Historic park, The Walks, Kings Lynn is set to become the latest victim of Heritage Lottery Funding. After two years of rumour during which the local Borough Council for Kings Lynn and West Norfolk ‘consulted’ with local groups, the price of funding is becoming clear.
Far from the loss of a few trees which are dying or diseased, local residents are fast coming to terms with reality. The Council, under advice from recently appointed Scott Wilson, historic landscape consultants, intend to replace the whole of Broad Walk, The Seven Sisters and Red Mount with St Johns to follow in 15 years time. 174 avenue trees are to be felled now plus 70 others in other parts of the park.
It has been established that the original plans did not entail the wholesale felling of entire avenues. However, Scott Wilson having a wealth of experience of HLF requirements know that tinkering with landscape is not enough - only something radical will do. Because of the pernicious link with ‘heritage’ which is perceived under existing criteria as inherently backward looking, it is necessary to restore the park, including the landscape, to how it might have looked at its inception 250 years ago. However, experience shows that this is often selective and perverse.
It is relatively easy under the HLF criteria to make a case for tree removal - this is either justified by claiming ‘lost vistas’ or inappropriate plantings or, as in the present case, by stating that the felling is necessitated because the trees are ‘deteriorating’. The fact such action is opposed by the vast majority of park users is not allowed to affect or moderate the outcome. Nor is any account taken of the fact that a majority of the trees felled are in fact perfectly healthy and capable of living for many years into the future.
In the Walks, the reason for felling is claimed to be poor soil conditions, including high alkalinity of the soil leading to premature decline. The intention to replant with substantial trees with a proposed girth of 25cms 1 metre above the ground will be no deterrent to the determined vandal.
The Stage 2 Bid is to be submitted by the end of July 2004 with the outcome to be announced in around January 2005. Local opposition is forming and it is anticipated that there will be significant protest. In an effort to deflect opposition the Council have recently invited unsuspecting members of the public to join a newly inaugurated Friends Group. However at the first meeting Project Director Richard Hales made it clear that the group would have no input into the proposals, nor was any committee to be formed at this stage. The Council intend to retain control over the group and the direction it is allowed to take with the result that only those sympathetic to the proposals will remain.
The PR machine is in action. Lisa Wisniowski of Scott Wilson is on hand to advise on so-called ‘presentational difficulties’. The invitation to join the Friends Group was to those who care about the Walks, its historical importance and the opportunities it offers. No room here for those whose concerns are about the very nature of the so called improvements which will be funded by the project particularly in relation to the landscape. The subtle psychological talk of the propaganda machine - you cannot genuinely care unless you are prepared to swallow the whole package - in other words accept the trade off.
The Walks is not alone. Parks up and down the country have a similar tale to tell, Roundhay Park in Leeds being a recent example. The HLF claim to have addressed some of the criticisms directed at their projects in its revised 2002 -2007 plan by promising to involve people more and widen the definition of heritage to include nature conservation but there is little sign of it in the present proposals. There cannot fail to be an impact on wildlife by the removal of so many mature trees - but as long as the appropriate surveys satisfactorily proclaim no impact on protected species then that is equivalent to a green light. Environmental impact/bio-diversity are a poor second place to the need to satisfy HLF criteria and to come within the ‘heritage’ umbrella which attracts the much needed funding.
Historic landscape designers and the like hold the whip hand. There seems to be no-one in the design world prepared to derail the gravy train by voicing any concerns that far from returning parks to their former glory, the over emphasis on heritage distorts the spending priorities in ways which are not in the long term interests of parks or those who use them. The recent report Is the Grass Greener by the government’s architectural and built environment advisors (Cabe) states that despite billions spent in urban regeneration funds and HLF grants to historic parks, many public parks are seen as sad, boring, dangerous and unpleasant.
There is little doubt, backed up by the experience of the past, that there will ever be enough money invested in our urban parks. That being the case, it is all the more important to spend what limited resources there are on projects which deliver the best outcomes for those who use those parks. Tree felling is seen by the majority as unnecessary vandalism - the squandering of the most valuable resource of all. This is not a climate in which the authorities may hope for increased voluntary involvement by the local community in the future maintenance of their park.
If you or your group have been involved in any previous campaigns raising similar issues contact me at Tr1shar@hotmail.com. I am trying to start a campaign group to challenge HLF Urban Parks Policy as it relates to landscape. If there are any professionals with relevant expertise who have concerns and could offer their experience please get in touch.
If you wish to be actively involved in the Walks Campaign visit their website www.thewalks.co.uk. Also check out the consultants’ site: scottwilson.co.uk/thewalks.