Haven on earth

Jack O'Sullivan discovers how Britain's urban parks are being rescued from dereliction

The Temple, a sandstone Georgian folly once visited by Wellington, Disraeli and General Tom Thumb, is a grand romantic gesture. Perched on the highest point of the 640-acre Heaton Park, one of Europe's largest urban public spaces, it looks down over central Manchester and speaks of gentler times. But the view has changed since the park was the pride and joy of Mancunians. The park's centrepiece, Heaton Hall, built in 1772 for the Earls of Wilton and one of the finest examples of a Wyatt country house, is boarded up. Two huge lions, cast in lead by John Cheere, which once adorned the entrance and fascinated generations of children, have been removed to protect them from further vandalism. Other buildings are derelict, no-go areas to the public.

It's a familiar story - a great urban park, hard won by the Victorians, let run to ruin by their great- grandchildren. We didn't notice until it was almost too late to save places which, in their heyday, were where many people spent their summer holidays.

Typically, decline in parks like this one dates from the Second World War, when the cast-iron railings were sacrificed to the war effort; parks could no longer be secured at night. After the war, planners were more interested in spending on slum clearance and new roads. Le Corbusier's Modernism was not interested in ornate, decorated landscapes. While rural areas enjoyed the protection of the Countryside Commission, urban spaces were abandoned to blighted obscurity. After all, why bother with Heaton Park on the north side of Manchester, when you could drive to the Pennines?

Then parks' departments disappeared into council "Leisure Services", their horticultural expertise and political clout lost, leaving the parks starved of funding as sports centres got the cash. Abolition of park-keepers, victims of compulsory competitive tendering, was an almost fatal blow. They were replaced by unaccountable outside contractors, charged with mowing the grass once a fortnight and dumping wood chippings around the roses. Municipal neglect was matched by vandalism, which, once left unrepaired, grew in its destructiveness.

For Hazel Conway, author of three books on Britain's urban parks, the decline of the People's Park in Halifax symbolised the tragedy. "A whole row of statues on the terrace had to be enclosed in hardboard to prevent them being vandalised. Yet, even then, they were still damaged." For the general public, the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common evoked a sense that many parks were no longer safe.

But this dismal tale is drawing to a close. We are witnessing a great revival of the British urban park. The Temple at Heaton Park has been carefully restored, its stone interior marble fireplace and simple oak floor once more a resting place for walkers, not simply winos. The outside of the Hall, which has a cupola as its main room, decorated in Etruscan style, will soon be renovated. Inside, the British Folk Art exhibition is already on display. The elegant Orangery, until recently a shabby shell of its former glory, is now a restaurant, catering for weddings. A new pavilion has been built for the golf course. A kitchen garden has been developed, and an aromatic garden for the blind is planned. Derelict buildings are due for demolition. The park is now locked at night and hundreds of new litter bins are regularly emptied. The greens at Heaton Park will host the lawn bowls competitions for the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Two factors explain the turnabout - pounds 3.4m allocated from the National Lottery (plus matching council funding) and the appointment of a park manager. Theresa Grant, a tough-minded Irish woman, is now in charge at Heaton Park, given responsibilities previously divided between several council departments but assigned to no-one in particular. "There is an enormous amount of goodwill to parks," she says, "which I can focus. The fact that I am here, for example, means that when the contractors come to mow a section of the park, they don't cut the meadow while the wild orchids are flowering.

"I have also been able to make sure that when trenches are being dug in the park for the introduction of closed-circuit television, we will not have to go through the same disruption again. Water mains, fibre-optic cables and electricity cables will all be in the same trench for future use."

Ms Grant has changed the rota for cleaning and litter picking so that most work is done in the evening, making the park safer and ensuring that it is clean each morning. "If the public see it litter-free when they arrive, they are more likely to be tidy themselves." Soon the lions will return, once proper security has been introduced.

This is just the beginning for Dr Stewart Harding, team leader of the Urban Parks Programme for the Heritage and Lottery Fund, which is inviting bids from 2,500 parks. Some pounds 70m has already been allocated and a similar amount will soon be available. He would like to see an Urban Green Agency established and made responsible for town parks, each with a manager like Theresa Grant. "For too long," he says, "parks have been seen as a problem, rather than being recognised as a vital component of an urban area. We will soon see them again, as the Victorians did, as the jewel in the crown of every town."

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