Report on Council proposals to hire parks and open spaces for private functions.
In November Barnet Council unveiled plans to hire out sections of our parks and open spaces for private events. Eight borough parks were identified as ‘pilot sites for private events’. Victoria Park and Lyttleton Playing Fields were included in these eight public green spaces. During November, A4 sized laminated notices titled, ‘Events in Parks Consultation’ appeared on most entrance gates to Victoria Park. There was a large photo of part of Victoria Park near the tennis courts but very little actual information apart from a telephone number and website address. The other six nominated sites are: Highlands Gardens, Hendon Park, Scratchwood, Edgwarebury Park, Oak Hill Park and Princes Park.
2.0 The Principle
Public parks have a cherished role in all of our lives - few of us do not have fond childhood memories of playing in parks. Parks are our lungs, a place of space, light and greenery, of trees and flowers, recreation, and, most importantly available for all to enjoy. It wasn’t always so. Once, the green spaces in London were for the rich and wealthy, the domains of the privileged few - hunting grounds for nobility and royalty (Finchley Common was part of the Bishop of London’s estate). The mid-1600s saw the advent of the Pleasure Garden and from about 1660 to 1860 pleasure gardens flourished. Pleasure gardens were democratic places, to some extent egalitarian, but an entrance fee had to be paid. By the mid-1800s philanthropists and politicians wanted to create truly egalitarian public spaces where people of all walks of life had access. As a result of urban and industrial expansion, Britain’s towns and cities had become extremely polluted and crowded, Victorian reformers saw parks as vital breathing spaces- the lungs of our cities- places of health and fresh air that would also have a ‘civilising and calming influence on the working population‘. In 1833 the ‘Select Committee on Public Walks’ was formed to look into the creation of public parks. The idea was hugely popular and many petitions were submitted, public subscriptions raised and even Royal Grants issued. Thus, the foundations of the public park that we know and love today were laid. The idea that part of our public parks and green spaces would have restricted public access and revert back to the privileged few is totally wrong and totally unacceptable and should be strongly resisted. Our parks are now public property and should remain as they were created- places explicitly and solely for public use.
3.0 The Public Consultation
Barnet Council’s Public Consultation was not a consultation, it was deeply flawed and at best it may be viewed as a public relations exercise for the following reasons:
1) November and December are the least effective months for any public consultation with Christmas preparations taking priority in most peoples lives. Also people may be away or unwell. As for green spaces, this is the time of the least favourable weather, shortest hours of daylight and the lowest outdoor activity levels and therefore the least interest in parks.
2) Barnet Council claim to have sent a letter to nearby residents but many local people didn’t receive it and this includes myself (just 8 doors away from the park), both of my next door neighbours and the Vicar of St Paul’s Church, directly opposite the park gates.
3) Council literature, much of it ascribed to Matthew Gunyon, Leisure Contracts Manager, is biased, misleading and puts a definite ‘spin’ on the proposals. The letter to local residents begins with the words: ‘Would you like to hold a wedding, bar mitzvah or birthday celebration in your local park? If the answer is ‘yes’ you may be interested to know… It continues: ‘Enabling residents to make greater use of their local parks and community assets lies at the heart of this policy.’
4) Reading through the available council literature it is clear that a) the proposal is very advanced in terms of implementation and b) the possibility that the proposal does not go ahead is not considered, it comes over very much as a fait accompli, that where opposition or argument is useless. Under legal terms if the outcome of a Public Consultation has already been determined it is deemed not to have been a legitimate public consultation exercise.
