'Richness in Diversity' or 'Unity is Strength'?

Chris Sumner sees new patterns emerging in the politics of London parks.

An article in the Evening Standard of 19th February 2010 claimed, "London's Royal Parks would come under the control of Mayor Boris Johnson if the Tories win power. The eight parks would be handed over to increase local accountability... (and) would be run as an arm's-length body in the same way as Transport for London..."

The former Greater London Council, predecessor to the present Greater London Authority, managed a number of London's largest parks and open spaces prior to its abolition in 1986, including Battersea Park, Victoria Park, Burgess Park, Crystal Palace Park, and Hampstead Heath.

Victoria Park
Victoria Park, at one time considered a Royal Park

The City of London was the saviour of Hampstead Heath and, interestingly, was considered by the GLC as a possible new owner for Burgess Park, since it was recognized that LB Southwark would not have the finances to complete and manage the newly created park to an appropriate standard.

The politics of the day defeated such a radical solution, but Burgess Park has been awarded £2m from Boris Johnson's special parks fund, and the planning proposals for Crystal Palace Park have been submitted by the Greater London Authority. Thus a curious new pattern seems to be emerging, with the GLA taking on part of the mantle of the old GLC as a parks authority, though to date with experience only of managing Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square.

Battersea Park and Victoria Park were both at one time considered Royal Parks, having been created by the Crown both for public amenity and in the hope of generating income through the development of the surrounding land. Unlike the current Royal Parks, they had no long historical connection with the Crown.

So Many Bodies

Myddelton House
Myddelton House, occupied by the Lee Valley Park Authority

Greater London is unique in comprising so many authorities with responsibilities for managing parks; in addition to the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London, there is the Crown in various guises - Royal Parks, Historic Royal Palaces, Crown Estate, Crown Estate Paving Commission, and all the government departments and non-departmental organisations - privatised utility companies, the National Trust, religious and educational bodies, other trusts and private owners. Plus the Lee Valley Park Authority, that little-known body that occupies EA Bowles's former home in Enfield, Myddelton House, and which has the power to raise a precept across London for the upkeep of the Lee Valley Park. The Authority looks like being the eventual proud owner of (fall-guy for?) the new Olympic Park emerging from the contaminated mud of Stratford.

One speaks of Byzantine complexity, but Byzantium looks pretty straightforward by comparison with London. Compare Paris, where all but a handful of the 400 jardins publics are the responsibility of the Ville de Paris.

Perhaps the British enjoy complexity for its own sake, seeing it as an enriching diversity that creates a unique niche for everyone. The downside is fragmentation, loss of overall control, dispersal of expertise, and decline. That seems to be a likely consequence of "asset transfer", the mooted handing over of public assets like parks to local community management.

Is a return to the 19th-century pattern of vestries and parish councils really the right way forward? Where well-founded, professionally staffed organizations such as the Chiswick House and Grounds Trust and the Thames Landscape Strategy have been established, they have been very successful in raising substantial funding through donations, sponsorship and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

These may provide a model for seemingly intractable problems like Gunnersbury Park, but they depend on exceptionally able and committed staff and broad support, and it is barmy to suppose that every park friends group of mums, dads, toddlers, footballers, teenagers, OAPs and dog-walkers is going to agree among themselves what the priorities for a park should be, let alone take on responsibility for its management and policing.

The local elections on 6th May will test the track record of present councillors and examine the policies of potential new ones. A responsible and realistic policy for the future of our public parks should be part of every hopeful's political manifesto.

An Authoritative Voice?

There may be richness in diversity, but there is strength in unity and in being able to speak on a subject of common concern with an authoritative voice.

Just as individuals and bodies concerned with the protection of the historic built environment have come together under the umbrella of The Heritage Alliance, so bodies and individuals concerned with the present and future of public parks have been meeting since 2007 under the aegis of GreenSpace and the title of GreenLINK* to provide a united voice for the parks and green spaces sector.

* Participants in GreenLINK include representatives of