised publics who fought for and upheld its values.

Planning in England now operates within the presumption that private development is in the public interest. The political economies of property and land speculation are regarded as matters of national security to be protected from local democratic challenge.  The most recent modality of the public in planning is as a political threat that requires intervention and sovereign punishment. An imaginary of environmental, animal rights and now climate activism movements as extremists and potential terrorists is waiting to be imported into urban and rural planning. 

Earlier this year I interviewed over 500 members of amenity groups in England who were trying to navigate the contortions of participation in planning. They reported few successes in changing planning outcomes. And their transformation into antagonists rather than stakeholders felt unmerited.  Electoral mobilisations that unseated councillors and saw campaigners voted into local government failed to make any difference to national planning policy. Technologies of participation that claim to recognise difference and seek to enfranchise the disadvantaged cannot even be navigated by citizens who are concerned and informed. 

The politics of banishment starts with the denigration of self-determined publics, of collectives mobilised around issues.  But it expands to define a housing market characterised by foreclosure, eviction and dispossession; in which whole populations are treated as disposable, as un-people. The dissolution of collective publics is the first stage in a continuum of eviction, of banishment, from land, from property, from home and finally from personhood.

In a 2017 article called The Grassroots of Planning,  Ananya Roy reflects on the construction of democratic citizenship that has emerged from informal settlements and social movements in the Global South.  She describes an insurgent citizenship that has planned and built whole neighbourhoods, fought for and established basic infrastructure, devised and provided, with their own hands, collective services. These insurgencies are constructions of the public in the act of creation of democratic public services.  

Public services are the creation and the concern of collective publics. And the public cannot be so easily disentangled.

To be public is to assert personhood. The issues that gave rise to housing and planning as public services continue to mobilise insurgent publics who claim the right to housing, who make a claim on human rights, on the rights of personhood. Who remind us of shared humanity, and the concept of shared needs, and a shared concern for the planning and delivery of those needs.  

To be public is to care; to be concerned; to demonstrate humanity. It is in the agitation of renters’ unions and in the campaigns of amenity groups and civic societies that the public of housing and planning speaks today.  

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