4.0 The Proposals
Even at this stage these proposals are horrific and one shudders to think where they may lead. There are 4 events categories: Commercial event, Charitable event, Community event and Private event. Examples of these events are given as follows: fun fairs, circuses, festivals, concerts, markets, car boot sales, corporate events, events organised by a charitable organisation, events run by a commercial company for charitable fund raising, community days, fetes, picnics, and weddings or private parties’. Numbers attending the first three categories are not nominated but under 2.3 Private event, it states: ‘In general Private events are anticipated to have an attendance of up to 499 persons’ , although it goes on to say: ‘Events that require higher attendance will be considered though would be subject to a Temporary Events Notice (TEN). So, therefore although ostensibly, these private events would be limited to 500 people they could end up being any size that the council officer deems ‘appropriate’. (Please note, backhanders are not allowed and do not exist within Barnet Council.) They expect most events to fall between 1st April and 30th September each year and the frequency about every two weeks though they add: ‘Consideration will of course be given to events outside this core period’. The 2 page document goes on to very briefly mention things like pricing, conditions, deposit, and of course licences (where they very kindly inform us that we will need an entertainment licence if our event consists of: ’music, dancing, singing or similar, or if it includes a display or exhibition of boxing, wrestling, judo, karate or similar sport’). One resident tried to raise the issue of whether these functions would have licences for alcohol, noise restrictions, or time to finish but she was merely told that ‘every function will be reviewed on a case by case basis’. So, like many other council proposals and documents, it is not clear exactly what these proposals could entail or exactly how they would be applied. To say the document was vague and woolly would be an understatement.
5.0 Maps, Locations and Areas.
The council have produced maps of the ‘eight pilot sites’ showing the proposed area and location of the area to be hired out. Although the maps are fairly accurate the quoted scales are wrong. In Victoria Park an area has been nominated to the south-east of the tennis courts towards the main path and in Lyttleton, an area between the playground and the meadowland has been indicated. In both cases this seems a very odd choice of location, particularly Victoria Park where guests at the private function would, after having been vetted by private security and ushered into the enclosed area, be in full view of the general public and all passers by (unless, of course, they had tall, ugly, solid fencing installed). However one of my main concerns is that both the location and area of the private function areas may change according to requirements. One giveaway sentence is as follows: ’For the provision of private functions such as weddings etc. Ward Members, Local Residents and other Stakeholders will be consulted to ensure that the best sites are selected by suitability and location’. I strongly believe that, if these proposals are implemented, the size and location of the ‘private areas’ will vary, probably on a ‘case by case basis’ or how much one is prepared to pay for a premium location. Apart from anything else you can’t physically fit 500 people into the areas indicated on the council maps. The area indicated in Victoria Park is 768 sq m. If you take off 40sq m for tables and divide the remaining area by 500 it equals 1.45 sq m per person. Even a prisoner in a compound has more space than this- 500 won’t fit in the size and location shown.
6.0 Car Parking
In the case of both Victoria Park and Lyttleton Playing Fields a further area has been coloured pink and is nominated for car parking. In Victoria Park this area is on the south-west side of the bowling greens (abutting the back gardens of The Ridgeway) and in Lyttleton approximately 1350 sq m of woodland some 230m within the park boundary has been nominated. I estimate the area in Lyttleton would hold about 40 cars. Matthew Gunyon has stated: ’Within the sites identified there are areas that can be cordoned off for parking. Existing facilities at the site and in some cases the location of cars would need to be considered by the event organiser and on a case by case basis’. Residents are concerned about car parking but some are concerned that car parking will congest surrounding streets and may thereby pressure the council into allowing more car parking within our green areas. If an event has 500 people, how many cars will we have? If most people arrive by car and travel two to a car we could have 200 extra cars per event. And how many cars would turn up for a car boot sale? No, no and no again. Parks were conceived as a green lung and antidote to polluted city air. To allow mass motor traffic into parks is utter madness, it is anti-social, abhorrent and it is wrong.
