Who owns London’s major parks – and why does it matter?

Hyde Park, London, from the air. Image: Getty.

Despite being the metropolitan hub of the UK, London is surprisingly green – 47 per cent green, in fact. Home to around 8m trees, the city has even been classified as a forest.

It’s no surprise, then, that London’s parks are central to the lives of many of its residents – myself included. On the alarmingly regular occasion that I feel ready to cough up clouds of soot, I make a habit of heading for a spot from which the signs of the city – cars, skyscrapers, pollution – are totally absent.

Over time, though, the little irregularities in the capital's parks have become apparent – not least the bizarre patchwork of ownership under which they find themselves.

Many of London’s most famous parks are royal: Bushy Park, Green Park, Greenwich Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park, Richmond Park, and St. James’s Park are all owned by the Crown Estate. Many of these were historically owned by the Royal family for recreation, deer hunting and the like. These days, they’ve been opened to lucky commoners like you and I, but only by the grace and favour of our ruling family.

But this isn’t the whole story. A few of London’s biggest – and most important – parks have escaped royal ownership. Let’s consider two: Victoria Park and Hampstead Heath.

The curious thing about Victoria Park is that, despite being London’s one major park that’s literally named after a queen, it’s not a Royal Park. Unlike many of the Royal Parks, its history is relatively recent: it shares its rootes with many other great municipal projects of the Victorian era.

In 1839, official statistics reported a death rate in much higher in the East End than than anywhere else in London. In the face of this poverty, a petition was presented to Queen Victoria calling on her to commission a park in the area, to improve the locals’ health and well-being. Just two years later, an act of parliament was passed to establish Victoria Park from what was then known as Bonner’s Fields.

Originally, the park was indeed owned by the Crown Estate. But as the century wore on, and it became known as “The People’s Park”, control was passed to municipal government, and eventually to the Greater London Council. When that was dissolved in 1986, Hackney and Tower Hamlets Councils briefly shared ownership, before the latter took full responsibility shortly thereafter.

The history of Hampstead Heath is more acrimonious. Originally owned by the London County Council and later the GLC, the Heath was the subject of a battle for ownership once the latter was dissolved.

Being located at the north-easternmost point of the modern borough of Camden, where it neighbours Barnet and Haringey, it was initially suggested that the three boroughs divide the park between them. This, of course, was unacceptable to everyone. After that, Camden bid for full ownership – which was unacceptable to the government.

So, after considering the three boroughs actually around the Heath, there was really only one logical solution left. That was to give it to the governing body of the City of London, five miles to its southeast.

Hampstead Heath, divided. Image: Ordnance Survey.

Thanks to the dispute, the City is much greener than you may expect. A place which the BBC claims is 100 per cent built-on now owns the largest area of common green space in London, bigger even than the City itself.

Our parks, then, have been shaped by both centuries-old inheritances and modern disagreements. All of this has a direct impact on how London works – and plays – today.

Except when I explained all this to a friend, he presented me with a question: “Why the hell does any of this matter?”

It’s hard to tell if he was interested.


Perhaps he’s right – whoever owns them, the parks seem to be running well, right? Maybe. But, as with most issues in local government, there are two big concerns – accountability and budgets.

As is the case with an alarmingly large number of things in the UK, the Royal Parks, although now managed by an agency of the DCMS, are ultimately controlled by the Royal family. Theoretically, this means that the Queen could shut down the parks on a whim. (Of course, this is the Queen, so I doubt we have much to worry about, at least until Charles’ succession.) Thankfully, the way the government is organised – the involvement of local council leaders in the agency responsible for the Royal Parks, for example – gives some democratic control.

Of greater concern may be the Corporation of London’s oversight of some of the capital’s green spaces well beyond the bounds of the City. Both physical distance and lack of accountability to the local residents may bring poor policy. It is hard to think of any other local authority which controls a significant landmark miles outside of its own borders. It is unclear how those who live near the Heath – or near to the Corporation’s other huge green space, at Epping Forest – might exercise any influence at all.

This is not just a theoretical problem: the Corporation’s decisions can have a direct impact on local life. Consider its recent proposals to turn a footpath across Hampstead Heath into a service road – proposals met by a storm of protests from local residents. (In this case, to be fair, public opinion prevailed.)

But there is one good thing about your local park being owned by the City of London Corporation: it is really, really rich. The same cannot be said for Tower Hamlets which, like every other council in the country, has seen its budget slashed by around half over the last eight years.

With cuts like these, it is unsurprising it sometimes takes unpopular decisions, like its recent threats of a month long closure to make some money. Turns out, it’s not the prospect of the Royal family shutting their parks that should worry us – it’s the grace and favour of this government.

 
 
 
 

Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...


Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:

 

Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.