On the Question of Privatising the Mandem

Nabil Al-Kinani is a built-environment professional and cultural producer whose work explores urbanism, sustainable development and spatial politics. His urgent manifesto and blueprint detailing how inner-city communities can acquire the freehold of their buildings through legislative tools and collective action, Privatise the Mandem, was published in May 2022. In the following essay, Al-Kinani investigates the demise of common land, the dire consequences of its commodification, and argues why the ‘regeneration’ of London’s social housing estates remains fundamentally interested in profit rather than of the people

Artwork Salvatore Fiorello

Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the 1649 Diggers movement, once proclaimed that the Earth is to be a “common treasury for all”. The Diggers were agrarian socialists who vehemently opposed the enclosure of land by the act of raising a physical barrier such as a wall, hedge or fence around previously common land. Common land refers to land that is not under the ownership of a state (government, authority or council), or the market (private sector organisations or private citizens); but one that is self-managed by a collective of individuals, i.e. the commoners.

During the mid-1600s, commoners were stripped of their access to what was previously common land, along with all of the natural resources it possessed. Access was reserved solely for the landowners and whoever they would grant access to. The Diggers fought this concept of the privatisation of land and the commodification of the commons, by calling for the abolition of property ownership and disrupting the newly formed enclosures through practices such as land-squatting and planting their crops in the newly enclosed land.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and the act of claiming ownership of land is largely encouraged – as culturally, the acquisition of land and property is seen as an indicator of success. Economically, the market assigns exponential value to land, and properties are classified as a lucrative capital asset in the eyes of global finance capitalism.

The present-day Abahlali baseMjondolo movement formed in South Africa in 2005 employs similar techniques to the Diggers, using methods such as land occupations, protest and transport disruptions in order to address housing and land issues in Durban. The movement’s mission is to assert the social value of land over the perceived commercial value. In fact, what drove both campaigns is the notion that land is not to be claimed by human beings, because it is owned by a higher deity. A member of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement asserts that…

“It is a sin for anyone to own land. Land comes from God and it cannot be owned”

The concept of land ownership, as modern society understands it today, was non-existent in pre-colonial South Africa. This is not to say that any and every individual could roam around, unbound by etiquette and decorum – but that the relationship between human and land was of a different nature. Instead of the traditional hierarchical system of a “land-owners” possessing exclusive rights and interest over space, pre-colonial South African communities had put emphasis on a more ecological system. People had obligations to a space, in relation to other people who had also occupied the space. Their protect rights were not limited to “rights over the property” but instead “rights of use”, implying that people temporarily had rights over the use of a resource, whilst the resource is in use.

The early human transition into settler lifestyles from nomadic lifestyles contributed greatly to the commodification of the commons. As settlers lay their claims on a land, they inherently claim the exclusive “rights over the property” – thus excluding others from the resource which exists in the land and reducing the overall supply of resource to other people. This reduced supply naturally creates a deficiency in resource, giving “land-owners” an economic advantage over others. This commodification of land and property through mediums such as settler lifestyles and colonial expansion saw the ultimate demise of the commons – land that is unclaimed by humans does not exist anymore.

As highlighted in Guy Shrubsole’s book Who Owns England?, this reality is played out in England, where the majority of land is owned by either the state (public sector, the Crown), or the market (private sector organisations or private citizens). Shrubsole suspects that the unaccounted for (17%) land that seemingly has no owner, is in fact under the ownership of aristocracy that has not registered their claim on land at the Land Registry – as these estates have been inherited for centuries, long before the creation of the Land Registry in 1862.

In his 1968 book Le droit à la ville, French Marxist Henri Lefebvre describes the transformative power that an urban space (the “city”, along with its transformation) has on its inhabitants. He goes as far as to call for the control of urban spaces to be removed from the market and into the hands of the people – naming this concept, “the right to the city”:

“The right to the city is…far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire.”

The right of urban transformation was once reserved for commoners, where a collective right over land meant that the transformation of common land was shaped by its users. But following centuries of enclosure and land-grabbing, the modern landscape has become a patchwork of land parcels under the ownership of the state and the market. And ultimately, it is landowners who solely possess the transformative power of urban transformation within their claim.