7.0 Commercial Considerations and Finances
Matthew Gunyon’s statement ’Enabling residents to make greater use of their local parks and community assets lies at the heart of this policy’, is complete nonsense, if implemented, this policy will deprive the public use of local parks and along the way cause resentment and also damage to our parks. Cllr Brian Coleman’s proclamation that ‘This consultation seeks views on making our parks available to a wider community whilst raising desperately needed revenue in order to keep our parks in first class order’, is also flawed. The views on hiring out parks are already abundantly clear- nobody in their right mind wants it to happen, private events will not make parks available to a wider community - only the privileged few, and the wear and tear and damage that would inevitably occur would not maintain our parks in ‘first class order’. So we must deduce that the raison d’etre for this madcap scheme is revenue generation but even in this I think common sense is marred by a strong political desire to commercialise and ‘privatise’ our green spaces.
There is a draft document that nominates hire charges per day as follows: funfairs £560, events up to 100 persons- £250, events from 101 to 1000 persons- £560, 1001 to 2500 persons- £750, 2501 to 5000 persons- £1000, and upwards of 5000 persons- by negotiation. Things like refuse collection, signage and parking permits are extra. Further to this document Cllr Daniel Thomas, the Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance has stated: ’The figure of 499 people is a maximum and this may be lower for smaller parks. I do not envisage an increased number of funfair events but a small number of much smaller family events.’ It would be interesting to see a proper business plan or estimate but from this simple information we can deduce the following:
1) The Deputy Leader is not in favour of large events or more fun fairs though council officers seem very amenable to events way above a 500 person attendance. So the position is not clear here.
2) If these charges are adhered to it would make it almost impossible to stage a true ‘open to all’community event such as an annual community festival.
3) If we were to say that every fortnight between April and September one 1-day event takes place (private or corporate events are unlikely to go to 2 days) and each event alternates between a 100 person event at £250 and a 500 person private event at £560 and there are also 2 major 3-day
events (such as funfairs) per season at £1680 per weekend we can calculate a revenue of £8,220 per year. Yes! The grand total of £8,220 per annum less expenses.
The above calculation is for Victoria Park. Please note £3360 of the gross revenue comes from the funfair and that is already taking place. So the revenue from private events held every fortnight at Victoria Park is likely to be around £5000 less expenses! Even if you could put up the private usage to ONE EVENT EVERY WEEKEND (with 70% being 100 Person events) you only end up with an annual income of £7,920 excluding the funfairs. Other sites such as Highlands Gardens could not possibly house a funfair being far too small and landscaped, and other places would also be unable to house large events. Nevertheless, if you take the most optimistic estimate and multiply it by 8 you only get a figure of £63,360. And this is not profit for there would be huge operational and administrative costs to such a scheme, in fact there would be so many costs and hidden costs in this scheme as to make it commercially unviable, in fact, it‘s not beyond the realms of possibility that this scheme could actually lose money.
Are all these running costs included in the business plan? What about Mr Gunyon’s salary, or police costs if they’re called out, and will all the costs for making good the damage be included, and all the PR and marketing, the park keepers’ time and will all the time in all council departments and council chambers be included? Already, this exercise must have cost a lot of money, will it be detailed and included in accounts? I fear that with a combination of wishful thinking, impracticality, incompetence and a measure of creative accounting we will never see the true financial picture. Mr Gunyon says ’The income received from any events goes directly into the Greenspaces revenue account’, but there are 2 flaws to this statement, first with a gross revenue of £63,000 and huge costs there is unlikely to be ANY money to put into green spaces, secondly even if this scheme were to make a small profit- say £20,000 per year, the Council could promptly vote to remove £20,000 of council money from the green spaces budget. All the disruption and aggravation and back to square one.
