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From who owns the city? to who owns the land?

Whereas historically open spaces have been designated for the use of citizens by the controlling state – whether secular, religious, aristocratic - hence generally understood to be ‘publicly owned’ open spaces, in recent years with local councils unable to finance regeneration and redevelopment projects and subsequent running costs, private corporations have been quick to take advantage of financially favourable opportunities (aided and abetted by successive British governments), resulting in redevelopment carried out at the expense of ‘giving up’ open ‘public’ spaces, for ‘privatised’ open spaces designated for the use of citizens by the controlling private corporation.

Hence in contemporary London (though not restricted to just London) public spaces have coalesced with and into privately owned estates: spaces that to all intents and purposes appear to be ‘public spaces’. In this current scenario James C. Scott’s theory of ‘seeing like a state’ (his contention being that the state makes society legible through standardisation, organisation and design of cities in order for the state to have command and control over its citizens), is being replaced by ‘seeing like an estate’, in which citizen spatial participation and contestation is regulated by the capitalist ideology of private estate owners.

The Kings’ Cross estate, is a prime example of this neoliberal corporatisation of the urban.

The train journey along the East Coast mainline – currently state owned but amidst talk of its sale – is itself an exposé of the prevalence of private ownership in our current times. The journey is on the privately owned Virgin Train, in service since the privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s.

The landscape framed through the train window throughout the journey is not some sort of ‘natural’ wilderness, but contemporary evidence of the enclosure of common land, the seventeenth century Act of Parliament that allowed for the appropriation, subdivision and fencing of common land from public to private ownership. The Act greatly enhanced the wealth of landowners through land rental and agricultural productivity and forced agricultural labourers to turn to the industrialised city in search of work.

In the distant horizon stands the Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. Opened in 1974 and initially operated by the Central Electricity Generating Board, Drax bears testament to the Thatcher era’s privatisation of national industry. Following the privatisation of the UK electricity market in 1990, the running of the power station was passed onto the privatised generating company National Power.

The renewable energy of wind turbines is another aspect of the commercial energy industry.

The Angel of the North sculpture by Antony Gormley in Low Fell, Tyne and Wear, which, although under the aegis of  ‘public art’ commissioned by Gateshead Council and funded through the National Lottery – is an art work in the highly privatised and financially marketised art world. To compound matters further, in this instance maquettes produced by the artist during its development, have since sold for millions of pounds at auction, commanding a higher price tag in the private arts market than the commissioning and construction costs of the original sculpture.

On arrival in Allenheads it becomes evident that the land in and around Allenheads and its environs – 20,000 acres to be precise – (including many of the buildings) is owned by the Allendale Estate. Led by the current Viscount Allendale, this land has been in family ownership over 200 years. The leasing of some of the land and properties to paying tenants is a prime example of land and capital, the rural mode of capitalism. The urban neoliberal ownership of the King’s Cross estate in London at the start of the train journey, is here mirrored and replaced by that of rural landed gentry ownership at the end of the train journey a few hours and hundreds of miles later.

Further questions remain however beyond the surface ownership of ‘Who owns the land?’, such as ‘Who owns the sky above?’, how far up into the sky above the ground does surface ownership extend, and ‘Who owns the ground below?’, how far down below the ground does surface ownership extend.

Pat is a London based artist whose research is shaped and informed from an interdisciplinary approach that draws on contemporary art, visual culture, politics, urbanism, architecture. Key to her methodology is a critical enquiry and positioning ‘of and within’ lived social space.


A lecturer at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, Pat works with video, live events, publications, television and radio broadcasts, installation, photography, website projects, and writing, her works are exhibited internationally such as at Tate Britain, International Rome Film Festival, ZKM Center for Art & Media (Karlsruhe) NGBK (Berlin), Performance Space (Sydney), and Kate MacGarry, London. She has held a number of research fellowships such as at the British School at Rome and Oxford University, and University of Western Sydney. Pat was awarded a PhD from Central Saint Martins (UAL) for her thesis that developed a critical understanding of the ‘view’ as a historicised and contemporary socio-political mediation. She speaks regularly at conferences on the socio-political, spatial, and image construction and effects of urban/land/scapes, and surveillance practices - most recently at Tallin and Tartu Universities, Estonia, Tate Liverpool, and University of Turku, Finland. http://www.patnaldi.co.uk

 image of King's Cross © Miller Hare Ltd

Boarding the train at London King’s Cross station to travel towards Allenheads is to travel from one private estate to another, that of urban neoliberal ownership to that of rural landed gentry ownership.


King’s Cross station is located within the King’s Cross estate – one of the largest areas of urban redevelopment currently taking place in Europe. The 67-acre site will eventually encompass 50 new buildings; 2,000 new homes; 500,000 sq ft of retail; 26 acres of public open space, in the form of 20 new streets, 10 new public squares, parks and other public spaces. The estate is also the largest mixed-use development in single ownership - the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership - to be developed in central London for over 150 years. Land ownership of London is mostly private. It includes the Crown Estate, the City of London Corporation, various private property corporations, what are known as the four great estates: Grosvenor, Cadogan, Howard de Walden, and Portman – all aristocratic families – plus other family owned estates (in this sense it is akin to the rural landed gentry). The King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership’s vision, according to their publicity, is that King’s Cross will be one of London’s next ‘great estates’.  

Portrait by Aline Bouma

Who Ownes the Land

Pat Naldi -  Lead Artist

From our rural base we provoke questions, encourage discussion and stimulate positive advances in art practice

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