Here is a short summary of Lloyd Grossman’s talk to the London Society on 17th October 2017, followed by my comments. The Royal Parks Charity was established in July 2017, taking over the roles of the Royal Parks Agency and the Royal Parks Foundation.
See also: new Facebook Group for Royal Parks London.
Summary of Loyd Grossman’s talk
Every single person in this room will have visited a royal park – or all the royal parks – and some of you use them every day. But their extent and variety is greater than most people appreciate. They began in Tudor times and Greenwich was the first royal park. They were created because kings loved hunting. Zola lived a while in London and said the parks ‘were simply places for recreation and breathing the fresh air’. Rasmussen identified the great English contribution to parks, saying they were for sport and health as well as recreation and amusement. They are London’s single greatest asset. They are the greatest urban parks in the world. The President of Central Park said it would be hard to raise money for the Royal Parks because they are so good already. Bushey Park and Richmond Park are SSSIs. Regent’s Park is totally different – it is a great urban landscape. Victoria Tower Gardens is also a Royal Park. The Royal Parks are responsible for No 10 Downing Street, Horseguards Parade, Brompton Cemetery and The Mall. They function as theatres for national events. They are a great collection of works of art. They have 170,000 trees. Regent’s Park has the only breeding population of hedgehogs in Central London (36 of them). Royal Parks are really great places for doing nothing.
The new charity will run the Royal Parks. Previously they were run by the government, though it had a supporting charity. Now we can build up a reserve of funds, attract investment and have an independent voice. We will promote use and enjoyment, support conservation, enhance biodiversity and cherish the national heritage. We will protect, conserve and maintain.
There are a number of challenges, most of them also faced by other cultural organisations. Declining government funding has been a fact of life for the past 30 years. Royal Parks’ self-generated funding has risen from 5% to 70%. A growing population is another challenge. The Royal Parks have 77 million visitors/year at present, which is a lot more than Disneyland. This means more feet in the parks so soil compaction is a problem. Everyone wants to see the 750 year old Royal Oak in Richmond Park. We cannot and will not ever prevent access to the Royal Parks. They will always be open and entry will always be free.
When a property developer looks at a park he thinks ‘what a great place to put a building’. We are constantly fending them off. We have to protect our parks. We will never allow any loss of greenspace in the Royal Parks. There is also constant pressure for the building of new memorials. The Bomber Command monument was allowed but I hope nothing like this will ever happen again. There are weekly and monthly proposals for new memorials in the Royal Parks. Biosecurity is another challenge. There was no Oak Processionary Moth in the UK 8 years ago and the Royal Parks are now spending £400,000/ year on dealing with them. At present you can bring any tree into the UK – there is no quarantine. Hyde Park may be the single most famous concert venue in the world. Inevitably there are competing interests in every park. We have to try and balance them. Each group thinks it is the most important interest group. We live in a society that has made a fetish of self-interest. The Royal Parks are an antidote to this, by being free, open and immune to development.
There is a big current project for investment in Greenwich Park. It has a different role to the other parks and has had little investment in the past 20 years. We intend to restore the Giant Steps. They will be a better lead-up to the Royal Observatory and what many regard as London’s finest view. It needs a better viewing area.
We need more support from the public because we do not want to hold more events, as a normal business would do. We have 500 staff looking after the parks and we grow 98% of their own plants, because commercial nurseries can’t supply the quality.
People say ‘what is your vision for the Royal Parks?’ It is simple: in 20 years time they will still be the best urban parks in the world.
Comments on Loyd Grossman’s talk
- An expenditure of £36m for 77 million visits works out at 46p/visit. This is good value and it would be good to have comparable figures for other public parks.
- I am optimistic that the Royal Parks under Grossman’s chairmanship will be run better than they were under direct control by central government.
- Grossman is absolutely right about there being too many memorials in the Royal Parks – and about David Cameron having made a mistake when he gave permission for a Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens. There should be a competition to propose sites.
- A detailed correction to Grossman’s talk concerns Greenwich Park: is not ‘always open’ – it is locked at night and this is a good policy.
- Wherever competent trustees can be found, I would like to see local trusts taking over the management of public open spaces from municipal authorities PROVIDING the authorities continue to fund the parks. Trust management should not be a way of saving money on public services and ownership of parklands should remain with the local authorities. Transfer of the Crystal Palace Park to a trust will be a valuable test of how such arrangements can work. My guess is that trust management will be better management.
- The Royal Parks are in urgent need of a chief executive or senior manager with expertise in landscape design (including design history). The Royal Parks Agency was run like a hospital with good managers, good anaestheticians, good nurses and good cleaners but no specialists in treatment or in bringing patients back to health.
- Many local parks should be run by landscape architects, either as professional managers or as pro bono volunteers helping their local communities by serving as trustees.
- The chair of the meeting said he was not going to mention cycling in the Royal Parks. This was regrettable. Grossman is right that competing interest groups always think themselves in the right. But this is no excuse for dodging issues and the current Royal Parks policy on cycling is indefensible.
- In response to a question from the floor about the proposal to make London a National Park City, Lloyd Grossman said he did not think it would do any harm but nor could he see that it would do any good: because London already has a lot of planing authorities and they will not want to give any of their powers to a new authority.
- Parks need champions.