Cllr. Daniels has cited ‘the desire to keep Council Tax low’ and one of the driving forces of this proposal, so presumably the income that Mr Gunyon says will go directly into greenspaces WILL be removed from the budget (and hence the Council Tax). Even if you make a £20,000 profit from hiring out our parks for private events, and you divide this by the 108,000 Council Tax-paying households you get a figure of 18.5 pence per household per year. This scheme makes no financial sense from beginning to end and it seems to be driven by political will as much as by miscalculated finances. Our parks were never intended to be a source of income and they were never intended for restricted public use. Once you introduce the idea that a green space can make money, you may then begin to think that it should ‘pay for itself’ and then you allow the thinking that maybe if it doesn’t pay for itself it should be axed- this is, after all, the first rule of commercial enterprise- expand when it pays, cut back when it doesn’t. Under the laws of supply and demand, if you’re running a hiring out park scheme and demand exceeds supply, you increase supply, in this case you make more public space available for private use. So we seem to be in a lose-lose situation, if the scheme is unsuccessful we’re in danger of losing more green space, and if successful we’re in danger of losing more green space. None of this is acceptable- commercialisation of public parks is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.
8.0 Operational Difficulties and Health and Safety
These ill-conceived proposals are fraught with operational difficulties and health and safety issues. Setting up security fences. Who sets them up? Who determines the exact location and area? Are they to be permanent or semi-permanent structures? Chemical toilets? Private security? Electricity generators? Will alcohol licences be granted? Broken bottles? Anti-social behaviour? Inevitable damage and wear and tear to grass, trees and shrubs? Tents and Marquees? What about more substantial installations like collapsible sheds or stages? What happens if a child (or anyone else) gets run over by a car within park grounds? Is there a safety issue with private events happening next to a children’s playground? Litter, both within the park and in surrounding streets? Parking congestion? Noise pollution ?(this takes up Environmental Health Officers’ time and should be included in the budget.) Air pollution? Clearing and Cleaning? And who polices the event? Already the Community Police have indicated they do not consider it their responsibility. The list goes on and on. The obviously strong desire to make this scheme happen and naïve optimism seem to have blinded council officers to the simple and pragmatic fact that there would be huge operational difficulties and health and safety issues that, in my opinion, would make the scheme unworkable.
9.0 Wear and Tear and Damage to Parks
Having an estimated 15 events per year with up to 500 people per event would undoubtedly cause major wear and tear and damage to our parks, there is no way this volume of human traffic would do otherwise. Add to this all the motor vehicles and installations and it’s a recipe for disaster. Officers are trying to reassure us with talk of event organisers being financially responsible and holding deposits but what happens when damage is present outside the private events area and the event organiser claims he and his guests aren’t responsible? Who pays then? Apart from the liability issue there is the fact that you simply cannot replace worn or damaged grass or damaged trees and shrubs with money- they take time to establish, grow and mature. I fear the rate of damage would far outstrip nature’s capacity to make good and mend simply in terms of time required.
10.0 Effect on Other Park Users
In the last 40 years the population of Finchley (and all suburbs of London) has increased dramatically whilst the quantity and quality of green space has declined. Air pollution is now at dangerously high levels in London and is directly responsible for many thousands of premature deaths every year. Obesity in children in increasing whilst their fitness levels are declining. Never before have our green spaces been so vital to our health and wellbeing. To cordon off large areas of our parks for private events and car parking will have a serious effect on all park users and surrounding residents. Public parks should have unrestricted access for all members of the public at all times (or in the case of locked gates as many hours as is practical). Most private functions will take place at the weekends from April to September which is exactly when demand for parks and green spaces is at its highest. Restricting public access to public parks at peak times (or any other time come to that) is wrong and will cause serious inconvenience, deprivation, disruption and resentment among park users.
