Heritage Lottery Fund Urban Parks Initiative is the much vaunted way in which cash has been injected into our historic urban parks providing, in the words of promotional literature, a once in a lifetime opportunity to reverse the decline of the last 50 years when cash strapped local authorities have placed parks on a back burner.
We are all aware of the benefits: restoration of historic features, new play areas, paths, plantings and site furniture. What is less well known, however, particularly to the unsuspecting public, is the meaning of ‘landscape restoration’. This invariably involves the felling of significant numbers of mature healthy trees. The reasons given vary but it seems that whenever HLF grants are made trees are felled: trees are either said to be unhealthy or diseased (often on scant evidence), the wrong species, or obscuring the coherence of the original design.
There seems to be no discernible disquiet among professionals as to whether landscape restoration is in the long term interests of parks, and those who use them or crucially whether it is environmentally and ecologically justifiable in the 21st century. Despite assurances from HLF nothing seems to have changed and those whose vested interests are in maintaining the status quo show little enthusiasm to challenge HLF funding criteria. The fact that landscape restoration is treated in the main as a capital project seems to rule out long term tree management and replacement programmes.
Any attempts by local park users to protest are met by reactions which suggest an unwillingness to entertain any sort of debate. Protesters are either patronised as ignorant, lacking the expertise of the professionals or marginalised by being attributed with extreme views they do not possess. It seems that those in Town Halls and indeed HLF themselves will go to almost any length to quash dissent.
The emphasis on heritage as inherently backward looking means that landscape, instead of being viewed as an inheritance to be taken forward and developed in a sensitive and sustainable way, is viewed as something which must be ‘returned’ to how it was when originally laid out. Parks are shorn of their mature trees. There is no acknowledgement that the imperatives of the 21st century are different from those which prevailed 200 or 300 years ago: climatic change, new and potentially devastating viruses, vandalism, damage due to poor maintenance.
Should landscape be viewed in the same way as the restoration of other historic features? Surely when parks and gardens were planted there was never any sense that those who laid them out viewed their work as something which would not change and develop as the years rolled by.
There is little sign of balancing design with the need to preserve and maintain conditions which will enable wildlife to flourish. Ecology and bio diversity are a poor second place. As long as Protected Species Surveys proclaim no adverse impact that is equivalent to a green light. Schemes are primarily design led with too much weight being placed on the historical perspective which saw the design created. This is essential under existing criteria but of little interest to the ordinary park user who values the landscape they see around them and the wildlife it supports far more highly. Whilst park users will tolerate limited felling for design reasons, present levels are unacceptably high.
The over emphasis on landscape restoration is also in many cases selective and perverse, distorting spending priorities so that much needed cash is not spent in ways which will benefit the greatest numbers of park users and meet their needs in the 21st century. Roundhay Park in Leeds has seen the dumbing down of the existing play facility and its replacement by a facility catering for a younger age range - presumably an attempt to discourage use by teens and pre-teens but where does that leave their use of the park?
Demonstrable public support is crucial for a successful HLF bid yet all too often local authorities claim support which does not exist and for which they have little evidence. Council claims are at variance with the groundswell of public opinion. Locals are left perplexed at what is taking place in their name. Early work by protesters at Kings Lynn, the Walks, suggests that the Council run opinion poll results were seriously flawed.
Is no one prepared to voice concerns that far from returning parks to their former glory, money is being squandered on schemes, large components of which have no public support. Tree felling is seen as the worst kind of vandalism, the destruction of the park’s greatest treasure and most valuable resource.
At Roundhay Park in Leeds a survey concluded that the landscape was the park’s most highly rated feature. The historical perspective was neither surveyed (or consequently rated) but that did not stop Leeds City Council from implementing a project involving the felling of 350 trees, the majority of which were healthy with no safety concerns. Campaigners at King’s Lynn, the Walks are fighting plans to fell a total of 244 trees in their Park (with the remaining Avenue trees to follow in 15 years time). This represents approaching a third of the total. However, in a cynical move, the Borough Council for Kings Lynn and West Norfolk has declared that the trees will go whether or not their HLF bid is successful.
A 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 still seen as sad, boring dangerous and unpleasant. It is high time there was an urgent re-evaluation of how HLF money is spent.
Yes, we do want our parks to be beautiful but beauty is not only achieved by tree felling and the re-instatement of grassy swathes. Let us hope that a re-evaluation of HLF funding criteria will take place before the axe has been wielded in urban parks the length and breadth of the land.
What we desperately need is council officials to break ranks and openly discuss the dilemma they face in obtaining much needed funding for restoration within the straight jacket caused by HLF criteria while at the same time placating irate users who feel there has been inadequate consultation and worse still no authority for what is taking place.
Further information on the campaign in Kings Lynn can be found by logging on to their website, www.thewalks.co.uk and the consultants site scottwilson.co.uk/the walks.
I should like to feel that there can be debate on these issues but in the meantime intend to form a pressure group provisionally called Fair Play for Parks to bring together all those who have concerns similar to those I have expressed above. I should welcome hearing from anyone who feels they can help - professionals with relevant expertise and indeed former HLF trustees who can give their perspective on these issues. I should especially like to hear specifics about other HLF projects, the particular concerns raised and the outcomes. Contact me Tr1shar@hotmail.com.