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.