Urban parklands 'are suffering death by stealth': Cutbacks and privatisation seen as serious threat to cities' green heritage

BRITAIN'S public parks, one of the glories of its urban heritage, are under unprecedented threat from sell-offs, spending cuts and the privatisation of maintenance work, according to a campaign launched yesterday.

The GMB general union, which represents 30,000 municipal parks and gardens staff, warned of a 'vicious circle of decline in parks', with lack of maintenance followed by vandalism, neglect and more damage. 'The park then begins to die. People no longer want to visit, or feel it's safe to let their children play. Sooner or later it is put up for sale or replaced.'

In a report, Grounds for Concern, the 800,000-member GMB added its voice to those of other bodies, including the Open Spaces Society, the Landscape Institute and the National Playing Fields Association, that have voiced concern about the threat to green space in cities, from parks to sports pitches and allotments, much of which is now facing sale or disposal by councils desperate for cash.

Among the examples cited are London's Royal Parks, where gardening has been privatised, nurseries and training facilities closed and numbers of staff reduced - in the case of St James's, to two-thirds of the levels considered necessary by independent consultants.

Across the country, however, there are many parks the size of St James's that now have no permanent staff, the report says.

The GMB attacks compulsory competitive tendering (CCT). Private contractors are rarely more efficient, it says: they are cheaper because they pay lower wages and give fewer benefits. A study for the Treasury showed that the main savings came from reduced pension costs.

CCT penalises the quality private contractor and attracts firms 'looking for the quick buck, rather than those committed to long-term excellence . . . It is a system based on the belief that cash is the only criterion and that fails to recognise the traditional skills and commitment of local authority gardeners.'

Other examples include Weymouth, where 600 hanging baskets have been cut and the three famous palm houses closed.

A survey this year found that four out of five councils were planning cuts in parks and conservation spending and that a quarter had sold land managed by the leisure department. Open space is vulnerable because it is ignored in the government's rules for determining how much grant councils get - the standard spending assessment.

The first Victorian parks were created in the 1830s and 1840s as a form of tension relief for the newly urbanised masses. They represented the transfer of the art of landscaping, pioneered by figures such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, from the great estates to the cities and were copied widely abroad. According to Mick Graham, national secretary of the GMB, many are now suffering 'death by stealth'.

Among those singled out were Battersea Park, Dulwich Park and Burgess Park in south London - the latter painstakingly assembled in Southwark since the war by the Greater London (formerly London County) Council but now facing neglect and piecemeal sell-off. Parts of Battersea park, run by Wandsworth council, a keen privatiser, are overgrown, rubble-strewn and badly repaired, according to the union.

Other parks, noticeably in Manchester and Salford, where the first municipal or 'people's' parks were built, have had lavatories closed, displays removed and areas grassed over. According to the report, parks are a 'soft target for councillors looking to balance the books'.

(Photograph omitted)

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