Celebrating fallen heroes in beds of pink dianthus: Our much-loved public parks are being put out to tender. Anna Pavord is concerned

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The Independent Online
AS institutions, public parks have much in common with weddings. Both are frozen in a time warp that makes remarkably few compromises to life in the 1990s. Both, stylistically, owe more to the late Victorians than the modern age.

The brilliant displays of heliotrope and verbena in curiously shaped beds are echoed in sumptuous bridesmaids' dresses that, despite the best intentions, never quite make the transition to parties in the real world.

Both institutions are littered with arcane trophies. The wedding cake is as emblematic as the coat of arms bedded out with crassula, echeveria and golden feverfew.

But who would ever want to restyle weddings, despite the anachronisms? And who in their right minds would want to see public parks change? Nevertheless, they might. Compulsory competitive tendering means that, in many areas, the old Parks Departments have already been superceded by private contractors. Even civic pride has to find a place on the balance sheet.

Philanthropy was the driving force behind the explosion of public parks in the Victorian age. 'Wholesome air', 'uninterrupted promenade', 'the instruction of the populace' were the phrases the benefactors liked to use (though it was often the same benefactors that polluted the air and shortened the horizon with their mills and factories).

A park is no longer like a garden in the way that it is laid out: the serpentine walks, the banks of evergreens, the extraordinarily brilliant displays of bedding in beds shaped like teardrops and crowns, diamonds and rainbows. But when the first public park was laid out (Birkenhead in 1843) this was just what grand private gardens looked like. They have stood still. We have not.

The best parks should have an imposing statue (the benefactor, of course, or Queen Victoria). There should be a clock solid enough to survive Doomsday, a bandstand, a fountain. Borough Gardens in Dorchester, Dorset, has all these plus a 1930s paddling pool, tennis courts and a superb bowling green, another essential element of the classic park.

It is about five and a half acres in all, developed on land that was part nursery, part fairground, part cattle market. The borough bought the land by public subscription and, designed by William Goldring, the park opened on 30 July 1896. The correspondent of the Gardeners' Chronicle, the horticultural bible of the time, visited Borough Gardens two years later and noted with approval the ivy-leaved pelargoniums, the lobelias, the 'American Giant Petunias' and the ageratums.

You will find the same flowers there today, stalwarts of all park bedding schemes. 'Tough and long in flower,' explained Brian Young, who has worked in the park for 25 years. Once he would have been called the Superintendent. Now he has the title of Outdoor Services Officer.

Dorchester has not yet had to grapple with compulsory competitive tendering. If a council spends less than pounds 100,000 on a service, the rule does not apply. And a good thing too, said Dennis Holmes, Dorchester's sympathetic town clerk.

One of the biggest problems of the tendering system is its likely effect on skills training. The old Parks Departments were well established training grounds for apprentice gardeners. They could earn while they learnt and there were enough experienced hands to give the necessary supervision.

But the apprentice gardener post at Dorchester is empty and has been for the last two years. With expenditure on sports and amenity services rising, Holmes does not know how much longer the present system can continue. He cannot guarantee that the council would be able to fulfil its obligations to an apprentice. An indenture lasts five years.

Then there is the question of standards. Given a tightly written, properly supervised contract, a contractor should, in principle, be able to do as good a job as anyone else. But this, thinks Holmes, is not how it is likely to work in practice. Where profit is the overriding concern, quality may suffer.

Young agrees (though that is not surprising, given his position). 'It's your own pride that keeps the place up to scratch,' he says. 'If the park went out to contract, there wouldn't be any one person responsible for it. You've got to look on a place as your own to look after it properly.'

So, for the moment, the Borough Gardens continue to flourish under the old regime at a minimum cost of pounds 35,000 a year. There are heraldic beds at the entrance (200 boxes of plants raised for those alone), sinuous sweeps of blue ageratum and thunderingly brilliant yellow marigolds.

Pink snapdragons and dark blue lobelia stand to attention round the bandstand. Red salvias, white alyssum and deep purple perilla are arranged in equal sets round the tennis courts. The men of the Dorset Regiment who died on the North-West Frontier are celebrated in blazing pink dianthus.

Four hundred miles north at Morpeth, beyond Newcastle, you will find much the same mixture of flowers (though not so well grown) blooming in Carlisle Park. It is named after Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle, an early feminist reformer, who gave the land to the town in 1916. The park opened in 1929.

This was 50 years after the heyday of the public parks, but the layout and planting style is unchanged. There is a proper floral clock with heavy green hands jerking convulsively over figures of clipped box. The clock face is planted with blue lobelia and yellow French marigolds.

From the handsome cast-iron entrance gates (presented to the town by Alderman Duncan) the main path stretches to a raised terrace with seats at the far end. Decorative borders of ageratum and geraniums swirl and writhe in the grass. The maintenance of the park is now the responsibility of Scottish Land, a Glasgow-based contractor which this year took over the work that used to be done by the Parks Department.

Its bid for the whole contract, which includes cemetery work, verge cutting and other duties, was pounds 117,000. Of that, Carlisle Park swallows about pounds 50,000, estimates Peter Wilson, the borough engineer. The bid was 'quite well below' the rival tender put in by the former Parks Department. 'It seems to be operating fairly successfully,' said Wilson cautiously. And he sees savings for the council in man-hours, rates of pay and ancillary costs such as gardeners' pension schemes, with which they no longer have to concern themselves.

What potential dangers does he see? 'Possible lack of continuity. The quality of the men who are doing the job. The standard of the home-grown bedding.' And he, too, mentioned the question of training. Scottish Land does not offer the sort of skills training that the Parks Departments did. In 10 or 20 years' time, this may begin to show in the amount of skilled labour available.

To an outsider, looking in, it also seems as if contracting out unnecessarily complicates the command structure. John Hogg, Morpeth-born, has spent 30 years - all his working life - in parks. He started as an apprentice and finished as Park Superintendent. Under his management, Morpeth blossomed, regularly winning trophies in national competitions.

Now, as the council's liaison with the contractor, he no longer 'gets his hands dirty' as he puts it. He seems to miss that. He has daily meetings with the contract supervisor. He can order the scruffy nemesias in the park to be replaced (which he has) but he can longer use his practical experience to grow and plant the things, which seems wasteful.

One problem remains the same, whoever is in charge. That is vandalism. Some of it is easy to take, some not, says Brian Young. There is a certain black wit in the rearrangement of bedding plants in the heraldic beds to spell out words they should not. 'That happens quite regularly,' he says.

There was no humour at all in the hooligan who uprooted 14 magnificent standard fuchsias and dumped them in the paddling pool. Overnight they absorbed enough chlorine to kill them. Young had trained the plants himself from cuttings. It had taken him 10 years.

Nor could he understand the mentality of the ring barker who carefully and neatly cut a foot-wide bracelet of bark from a fine specimen tree in the park. Young found the bark the next day. He wrapped it round the wound, bandaged the tree and trusted in fate. 'People laughed at me,' he said. 'But it worked.' Can you see a contractor caring that much?

(Photograph omitted)