Paul Rabbitts MLA FRSA 

Author, Parks Historian, Public Speaker

The Abuse of Parks is the Abuse of Society

I have sat for long enough and read the reports, seen the pictures, headlines, tweets, Facebook updates and had conversations with my own team and colleagues. I have spoken at length with colleagues across the country who are managing parks in Manchester, Nottingham, Rugby, Salford, Merseyside, Bournemouth, Newcastle, in fact UK wide. Litter, mountains of the stuff, tonnes of it being dropped and dumped in our parks and green spaces. In Rugby's parks, there are 10 tonnes of extra litter being removed from their parks per day. Similar in Salford's Parks where tonnes of rubbish have almost double compared to last year. We see reports of people 'shitting' in McDonald's Burger boxes and leaving then in parks and on beaches for council staff to remove. Thousand's of gas canisters of Nitrous Oxide appearing in parks and left and these are not even illegal. Reports that the Met Police can no longer control our streets, let alone parks. So is this a symptom just of coming out of lockdown? Is it a change in societal behaviour? Is it partly a result of austerity? few police officers and parks staff? Or that pubs and clubs, bars, cinemas are all still closed? What makes a human being think it is acceptable to take a dump in a McDonald's throwaway big mac box and leave it for some poor soul to remove? Matthew Wright on TV called them 'pigs' and was condemned by many for saying such a thing. But pigs would not even behave like this. They are worse than pigs. It is feral behaviour with no limits. These people do not care. We have seen ugly scenes on our streets as part of Black Lives Matters protests, rioting, vandalism, spitting at police officers. Parks staff have been spat at and abused. 

I took a call from a Guardian reporter today who was doing a feature on litter in parks and wanted my views as Chair of the Parks Management Forum. Chaos, its chaos out there, and parks teams are struggling to cope with it after years of austerity and parks maintenance budgets stripped to the bone. Many proffer solutions: better signage, CCTV, Fixed Penalty Notices, Council's need to do a better job (Please really???), the police need to take action, more bins. So why are we experiencing such behaviour and what is the answer? We live in a society that is now largely divisive, confrontational, with leaders that have spouted bile and hatred, from Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, stirring up society, pulling communities apart. If we don't respect our leaders, then we become dysfunctional, out of control, without any boundaries as to what is acceptable. Bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour. And behaviour has been shocking, at times disgusting. Society is protected by our public services and public services have been stripped bare. Local Authorities, already struggling now have to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19. We rely on our public services for our basic needs - healthcare, safety, protection, wellbeing, cleanliness, housing, social care to providing recreational facilities that support all these. Yet these have been decimated so when we start to lose control, the spiral of decline increases. So the answers?

  • We need to focus on communities, and communities need a robust public sector to support and engage with them. Public services are the fabric of our society;
  • We need strong leadership at all levels - in our communities, in our Town Halls, in our Government, in our schools and colleges and examples of strong leadership must be at the highest level - New Zealand  anyone? Jacinda is an inspiration. 
  • We need to set examples, and we need to make sure there is a deterrent for such behaviour, stiff fines for littering, and I mean stiff, and we need law enforcement that can deliver such deterrents. 
  • We need to focus on the things that matter, our health, our wellbeing, our communities and start relying on people power rather than accepting the bad behaviour of others as acceptable because it isn't. This has to come from Government. 
  • We need to fix society and it has to come from within and we need to do it now. 

This is no easy fix in the current climate, but we can certainly start with strong leadership and setting better examples for all. 


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Why Parks Matter...