11.0 Effect on Residential Amenity, Wildlife and the Local Environment.
Residents living near to the parks where these events are taking place will suffer a huge detrimental effect on their quality of life and residential amenity. With added congestion, motor traffic, and cars parking directly behind back gardens air quality will suffer. The comings and goings of all the extra people will have an impact on their ‘right to peaceful enjoyment‘, which would be further aggravated by loud music. There is the likely hood of serious noise pollution issues with many residents (especially children) suffering from disturbed or disrupted sleep. Young children will be kept awake in the early evening. The setting up, dismantling and transportation of equipment (some of it in heavy vehicles) will undoubtedly cause further disturbance. This disruption and disturbance to the lives of local residents is not acceptable. There is also the question of alcohol, anti-social behaviour and rubbish. It’s hard to imagine how a wedding reception can go ahead without guests toasting the bride and groom. The effect of damage and rubbish will be cumulative, the whole surrounding area both inside and outside the park grounds will deteriorate, there is no magic cure, no quick fix,
With all the extra noise, pollution and disruption wildlife is bound to be adversely effected but this does not seem to feature in our council officers’ considerations. Loud music and fireworks would be particularly devastating, especially to birds who if disturbed in the breeding season would have to move elsewhere. The pressure on our parks and green spaces will increase, the quality of our green spaces are bound to suffer as a result of regular private functions within parks. No council officer so far has made any reference to the local environment which will hardly become a ‘cleaner, greener’ place in which to live.
12.0 Etchingham Friends
There is a fairly well organised group of residents around Victoria Park who are totally opposed to these proposals and who are campaigning against them. A meeting was held in St Paul’s Church in December which was attended by about 65 people (including David Smith and myself). Those who attended were unanimously against the proposals and petition forms were distributed. This is a well organised and hard working group of people who have achieved much but I will make the following three observations: firstly although they supply excellent information such as email addresses for councillors and websites, they are relying very heavily on emailing thereby excluding those local people who do not have or use the internet. For example, I have received nothing through my door and nobody has called or telephoned. Word of mouth is a very effective way of communicating. Secondly, they appear to be focusing too much on the details of operating problems such as litter, broken bottles, car parking etc. to which the officers always seem to have a placatory answer - don’t worry event organisers will pay for damage… rubbish will be cleared up the next day… etc. Thirdly there is a tendency for nimby-ism, for example instead of opposing the proposals on principle they seem to suggesting moving the events to other sites: ‘Victoria Park is one of the smallest and some of the other parks suggested are more suitable, being over 6 times the size of ours’.
13.0 Summary and Conclusions
1) The proposals go against all principles of public open space being open and accessible to all members of society at all times and are hugely unpopular with local residents.
2) The public consultation exercise has not been carried out correctly, has contained biased and misleading information and will produce misleading results and conclusions. The process amounts to maladministration and it does not satisfy the legal definition of public consultation.
3) The proposals are vague and ill-defined. The events proposed cannot possibly happen within the locations and areas shown on the maps which must be taken as very approximate. The areas and locations will probably move and expand on a ‘case by case’ basis.
4) The proposals include introducing car parking within green spaces which is totally unacceptable.
5) The financial case is nonsense, if hired out 23 times per season Victoria Park would generate only £7,860 gross revenue which would then be subject to operating costs. The scheme could well end up actually losing money. The real raison d’etre must surely be political will to commercialise our parks. This thinking has already led to loss of valuable public open space within the borough.
6) The many operational problems that would be encountered would render this scheme unviable and unworkable. There are also serious unaddressed health and safety issues.
7) The scheme would result in massive and unacceptable wear and tear and damage to our parks.
8) There would be serious detrimental effect to local residents and other park users.
9) This scheme would put extra intensity of use and stress on our parks and green spaces and harm their quality. The effect of such intensity of use on wildlife, especially birds, could be devastating.
10) The pilot scheme could be expanded in the future to cover other parks and green spaces.
14.0 What Happens Next/Recommendation
Whether these proposals go ahead or not depends on the outcome of a council meeting due to be held at the Town Hall on 24th January. The whole idea originates with Cllr. Brian Coleman so most of the majority party will support it. However, if enough Councillors can be persuaded to vote against it, it will not be implemented, it is as simple as that. Although the public consultation is due to close on 16th January, society members can still write to Councillors expressing their views, this is more important than responding to a flawed public consultation process. I would recommend and urge all society members to take the time to write to as many Councillors as possible. The very future of our public parks and green spaces hangs in the balance, it is as simple as that.