Guest Speaker AGM 2014
Sue Ireland, Director Open Spaces, City of London
MAINTAINING CITY OPEN SPACES ROUND LONDON – the challenges ahead
The Chairman introduced guest speaker Sue Ireland, Director Open Spaces, of the City of London to give a talk entitled ‘Maintaining City Open Spaces Round London – the challenges ahead’. He said that local people have a good relationship with the City of London and local representatives regularly attend the twice yearly Consultative Committee meetings. Sue has been in post for seven years, having worked for Chelmsford Council.
Sue Ireland began by telling us that she had always wanted to work in a National Park, Sue graduated in Geography from Aberystwyth University in 1978 and in 1979 completed a Master’s degree in Landscape Ecology and Design. She joined the City of London in her present post in 2008.
Sue reminded us that it is the Victorians that we have to thank for our wealth of open spaces and Green Belt in London. They recognised the importance of open spaces for health and wellbeing and saved Hampstead Heath from being built on and which is owned and managed by the City today. The Open Spaces Acts date from the 1870s and recognises the objective for both the importance of care of the landscape and its importance as a recreational environment for people. Sue explained that the City of London has chosen to deal with those objectives through individual Charitable Trusts for each of its sites and each has an Open Space Act which helps to define how it should be maintained. The sites are managed by staff with help from volunteers.
The City maintains around 200 horticultural sites within the Square mile each has its own Charitable Trust. Currently Finsbury Circus is part of the Cross Rail project, but the Circus will be enhanced and returned to the City. There is 11,000 acres of open spaces around London of which 65% is woodland which has its own set of challenges, historically the woodland would have been maintained by Commoners but they have no active commoners any more. The expertise of the City Open Spaces is recognised and experts come from the EU to see how sites are looked after. City Open Spaces also include marshes and rivers, scrub and grassland and grazing schemes use cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. The City’s open spaces provide recreation both formal and informal – Wanstead Fields has sixty football pitches.
Hampstead Lido is very popular offering both formal and informal swimming ponds, as well as horse riding and cycling. However, climate change requires work on the reservoir dams to prevent possible flooding. A protest group has been set up by residents on the north side, but those on the south side are in favour as they are threatened by floods. This highlights the difficulty in balancing necessary work with objections. The work will leave its mark on the landscape but Sue believes that the site will restore naturally. The cost of the work is £20M which needs to be funded. Another 2M is needed for Epping Forest Cemetery which is a Grade I listed landscape. The condition of the headstones vary and the current trend is for dark stone which is not in keeping with the cemetery as a whole. As land for burials becomes scarce, graves of 100 years old or more can be reused by cleaning and turning the original headstone to make space for a new one. This scheme is in operation and there has been no negative reaction and it is a necessary approach to redress the shortage of burial space particularly in East London.
Pollards are a special part of landscape originally developed to produce timber, but in the last 100 years pollards have suffered from lack of management and eventually fall apart and split. A team from the City spent time in Northern Spain studying and experimenting with the many pollards they have there to improve pollard management skills. Many of the City open spaces are grazed and here new technology has enabled invisible fences, the animal is fitted with a collar which reacts to buried copper cable, animals are either buzzed or zapped if they get too close. This technology allows larger grazing areas and ‘fences’ need less maintenance.
Sue told us about the challenges in protecting our landscape from tree diseases. Massaria is a fungus which grows on the surface of the bark and occurs naturally in Plane trees when under stress. The fungus attacks the upper branches first which are a danger to the public if they fall. Chalara (Ash dieback) is currently not on any of the City’s sites but has reached East London. The decease will have an impact on hedgerows and Rangers are keeping a careful watch on ash trees on all the sites. Dogs have proved a problem at Burnham Beeches as owners omit to pick up dog mess or stop their dogs annoying other visitors. A scheme is to be introduced at Burnham Beeches on 1st December which requires dogs to be kept on a lead in some areas. In other areas owners may be asked to keep a dog on a lead if it is deemed necessary by Rangers. Unfortunately sheep attacks are a regular occurrence if owners are unable to control their dogs. The number of cyclists is increasing and cycling groups use the City’s open spaces. However, they pose a problem as there is no communication with cycling groups and there is a need to warn them of the damage they could do to sites.