In 2016, I published ‘Great British Parks: A Celebration’ which very much started out as a straightforward celebration of Great British Parks which was followed in 2017 by ‘Parkitecture – Buildings and Monuments of Public Parks’. Both books recognised the value of one of our finest institutions – the public park. I have worked in parks for over 30 years, managing, developing, improving and restoring them. They are my passion. With the current pandemic affecting us globally, there has been an incredible resurgence in the value of public parks, with politicians spouting walks in your local park, fresh air as being good for us, provided we socially distance ourselves (naturally) and the nation has embraced them once again. Government has ordered councils to keep parks open, allowing opportunities for exercise, and the value they are to our health and well-being. Wellness is now oft quoted. Walks in my local park here in Leighton Buzzard have seen more people out walking, running, playing frisbee, children on bikes, and this is despite the play area being closed and the gyms out of action. So are we valuing parks once again? We need to look back at history first as to when we acquired these wonderful public utilities, open to all, yet over the decades have been much maligned, neglected, abused, restored and then once again neglected. We need to break the boom, bust, boom, bust cycle and once and for all, value our parks and green spaces like never before. And it is never so relevant than this week – World Parks Week.


Parks were born out of the need to improve the quality of people’s lives as the Industrial Revolution took its hold. 100 years later, this was sadly abandoned as we embraced ‘the cost of providing’ rather than the ‘benefits (note the plural) of providing’, only to rediscover this by the end of the twentieth century. Thanks to successive studies and reports, surveys, analysis, continued lobbying, many parks have been rescued from virtual obscurity, primarily funded by the National Lottery, including the wonderful Avenham & Miller parks in Preston; Birkenhead Park on the Wirrall; Victoria Park, London; Heaton Park, Manchester; Leazes Park, Newcastle; Abbey Park, Leicester and many many more. The figure from the National Lottery Heritage Fund now exceeds £1 billion allocated to rescuing our most important public parks. The irony is perhaps wrapped up in history itself – history tells us that parks are good for us. So is this lottery funded parks renaissance really over? In 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report on the condition of parks in the UK called ‘State of UK Public Parks - Research Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund June 2014’ and was followed up by a similar report in 2016. The picture was bleak and none more so apparent with the fate of many parks, being sold off, developed, features being closed such as in Ryelands Park in Lancaster, with the ultimate destruction of its iconic bandstand in June 2017.

Way back in in 2006 CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this required the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. Yet funding for public parks and urban green spaces was significantly reduced between 1979 and 2000, losing an estimated £1.3 billion in total. A timely report published in January 2013 by the International Federation of Parks and Recreation Administration (Ifpra) concluded that there is evidence for a range of benefits of urban parks and that there is sound scientific evidence that parks contribute to human and social wellbeing (wellness?). Specifically, urban planners should focus on high quality parks in such areas, where the case is currently that parks are scarce and poorly maintained. Given the strong evidence for parks as promoting physical activity and reducing obesity (parkruns are surely the best example of this), more thoughts should be given to how parks are planned and established with good opportunities and amenities for exerting varied kinds of physical activity, such as walking and biking (exactly what politicians are telling us to do today but it takes a global pandemic for them to get this!). In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership, and in some cases, existence. The economic crisis of 2007 marked a change in mood and expectation among many green space professionals. In the 2010-11 financial year, local authorities were forced to implement significant savings. Local authority budget cuts (average 28 per cent over a three-year period, and in some cases up to 90%), brought an abrupt halt to many ambitions for significant capital investment in public green space across the country. The requirement to demonstrate financial sustainability still places considerable economic pressure on local authorities. It is getting worse. Local authorities no longer have any funding from central government since the withdrawal of the annual Revenue Support Grant. Basically, it’s now up to councils to foot all the bills.


So the future of UK public parks in 2016 was at a crossroads and today, 2020, it now faces an even greater challenge with future austerity and a deep recession looming. ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2014 - Renaissance to risk’ and its follow up in 2016 perhaps gave the clearest picture. They reported that maintenance budgets were being reduced, capital was less available for improvements, park facilities were becoming more expensive to use, management and maintenance skills were being lost, and some parks and green spaces were being sold or transferred to others to maintain. This is despite over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year. Over 70% of park managers have recorded increased visitor numbers to their principal parks between 2013-14. Yet 86% of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect the trend to continue for the next few years and beyond. Just as worrying is that 71% of households with children under 10 years of age are concerned that reductions in council budgets could have a negative impact on the condition of their local park. This is already having an impact with a number of local authorities who have already seen the positive result of ‘one-off’ lottery investments, struggling to sustain the quality of the once restored landscape. The picture becomes even more bleak.


Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. J.C. Loudon writing in the Gardener’s Magazine in 1829, campaigned for public parks as ‘Breathing Places’ for towns and cities. 176 years later, The Times (13/11/15) reports that ‘its mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’. Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoed this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them. Three words that sum up the absolute value of parks and green spaces – health, social and recreational. The Covid19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of parks to us all. For those of us that have been the guardian of them for decades, we know this, and the great British public know this. Local authorities and the few park managers that remain over the last 20 years have been innovative, creative, dogmatic and pragmatic when it comes to their parks and green spaces. But there is now one lesson that government must recognize – parks matter, no matter what. We know there is a recession coming and times will be hard, but if there is one institution that matters and has positive benefits on everybody, it is the local park. Perhaps now is the time to cease the constant boom bust cycle we have tolerated since the Victorians gave us these social assets. Ruskin has been quoted countless times, but there is no better conclusion in my view that:-

‘The measure of any great civilization is in its cities, and the measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares’. Or perhaps the more recent quote from David Lambert above, that it’s ‘bleedin’ obvious’. “


Paul Rabbitts FRSA FLI

Head of Parks, Heritage & Culture

Watford Borough Council 

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Writers Block? No way

Posted on July 10, 2015 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Its out at last - seems like months since I finished this and in essence it was. Hyde Park - The People's Park is just lovely. Interestingly a number of friends and colleagues said, "it aint the peoples park, Victoria Park was in Tower Hamlets" - yet Grimsby has a People's Park too and there are others too. Yet in essence, ALL parks are people's parks, they belong to everybody. Hyde Park was the Royal Park that became the people's park. 

So whats next? 20 years of HLF funding and restoration of amazing parks. Time to celebrate this with a new book - Book no 8 with stunning photographs and more. Writers block? Its been too long since I wrote and need to get back into it. Book No 9? Bandstands a Social History? As for double figures - thats the challenge. No writers block here and as for parks - they are all parks for the people. 

PS please buy my books!!!

Sunny Days and Balmy Nights

Posted on June 5, 2015 at 7:05 PM Comments comments (1)

Terrific few days here in Leighton Buzzard with sunny evening walks with Charlie and rest of the family. I have discovered areas of the neighbourhood I didn't know existed. The joys of having a dog I suppose. This brings me on to a link someone shared with friends and myself on Facebook about "a black dog" which I had never seen before. It resonated very much with me as for a number of months had not been feeling myself and could not understand why - I have never suffered with my health and certainly have never considered that I may be suffering depression - see I can admit it. Watching this was a turning point - see link below - and its just brilliant. My black dog never truly got hold because I dealt with it but its a horrible feeling - truly horrible and I still don't understand why I felt like this. But hey ho, many many of us do. I haven't really spoken about but the black dog doesn't control me - watch the clip and you will get this. Now having a white dog in my life, it was something Ellie said to me on having had Charlie a week - the effect a dog can have on you emotionally, the eye contact and the impact of being "mans best friend" - I don't know where she read it but it too had an impact. White dog wins. So what am i saying? White dogs are better than black dogs? nope! Don't be ashamed of how you feel. We are only human after all. 

https://youtu.be/XiCrniLQGYc

What no blog in 4 weeks???

Posted on May 19, 2015 at 4:40 PM Comments comments (0)

I must have been distracted or just simply busy. Both!! In the last 4 weeks I have:-

 

  • Packed in the PhD - it was becoming too much sadly in relation to time commitment;
  • Acquired a dog for the first time;
  • Submitted an application to Companes House for my Community Interest Company - Pavilions for Music CIC;
  • Launched www.bookabandstand.com 
  • Tolerated apalling performances from Newcastle Utd - nothing new there, I should be used to it;
  • Visited many bandstands; 
  • Attended several athletics meetings with youngest daughter who performs well for Leighton Buzzard Athletics Club; and
  • Investigated 3 new potential books. 
So busy and distracted. I must admit the highlight is getting a dog - after months of saying NO!!! our daughter finally ground us down and we agreed to look at getting a Westie and so in short - Charlie arrived from Battersea Dogs Home and he has completely changed everything, for the better. I haven't had a dog since I was 14 years old and he has so reminded me of what it was like. Naturally he has been introduced to bandstands and didn't cock his leg!! 