N.B. the nature of capitalism is the relentless pursuit of self-interest, as described by philosopher and economist Adam Smith:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

The market’s primary interest lies in the generation of surplus capital, and any urban change within its claim will be shaped by that interest.

Alternatively, state-owned land holds the interests of the people rather than profit… right? In theory, the state is bound by the Nolan Principles, which are seven values to be upheld by all public servants and elected officials holding offices both locally and nationally. And the first of the Nolan Principles is ‘selflessness’, defined as acting solely in the interests of the public. Therefore, there is an assumption that a landowner who is bound by a principle of ‘selflessness’ would not act in self-interest (thus providing its people with access to state-owned land, along with the resources that it possesses).

But in practice the state falls short of the interests of its people, when exercising the transformative power it possesses over its claim. And the source of the majority of all these state failings is the subjective definition of the interests of the people.

In the context of New York, USA, notable state urban planner Robert Moses had transformed the city to be shaped around the use of motor vehicles, and intentionally failed to design infrastructure for public transit systems such as rail and bus services. He staunchly believed that the interests of the people were to traverse America in motor vehicles, and so he designed and constructed approximately 627 miles of motorways for the city inhabitants. By designing for motor vehicles, he had designed out the majority of non-motor vehicle forms of transit. And consequently, his bias towards a ‘type’ of American who could afford a motor vehicle (largely driven by his racist and classist views), designed out a large group of users who were limited to travelling across New York via public transportation.

Moses held biases against ‘slum’ areas of New York and would clear the ‘slums’ in order to make space for expressways he intended for the city – viewing the demolished spaces, along with its inhabitants as collateral damage towards the interest of the people he served. His damage has been captured through photography taken at the time, with countless images of trenches cutting through the Bronx in the 1980s for the Cross Bronx Expressway, displacing approximately 1,500 families.

Robert Moses stands testament to the destructive power that urban transformation can have on communities, when in the hands of the state. This example of state-backed urban transformation failings can also be observed in modern-day London, UK, where swathes of urban spaces are falling victim to gentrification – a term first coined in the 1960s by Ruth Glass and popularised by Prof. Loretta Lees, it’s defined as:

“The transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city to a middle class residential and/or commercial use.”

These working-class areas are usually social housing estates and are colloquially referred to as the “ends”, a term born from Multicultural London English (MLE) and which is the result of Britain’s history of migration. A sizable majority of non-English communities disproportionally inhabit the “ends”, due to the various socioeconomic challenges that they face in the country. These social housing estates are usually owned by public sector entities, where rent payments are often supplemented through state welfare provision. Similar to the urban renewal process that took place in the Bronx under Robert Moses; numerous municipalities have called on the regeneration of the London’s social housing estates due to various reasons – one of which is the economic landscape.

The 2010 UK General Election saw the formation of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. What quickly followed was a decade-long series of austerity measures implemented across the nation. Budgets allocated to housing, health, policing and public services have experienced steep reductions, reducing local authority resources. Running concurrently, a chronic shortage in housing supply fails to meet housing demand. And against the interest of the people, the state seeks to meet the demand of the market by regenerating social housing estates.

So, why is regeneration of London’s social housing estates not in the interest of the people? Put simply, it does not meet the needs of the inhabitants – but instead displaces them. The net losses of social tenure homes during estate regeneration schemes are due to various constraints experienced by the state – due to austerity measures, much of the regeneration proposals put forward for approval are joint venture partnerships with private sector organisations called public-private partnerships (PPPs), as the state alone cannot deliver on the housing supply needed to meet the market’s demand. As private sector organisations’ interest primarily lie in gaining the highest possible return on investment, they lobby the state in order to grant permissions for regeneration projects and to shape housing policies (such as the identification of “Opportunity Areas” for development). And thus, the lines between the state and the market become increasingly blurred.

So, what about privatising the “ends”? Allowing the communities who inhabit social housing estates to acquire ownership of the space they occupy means that the power of urban transformation is no longer outsourced to the state, but into the hands of the people.

If a community is able to acquire ownership of their urban space, and collectively agree to a new way of governing their space (one that does not seek the self-interests of individuals, but the interest of the collective) – privatisation has the potential to create a new form of city. One that is shaped by the Mandem.

Privatise the Mandem by Nabil Al-Kinani was published in May 2022

Artwork Salvatore Fiorello

This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here