Braybrooke Woods, Wormwood Scrubs, London

Green And Pleasant

19th June 2015

Deborah Mulhearn looks at campaigns to protect open spaces in urban areas...

The community in London’s Rotherhithe first heard of Thames Water's plans for King's Stairs Gardens (KSG) back in the autumn of 2010. The utility company wanted to use the park – one of the last remaining riverfront green areas in central London – as one of the main tunnelling sites for the planned 'super sewer', or, to give it its proper title, the Thames Tideway Tunnel. The tunnel, due to start in 2016, will carry sewage and rainwater to Abbey Mills pumping station in east London.

The Save King's Stairs Gardens Action Group was promptly formed, and a full and lively campaign of demonstrations, petitions, lobbying, letter writing, meetings and more began. “The issue really energised the whole community, and lots of people and organisations contributed generously of their time, money and effort,” says Roger Bilder, former chair of the action group.

But it’s rarely a one-off battle in densely populated urban areas like London. Fighting off proposals, whether from utility companies, rail networks, housing developers or local authorities, is an ongoing commitment for Friends’ groups and campaigners, who have to remain continuousy watchful. Wormwood Scrubs, in the London Borough of Hammersmith, for example, is one of the largest areas of common land in central London and as such is under constant threat of development. Currently, the high speed rail link HS2, Crossrail and the London Overground all have eyes on parts of it, and there are continuing concerns for local residents, not just over loss of green space for their own leisure, but the threat to wildlife and biodiversity in the ever-developing city.

All the research suggests that losing green areas in towns and cities is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of residents and future generations. According to the annual report of the government’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey, published in January, ninety-six per cent of the population in England believes it is important to live near a green space.

The survey further highlights the increasing importance for contemporary life of having green space near home. The Government’s 2011 Localism Act underpins this ethos, yet parks, recreation grounds, allotments, playing fields and other green spaces in our towns and cities have never been more under threat.
“Once these spaces are gone they are gone and they are rarely, if ever, replaced,” says Emma Boggis, chief executive of The Sport and Recreation Alliance, which advises governments about the sale of school playing fields. There are strict criteria on this, but there is no similar protection for parks or other types of green space, unless they are under a covenant.

“We have an ageing population, soaring inactivity levels and obesity-related health problems all putting a terrific strain on services, and on the NHS on a national level,” says Emma. “Many of these issues can be offset by sport and leisure activities, and the signs are that some people are exercising more than ever before, but these important advances are being undermined by the erosion of accessible green spaces.”

There is also an economic dimension, as Emma explains. “Our recently published research report Reconomics shows that visitors to the natural environment in England spent £21bn in 2012. Outdoor spaces in and on the edge of our towns and cities are often a stepping-stone to a more active lifestyle, one that might start with a walk in the park and then move into hiking or cycling in the ‘great outdoors’. That’s something that’s enormously valuable for local economies.”

In Rotherhithe it seemed like a done deal. The plan was to use the park, which is surrounded by housing, to drill a 100 ft wide and 250 ft deep shaft for inserting tunnel boring machinery and removing and storing enormous quantities of soil. This would have involved seven years of construction work with all the associated noise, smells and pollution, the loss of scores of mature trees, and a much valued local amenity including a popular children's playground. On completion of the works, a 45-ft sewer ventilation tower, a large service building and parking areas would have been permanent eyesores in the park. But with support, the action group successfully fended off Thames Water. Using the motto ‘Brownfield Not Greenfield’, close links were established with groups trying to save other greenfield sites threatened by the 'super sewer’ and with environmental and community organisations dedicated to protecting open spaces, such as the Open Spaces Society and Fields in Trust.

Luckily, the campaign had solid support from Southwark Council, and working with all the different agencies helped them to create layers of legal protection for KSG. “Fields in Trust helped us achieve both Village Green and Queen Elizabeth II Field status for the park, both of which would put significant barriers in the way of Thames Water's plans,” explains Roger.

“Having the unanimous and firm support of the local authority, as well as our local MP and GLA member, was certainly a big help to our campaign. We were really grateful for that support and working together with these elected representatives was indeed an important factor. The moral and practical support of Fields in Trust also made a big difference to our campaign.”

Despite increasing pressures and changing surroundings, outdoor recreational spaces can be permanently protected through organisations such as Fields in Trust. “Our protection is a strong barrier against those who might want to build on green spaces”, says Fields in Trust partnership and communications manager Kathryn Cook. “It is our very reason for existence and our speciality. Many of the sites we protect have remained green oases in the swelling development around them, retaining green space for those who live nearby.”

“We can best help communities who love their green spaces if they work with us to get the space protected by the landowner,” continues Kathryn. “Prevention, in this case as in many others, is better than cure. Trying to protect green spaces once someone has their eye on developing it is infinitely harder.”

Other places are not so fortunate in the fight to protect their parks from local authorities intent on selling them off. Many communities in the path of the HS2 route are working round the clock to protect their green spaces and wildlife oases. And as austerity bites deeper, grassroots organisations are springing up around the country to protect their precious parks and recreation grounds at risk of being sold off by cash-strapped councils.

In Liverpool, dozens of green spaces across the city are being considered for development under the city council’s Local Plan. One historic park has been earmarked for a new stadium for Everton Football Club. Campaigner Chrisie Byrne has used Walton Hall Park since she was a child and is fighting a fierce battle with Liverpool City Council to try and stop the plans.

“There’ll be very little of the park left,” she says, “and if this scheme goes ahead, not only will the park itself be ruined, but the impact on residents’ lives will be detrimental too. There’ll be car parks, fast food outlets and much more traffic pollution in an area with already high rates of cancer and heart disease.”

But friends’ groups like Chrisie’s have new weapons at their disposal. Social media means they can reach millions of supporters, and partnerships with environmental organisations have brought productive results to campaigns that have traditionally been adversarial.

Because of the scale of the proposed ‘landgrab’ in Liverpool, groups across the city are teaming up to fight the plans together. They are also organising petitions, sharing advice and experiences online. “Longer-established groups have said they’d wished social media had been around when they were campaigning,” she says. “It’s been incredible. We’ve had support from around the world, not just from other places in the UK, and from celebrities including Bianca Jagger and the actress Kim Cattrall, who was born in the city.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) State of UK Public Parks 2014 was the first comprehensive review of the condition and management of the UK’s public parks. It revealed that 45% of local authorities are considering selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management to others. “It’s unlikely that many will sell or transfer their principal parks, focussing instead on smaller green spaces, housing amenity land and nature sites,” says Drew Bennellick, Head of Landscape and Natural Heritage at HLF. “But these sites are equally vital for providing local play spaces and green cities and their potential loss or reduction in management would be a retrograde step.”

HLF’s latest Strategic Framework outlined that applicants’ track records will be more closely considered when it comes to deciding on future projects to support. “We are keen to ensure we are investing in organisations with a strong commitment to the UK’s heritage,” adds Drew.

Back in King's Stairs Gardens, the hope is that the Village Green and Queen Elizabeth II Field designations will make it far more difficult for any future attempts at development. “We can't be sure it's protected in perpetuity because if a future developer has the will, the resources to spend freely on legal challenges and, perhaps, government support for a development, legal obstacles could be overcome,” warns Roger.

“Our local community fought long and hard to save our park. But given that Thames Water, and the Government, were absolutely committed to pushing through the 'super sewer' scheme, was it really the views of the community that won the day, or were we just lucky that a nearby brownfield site happened to become available that suited Thames Water better from an engineering point of view?”

Find Your Local