So a busy 4 weeks and likely to get busier, and I didn't even mention the General Election. 

 

Premiership Champions? Liverpool?

Posted on April 16, 2015 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (1)

Had a really good trip to Liverpool last weekend, sorted last minute and with a view to get away but also to sneak a look at 4 bandstands I knew were there - Newsham Park (see Bad bandstands), Sefton Park, Derby Park in Bootle and Stanley Park - all in beautiful bandstands. Saturday was spent wandering around Matthew Street and the Beatles bits - Cavern Club looked rowdy, then a wander up to the Cultural Quarter. Its a magnificent city. Sunday it poured down but this was the bandstand tour. Sefton Park is immense and the Palmhouse is just a fabulous work of art and a restoration beyond recognition. I loved it. As for the bandstand, I scrambled over the bridge to the island bandstand, looking a little bit worn but a great colour scheme. Stanley Park - after a swift look round the outside of Anfield for the Mrs! - stunning, just stunning. The Conservatory restoration is outstanding. Go visit it. Next was Newsham Park - the other side of Liverpool and a park that has had the heart ripped out of it. Truly awful and I must admit I didn't feel safe. 

Derby Park in Bootle I almost broke my neck climbing the fence to get onto it. I still have the war wounds, but it was worth the pain. 

So all in all, 3 great bandstands, one just a shameful wreck, but I came away feeling rather sad and somewhat cheated. I love Liverpool, I supported them as a child, I got my pilots licence at Cheshire Air Training School at Liverpool Airport and it has tremendous parks and buildings. But behind much of it is extreme poverty, hardship, social problems that seem out of control but such buoyant people. I do love the scouse humour. Governemnt afte government, local and national politicians have failed - the system has failed and it is cities like Liverpool where it is felt most. I saw it in Middlesbrough and I saw it here. But I mention this to a dear scouse friend from St. Helens who simply says "don't be sad, be inspired" and she was totally right. Be inspired. It was an inspirational city and  can't wait to go back. 

Newsham Park Entrance

Derelict Lights

The bandstand as it was

The bandstand today

Sefton Park Palmhouse

Inside the Palmhouse

Andre Le Notre 

On tour

Posted on March 21, 2015 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (169)

I recalled recently a presentation I gave many years ago as a student of Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh University where my tutor, the wonderful Seamus Filor went ballistic at me for waffling and rambling on about a rubbish scheme I had prepared. He scared the hell out of me, apologised afterwards but said he meant every word. He was of course right. Many years later I was asked to give a talk to a Women's Institute whilst working in Carlisle. I never looked back and must have done several hundred WI's since then, in Cumbria, Co. Durham, North Yorkshire, Bedfordshire and now Buckinghamshire. I actually go out of my way to do them as I LOVE them. Why? Passion for my subject - unequivocal passion. This last 2 weeks has seen me in Leamington Spa, addressing the Leamington Society, a number of WI's, a Friends of Museum in Watford, a small church group, a Flower Club, and today a 120 mile round trip to Hornchurch in the LB of Havering to speak at an annual Parks Forum. They are all a delight, even with 2 a day on occasions. The days are long since gone since the public humiliation by Seamus, but I thank him for it. I still have twinges of nervousness but enjoy them all. 

At the other end of the scale, I have seen 2 great bands on tour in a week. Thunder, live at Hammersmith Apollo - a venue new to me and 7th time seeing one of my favourite bands and last night, Europe with the Black Star Riders (aka the old Thin Lizzy). Both legends of rock and capacity audiences. Almost as enjoyable as speaking at the local WI. Maybe not!!

Black Star Riders


Europe

A weekend bandstand festival!!!

