Park keepers have been introduced at four of south London's large open spaces to discourage crime as part of an pounds 120,000 initiative by Merton council.

Uniformed rangers began foot patrols of Morden, Canizaro, Wimbledon and Canons parks last week. They were appointed to reassure park users following the murder of Rachel Nickell in July 1992 on Wimbledon Common. The common is within Merton's boundaries, but not under its jurisdiction.

The nine wardens will also be trained to answer questions on birds, flowers and local history.

Merton Council spokesman Gene Saunders said: 'We realise safety in parks is an issue. Today there are more and more people wanting to use parks for recreation but being bothered by unruly elements.

'Sadly, there are assaults, sex attacks and even murders taking place. We decided to put staff in wearing uniforms and carrying identification, so that if people are bothered they can go to them.

Merton is one of the capital's greenest boroughs, with an acreage of open space second only to Bromley. Unpatrolled gardens have attracted vandals, with at least one park building being destroyed by arsonists every year. Wimbledon Park's pavilion has burnt down twice in recent years.

The decision to introduce rangers was taken after discussions with the police. It has been welcomed by David Lambert, conservation officer with the Garden History Society, which is campaigning for more investment in public parks.

Mr Lambert said that without adequate funding open spaces fall into a cycle of decline, becoming unused and eventually dangerous.

'The move by Merton is definitely a step in the right direction. Nationally the trend has been for management to be more and more low key. There aren't the gardeners and park keepers any more who provided a benign presence, so

vandals and criminals move in.

'Patrols aren't the only answer. If people are seen working in a park that sends out signals that parks are well run and safe.

Mr Lambert criticised the policy of making local authorities put services out to tender. He said it left gardens unattended for long periods, and unevenly maintained.

Instead of permanent park keepers and gardeners, teams of workmen now tour a borough carrying out only specified tasks with little attention to detail. Monitoring by council staff is often irregular. The consequences are poorly-maintained grounds, sometimes suffering from the mistakes of an inexperienced labour force working to a tight schedule. Park users in Wormwood Scrubs and Little Scrubs, Hammersmith and Fulham, report seeing trees damaged by cutting gear, grass left as meadowland inadvertently mowed, and litter shredded by grasscutters.

London's open spaces are among the most neglected in Britain, as councils, with no statutory duty to pay for their upkeep and under increasing pressure from central government to save money, divert resources to essential services such as education.

Mr Lambert says the effects can be seen in Victoria Park, Hackney, where annual floral displays have been replaced by roses and other perennial shrubs.

He wants the Government to review the effects of its policies on local authority-owned parks to establish the scale of the problem. He argues that the grand open spaces left by Victorian landscapers should be preserved in the same way as listed buildings.

Without urgent action, Mr Lambert warns, parks will increasingly fail to attract visitors - and end up being sold for redevelopment with little local opposition.

'Parks are a national resource, not a drain on resources. We need to ensure that these historic gardens do not disappear under super-market developments or leisure centres. It is one thing to get rid of a park. It is not so easy to replace it.

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