"Gardening and gardens are in my blood", says Chris Sumner, the Chairman designate of the London Parks and Gardens Trust, explaining how his grandfather managed a plant nursery in Twickenham before the war. His personal collection of books on gardens certainly reflects this, filling his new flat in Kew with double stacked shelves.
Chris, who has worked at English Heritage since its early days, has a wealth of experience and knowledge to offer the LPGT when he takes over as Chairman in May 2007. Originally trained as an architect at Hammersmith College of Art and Building (now Greenwich University), Chris quickly showed his interest in historic buildings when he joined the Greater London Council's (GLC) Historic Buildings Division by gaining a scholarship in Building Conservation in 1973. Although his work mostly focused on historic buildings, he soon became involved with historic landscapes, being part of the Historic Parks panel at the GLC, an advisory service for the many London parks then owned by the GLC, such as Kenwood, Victoria Park and Marble Hill Park.
When the GLC was abolished in 1986, the Historic Building Division was merged into English Heritage, where Chris has stayed ever since. Now Historic Buildings and Areas Adviser, he also acts as Regional Parks and Gardens Advisor for the London Area.
Chris, who is currently Vice Chairman of the LPGT, has been involved with the Trust since its inception, 13 years ago. Along with Lorna McRobie and other colleagues, Chris was founder member, helping to organise the first LPGT conference on the London Square. The early meeting and evening lectures for the LPGT were held at his English Heritage office in Chesham House.
Chris has several clear ambitions for the LPGT under his Chairmanship. The first of these is to increase the membership base of the Trust and to get members more active within it. Many new members fall off after a short time, and Chris sees it as the job of the leadership to make an effort to get to know these new members. A working group has already been set up to attract new members and convert them into involved members.
His second aim is to get the LPGT more involved in planning issues. Although the Garden History Society is a statutory consultee on all designated landscapes, the LPGT are often in a position to give a more detailed view, especially on historic landscapes that are not listed but nevertheless remain important open spaces. Chris sees the pressure on these open spaces increasing with the push for greater housing densities in London, which makes the job of the LPGT ever more vital. At present the Trust does not have the capacity to respond to planning issues that arise, and Chris would like to see this changed.
Strategic London views are also under pressure, with new high buildings threatening to obtrude into familiar London views such as the view of Whitehall from St James's Park, which is currently being threatened by proposals for a tall building on Blackfriars Road. The LPGT is another legitimate voice that can give advice to those considering such matters.
Local open spaces are also an area were localised groups within the Trust can offer an informed view. However, Chris is keen to emphasize that he sees the role of the LPGT as " managing change in a responsible way, not pursuing preservation for its own sake".
Chris would also like to help spread the word about the Inventory of Historic Green Spaces. The Trust has already invested time in meeting Conservation Officers or Park Managers of many of the London Boroughs to discuss their local open spaces. The Trust has encouraged the Boroughs to adopt these historic spaces as locally protected landscapes in supplementary planning documents within their new Spatial Development Frameworks. To date the Trust has had a positive response from 16 out of the 32 London Boroughs. By flagging up these spaces as something valuable, the Trust is endeavouring to protect them from unsuitable development.
As for Open Garden Squares Weekend, "this has taken on a life of its own" says Chris. With two part-time paid employees running the event and the number of venues, amount of press coverage and interest in this annual event increasing year on year.
As a long term active member of the Trust, with over 30 years of experience within the former GLC and English Heritage, Chris has a wealth of knowledge and expertise to offer. He could not be better placed to lead the LPGT through its next stage of development.