Richard North

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The Independent Online
The bandstand in Hereford's most-used public park is going to be pulled down. It has been vandalised so often that a nice bed of thorny bushes seems more appropriate.

It was hardly surprising that Will "The State We're In" Hutton took up the theme, researched and articulated by Demos, the think-tank, that urban parks are in crisis. It may be true, but it certainly fits a standard liberal idea: the Tories hate local government, and cities, and love forcing cost-savings. So authorities eveywhere have taken away park-keepers and either not replaced them or done so with "A Man in a Van". The party of suburbanites living intensely private lives in private spaces was at war with the social provisions which reinforce communities.

It may well be true that parks need more money, and ought to be looked after by people in brown suits (as keepers) rather than men in tattoos (as private armies). Hackney spies tell me that Clissold Park, where all my young did a lot of their early adventuring and where, God help us, they were "socialised", needs its loos re-opening, and the return of the doughty women in blue nylon coats who formed a fairly effective UN peacekeeping force in the playground.

That same spy says the place remains vigorous and largely cheerful. Besides, I can remember, even in palmier days, I was excoriated by liberal types for writing in the Times that Hackney's public spaces were in need of busybodies - middle class or not - who could assert that swiping little Jewish children wasn't on.

We ought to beware of thinking that everything was good "then" and is bad now. Irn Bru has an ad depicting an irate Victorian or Edwardian park- keeper chasing urchins down a lakeside, waving - one is delighted to see - a stick. Surely this makes the point that gangs of boys (highly socialised, in their way, as Bea Campbell points out) have always been a curse. I regret to note the subtext that arming park-keepers may not have been wholly effective.

Birkenhead Park, Britain's first public park and an inspiration for New York's Central Park, was the subject of a good deal of anxiety in the 1920s and 1930s on the same sort of security grounds as it has been more recently. It is good news that its lowest point was 20 years ago, before That Bitch is supposed to have scuppered everything. As is the case with many other parks, a lot of money is now being spent to improve it, and wardens will be "on the beat" rather than turning up sporadically.

But do we really believe that armies of underpaid old codgers are going to return to our public spaces? Isn't it just as likely that volunteer wardens (such as Cheshire County Council is encouraging in some of its urban woodlands) will have to do the trick?

The security problem may not be what it seems, anyway. Most users of Birkenhead Park, when asked, stated how much they enjoyed the place. Yes, when they listed their worries, security was a concern: yet the park has not, apparently, been the scene of many crimes. Demos's own report is in something of a cleft stick here: it goes on about people's feelings of insecurity, but states as a key finding: "Most park users claimed to feel safe in their parks in daylight hours".

There is evidence that it is not underfunding so much as young people's quite new, or newly revived, unpleasantness which matters. Hereford's parks chief says that this city got rid of park-keepers 20 or 30 years ago. Yet it is only in the last few years that the parks have suffered much vandalism.

Pity the young. They will have to become self-motivating entrepreneurs. They will have to take out pension plans almost before they stop repaying their FE tuition fees. Now, God help them, they will have to learn to behave nicely in public because we can't afford to have swarms of people keeping them in line.