Posted on March 9, 2015 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (2)

A lovely weekend just gone as my lovely youngest daughter was running in the Inter Counties X Country Championships - so proud. It was in Birmingham and a city of bandstands. Done most of them here but not some of the surrounding areas or towns such as Stourbridge where there are 2 stunners - Stevens Park and Mary Stevens Park. However it appeared that there are 2 Stevens Parks and I went to the wrong one initially. Correct one found and what a stunning bandstand - bit scruffy but a Lion Foundry 23 model - similar ones in Southport, Barnsley, Handsworth and Smethwick. This one needs attention but the Friends of Stevens Park, Quarry Bank, Stourbridge do exceptional work in looking after this lovely park with Dudley MBC. 


Moving on from Stevens Park, was Mary Stevens Park, oh a lovely park, a truly wonderful park being restored currently with HLF funding under the Parks for People Programme. I love this bandstand, currently a wreck but not for much longer. Soon to be restored is the local Hill & Smith bandstand, manufactured in nearby Brierley Hill. It fronts my latest book, Bandstands of Britain, and it is a stunning remnant of their foundry and the absolute pivotal point of this fabulous park. Not only did the bandstand inspire me, the war memorial was stunning and the main entrance was fit to grace any of the Royal Parks. 

War Memorial

Mary Stevens Park Entrance


New brilliant bandstands

Posted on March 3, 2015 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (266)

Wow!! the boys at Lost Art have done it again. New bandstand opens at St. Helen's Victoria Park as well as a new one going up in Wilton Lodge Park in Hawick. 

St Helens is a Walter MacFarlane model and replaces a bandstand that was always planned BUT never built. I am really pleased about the Hawick one as I wrote and submitted the Round 1 HLF bid way back in 2011 and they are now on site building it. This one was from the foundry of McDowall Steven and Co. Really delighted to see them back. Other new ones being replaced include one possibly in Alexandra Gardens in Windsor and Wardown Park in Luton. Bandstands are coming back.

St Helens Victoria Park


Wilton Lodge Park, Hawick

Detailed designs 

Fantastic works under way

Want to see more - see www.lost-art.co.uk  and thank you Heritage Lottery Fund www.hlf.org.uk 


The Daily Mail reports.....

Posted on February 22, 2015 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)

Its been a good week for bandstand publicity and I am not complaining. A great feature in the Daily Mail online although I am no landscape gardener!! Plus a couple of bandstands have been restored that say haven't. But I am smiling. 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2963090/Then-pictures-Britain-s-iconic-bandstands-Landscape-gardener-tours-country-s-parks-research-treasured-structures.html


The Times reports....

Posted on February 16, 2015 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (2)

It may only be a few words but I made The Times today! 


A Valentine's Blog

Posted on February 14, 2015 at 4:30 AM Comments comments (1)

A day for lovers. Lovers indeed. Loving who? Loving what? I think we are all soft arses at heart, and I suppose in my case thats why I cry every year at my favourite film - Love Actually. Love does make the worl go round and the start to 2015 has been a poor one for many, the news filled with shocking stories of violence, tragedy and little to celebrate. Personally it has been a difficult start to the year too. But nevertheless, it is the way of our weird yet mostly wonderful world. 

I have been reading a lot this week on Victorian Values and the rapid urbanisation of our industrial society and the conditions that so many lived in. As an amateur historian, the Victorian way of life had much to offer yet at the same time was an incredibly dark age for the masses toiling away in appalling conditions. Their ways of recreation (bear baiting, cock fighting, dog fights) were bloody and brutal but as times changed, became much more controlled and ordered and this is where parks came in along with music halls, choral socieities, Sunday Schools, the brass band movement, reading rooms and libraries. And yet over 100 years later on, we still have many of these. Our continued love of all things nostalgic never wanes - the 12" LP is making a comeback, books are becoming more popular, and still one of most popular recreations is visiting our local park. Cassiobury Park in Watford has over 2 million visits a year, the Royal Parks generate more visits per year than most popular national tourist attractions - and yet most of these are Victorian or earlier in origin. 

So in our weirdly wonderful world, often scarred with daily tragedy, among it are many wonderful man made creations we must continue to love and treasure and above all value. Without them, the world would be a much sadder place (and I didn't mention a bandstand once... but I do LOVE Em!!!)


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