Is it really right to use public parks for private commercial events?

Somewhere under there is Hyde Park: the British Summertime Festival. Image: Getty.

During the summer, London is abuzz with large-scale cultural and sporting events – many of which are held in public parks. This season, Formula E motor races will be held in Battersea Park, while music festivals will take over Victoria Park, Finsbury Park and Hyde Park.

Events like these are enjoyed every year by thousands of people, both locals and tourists alike. But they also shut down public spaces, and have a significant impact on park environments. There is growing resistance from local residents and campaign groups, who have instigated legal challenges against the use of public parks for commercial events.

These cases give us cause to think about who, and what, parks are for. They also help us to understand the wider challenges currently facing public spaces around the world.

Why is this happening?

City parks have always been used for events – but now they are being used for larger and more commercially-oriented events than ever before.

This is mainly due to reductions in government funding: a recent Heritage Lottery Fund report found that 86 per cent of UK park managers have had their budgets cut since 2010, with a third facing cuts of 20 per cent or more. Many parks need to supplement grant income with revenue from commercial activities.

Fenced off. Image: Andrew Smith/author provided.

Glen Searle identified how parks can raise money by staging smaller, private events such as weddings and corporate functions. But now, big event companies are seeking distinctive venues and new audiences. They are keen to use urban parks, and are willing to pay large sums to hire them. For instance, Formula E paid Wandsworth council £2.85m to use Battersea Park for their events in 2015 and 2016 – a figure which includes compensation for the fact that future editions have been cancelled, due to local opposition.

The financial incentive to use parks for commercial events is clear. Events like these are also seen as valuable tools for “entrepeneurial” cities – to generate investment and to promote the city as a whole.

But there are more subtle justifications for park events, too. Professionals who represent parks feel that new events can help to diversify park users and uses. They think that music festivals, sport events and film screenings can make Victorian parks seem more relevant to modern life. Park officials also feel that they now have the technology and expertise to effectively minimise negative impacts such as noise pollution and environmental damage.

Warning: temporary closure

As we saw recently in San Francisco – when residents forced authorities to back down on plans to rent out park space – there is growing opposition to the privatisation of public spaces. Londoners are also beginning to push back against major events, which temporarily privatise parks by restricting when the public can use them.

Closed for business. Image: Andrew Smith/author provided.

For instance, Battersea Park is closed to the public for four full days during the Formula E events, and there are partial closures scheduled on 15 more days while the event is set up and dismantled.

Disruption to normal park use is heightened by damage to turf and the timing of events. These tend to take place on summer weekends – the times when parks would be more heavily used by residents.

Hiring out parks to event companies has a symbolic impact too. It normalises the idea that public space can be “bought” and fenced off. Sanctioning commercial events sets a worrying precedent, which could be used to justify more permanent installations in the future.


A way forward?

The controversies, legal challenges and general disquiet surrounding the use of parks for major events suggest that a new approach is needed.

Park managers need to work with local organisations to consider what types of events are appropriate for parks – and what types of parks are appropriate for events. Clearer guidelines on what proportion of time and space events are allowed to take up will help to avoid the legal challenges and bitter conflicts seen in London this summer.

Better enforcement of existing laws could help to maintain the balance between public and private park use too. My ongoing research suggests that awareness of these regulations is low, even among events managers and park officials.

Of course, another way to avoid these conflicts is to provide more generous public funding for parks. This may seem idealistic in a time of financial austerity. But parks are much loved by the public; they enhance the urban environment, and the well-being of citizens. If their value was fully recognised and parks properly funded, local authorities would not be forced to use them for commercial events.The Conversation

Andrew Smith is reader in tourism and events at the University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.