Sue talked about the challenges of budgeting, which is common to all Local Authorities. The Heritage Lottery Fund have identified a 50% cut in park budgets. There will be a £17M deficit in the City’s Open Spaces at the end of the next three years, which is somewhat smaller than that of most Local Authorities. The challenge will be to find the solution and continue to support London, not just the open spaces but promoting business across the country, for which £21M is needed. The budged for open spaces is £2M, 14% of the budget, which is doable and Sue reminded us that it is only right and proper not to waste resources. Environmental plans are very long term and the need is to think through the next fifty years - some sites have management plans for the next 500 years i.e. pollards. Also to be taken into consideration is population increase, pressure on social services and that green spaces can be a benefit to health and wellbeing. Sue told us that the City will be re-examining the Open Spaces Acts with the aim of ensuring the continued availability of their open spaces, perhaps seeking new ways of generating income i.e., from car parking. The City is looking to make changes and may ask for a new bill for Epping Forest to make things easier to look after. The lodges at Epping are no longer used by staff so could be let to cover costs of upkeep, not a dramatic or draconian proposal but just to keep status quo.
Sue emphasised how important volunteers are in supporting site management and will be essential to help achievements over the next three years. It’s not all doom and gloom, Sue believes there is opportunity, the Mayor’s Office has produced the London Infrastructure Plan (fifty page document) which addresses the issues of what investment is needed for London’s Green Spaces. A task force has been set up with a core budget to look at resolving these issues, while grants are available from the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and Lottery Fund. This year the Parks Alliance was set up and among other things, will work to get politicians to think more about green space and the future of our landscape.
Questions from the Floor:
Q: Referring to the height of the proposed dams at Hampstead Heath, questioner wished to know how high the dams would be and how they would impact on the landscape.
A: Sue reassured those present that the height of the current dams would be raised by one foot and the edges would be curved to make them more aesthetically pleasing. One dam would be a little higher but it was in a dell. No view will be affected. Work will be spread across site and the ponds will be improved. Nature will grow over and cover evidence of work.
Q: Referring to the proposed cuts: Question asked as to whether staffing levels will be reduced.
A: Sue said that the level of cuts vary from site to site and proposals will be developed with the Consultative Committees. It may be that sports facilities are outsourced and the question of overtime and allowances need to be addressed as there are differences between the sites.
Sue gave an example of funds gained at Epping Forest a very large elongated site and the earliest site that the City took on, originally the City took responsibility for the Cemetery on the edge of Wanstead. As encroachment threatened the City was offered Epping as they had made such a good job of running the cemetery. A police Muster Centre and eleven foot high solid fence was erected on Wanstead Flats by the police for use during the Olympic Games. The fence was not allowed as it needed regulatory reformation, but the Centre was allowed for a number of days. The City was compensated for the use of the Flats and the funds generated were spent as required by the community.
Q: Referring to the acquisition of new sites.
A: Hampstead Heath has been owned and managed by the City since 1989. Stoke Common was taken on by the City with no additional resources but some from Hampshire County Council. There are many different agencies responsible for open spaces including Local Authorities, Royal Parks, Lee Valley and a range of trusts and a range of different people involved in management. Many believe that open space management should be taken out of Local Authority care, many to not have the expertise, but politicians will not give up these areas easily. Perhaps pressure from lack of resources will change things.
Q: Referring to pressure on housing: We now hear that an SSSI is to be built on. How should we protect such sites?
A: Friends groups can put pressure on politicians and there is a need to keep questioning sites under threat. There is an example of a proposal from Bristol Council to sell off parks which was parried by the local community which became involved and changed the policy. There is a similar threat to parks in Birmingham where a local protest campaign is being mounted against the Council’s proposals to make Rangers redundant.
The Chairman thanked Sue on behalf of members for her interesting and informative speech and for the excellent standard of care she and her staff achieve for the City’s Open Spaces.