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.

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.