Communities fighting for their open spaces – with professional help

A few years ago I helped a local community save its much loved local public gardens from the Local Planning Authority’s proposals, in its Area Action Plan, to allow development of a residential block on part of the gardens.

I worked with the community to understand their concerns and then articulated these to the local Town Planning Department in the formal planning and legal terms which the Planners need and understand, rather than the emotional terms and arguments which communities tend to use. I wrote the formal response to the AAP Consultation, pointing out where the Planner’s proposals were actually in conflict with their own policies in other areas; against the Mayor of London’s policies and also against national policies. I also pointed out how the overall proposals for developments to the wider area were poor urban design and how things could be improved by following good urban design principles and by integrating public realm in the development of separate sites.

The community had resigned themselves to a continued fight but the final, and adopted, version of the AAP accepted my arguments in their entirety and the riverside gardens were saved from development. It is amazing what you can do if the local planners understand that the community is organised and has professional and knowledgeable back-up and support.

However, despite this success, the Local Authority made clear that they would not spend any money of re-modelling the gardens (despite this being one of the policies in the adopted AAP), nor even on improving  the maintenance and management regime of the gardens. So, the community set up a meeting with the Parks and Open Spaces team, and I went along with them to help obtain their agreement to the community taking on management of the gardens. I suggested that this was too big a task for the community group to undertake – and in the end we agreed with the local Council that they would allow the Garden’s Friends Group, which had been set up by the community, to take over a small section of the gardens to improve and maintain. I ensured that the Friends Group did not take on more than they were capable of delivering, and thus set themselves up for a fall and then lose the confidence of the local authority officers who were helping us as much as they could. In the first year of planting I helped with the physical work (I am quite prepared to be hands in order to get things done), and the success of this planting (which won a local environmental award) gave the Council’s officers the confidence to allow the Friends to extend their area of work for the following year, this time supported by funds from Landfill Tax Credits from Cory Environmental.

The planting which the community did

The planting which the community did

We asked if the Council could do some selected cutting back of the overgrown shrubbery in order to allow views into and out of the gardens and thus allow natural surveillance, but were told that there was no money available but they would see what they could do should some underspend be found from somewhere. A few weeks later the council’s contractors turned up and cut back the whole site, making up for a back-log of long postponed maintenance, and opened up views into and across the whole of the gardens which encouraged more people – especially families – to use it. It just shows what a Local Authority can do for you if they feel that they have a reliable and switched on community group to work with and to help.

Recognising that use is the key to preservation of the public space, this year the community (led by one of the local councillors) set up and ran a community festival (I helped out on the organising-committee) to mark the 150th Anniversary of the first Thames Barge Race. Community Groups set up stalls and put on displays and it was brilliant to see the gardens full of families enjoying themselves.

The community festival in action

The community festival in action

The whole event was put on by the community with no overt and over the top commercialisation. However, local business did help out. Thanks to the local pub (The Running Horses), supplying the location and power for the DJ and public address system, and the toilet facilities; Orbit Housing and Wates for supplying the barriers which the local authority insisted on us having; and The Erith Group who not only collected, fitted and returned the barriers but also were generous enough to supply a cash donation which went towards paying the local council for the use of the gardens (yes, they charged the community to use the gardens which the community owns, although the actual officers we worked with were very helpful). Anyway it shows that things can be done if the community does things for itself with a bit of professional help, and that Councils do respond to an organised group of citizens; and that small steps are important part of the journey.

Part of the area which the gardens serves as an open space

Part of the area which the gardens serves as an open space

In the absence of the local authority taking a lead on the remodelling of the gardens (which is now  a policy in their AAP) I have persuaded a landscape architect (Greysmith Associates) who I know from The Eden Project, to draw up for free an outline design for what a remodelled gardens could look like but this is very early stages – we need to find some money to develop this and put some flesh on the bones: you can only do so much by asking friends to do favours and giving you freebies.

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