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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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