|Council contractor planting team April 2006. Good people. They deserve better.|
Margaret Thatcher had an impact on everything that happened in Britain, and in a way still does. She was not known to have any particular interest in gardening or landscape, but her effect on Britain's public urban landscapes was enormous, and arguably, very indirectly, on a particular era of private garden design too (but more of that another time). Here I'd like to reflect on what she set in motion has affected our public parks and other planted greenspace. It has important lessons.
Those who are not British, were too young at the time or indeed who benefited from her rule (1979-1990) have no idea of the sheer loathing, the deep and visceral hatred she inspired in those at the sharp end of her policies. Change is always difficult (and an awful lot in Britain in 1979, when she was elected, was in desperate need of change), but it was her seeming contempt for the whole idea of community which caused so much suffering and anger. For everyone who admired her leadership and policies there was at least another who found her arrogant to the point of being dictatorial, viciously divisive and intolerant (of opposition and of minorities). After a decade or so of privatising state assets (sometimes to our benefit, but more usually to the benefit of those who bought the underpriced shares) she turned her attention to our public parks – which are a community resource if they are anything, and it is an irony that the privatisation of their management occurred in the very last year of her rule.
In 1990, Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced, so that the management of parks and greenspace had to be put put to companies who bid for the services – the most competitive (i.e. the cheapest) winning the contract. The impact was “horrendous” in the words of Ivor Stokes, who had a career in Swansea parks and ended up as Curator of Swansea Botanical Complex. “A lot of young people used to get apprenticeships with the parks... that all went” he recalls. Park services, like the railways, and to some extent the other state-owned industries had something which cannot be expressed in monetary terms – a culture, which passes on knowledge from one generation of the workforce to another, but also shares that knowledge within the profession. Park services used to be run “very hierarchically” says Ivor, but everyone would have horticultural training and people could work their way up. The new system involved contractor companies providing services, with managers who knew nothing about horticulture and unskilled staff, who only knew how to mow and cut, “you had time and motion people assessing jobs, and staff decision making replaced by computer-driven programmes instead... its week ten, so we can to cut all the shrubs now, just the other day I saw some forsythia which isn't going to flower because it had been cut back by someone on schedule”. Horticulture cannot be managed with this kind of dogmatic inflexibility.
Not surprisingly, standards plummeted, young people lost the opportunity to move into a healthy and interesting (if badly paid) profession where there was a real opportunity for progression, and many public spaces simply got duller, less well managed and often more dangerous. I remember in Bristol staff employed by one company (contracted to manage parks) would throw rubbish into the playgrounds (managed by another company), who would throw it back again. It summed up the shambles of the whole exercise. My conversations with parks staff always revealed deep frustration at the lack of opportunity to use and develop their skills, at the way management failed to respect them, and how everything was dominated by the need to cut costs.
Although quality plummeted, the very best parks were rescued, thanks to Baroness Trumpington who introduced a bill in the House of Lords to keep parks of botanical and historical interest in public ownership – hence Ivor's job at Swansea. It was a rare victory in a decade of government assets (which we all own and have some political control over) being sold off, and workforces being made redundant or de-skilled.
The decline in quality in public greenspace, the loss of jobs, the loss of skills and accumulated knowledge was symptomatic of what happened in the Thatcher years. The well-off generally did not notice, but for people who lived in working class communities, who saw factories and mines shut, public services reduced, public housing sold off and not replaced – what they saw was a heartless contemptuous vandalism. Contracting out in the parks was like so much else done in these years, not done to improve quality but done for reasons of political ideology and to save money.
Not that pre-1990 parks and greenspace was a golden age. Not at all. (Small 'c') conservatism, funding cuts and a rather dreary lack of imagination meant that there had been little in the way of innovation for years. I came across a rather interesting survival of this old mentality a few weeks ago. Shouldn't say where yet, until I do more research, but it is a council-run botanical garden that was in danger of sliding into being yet another mediocre park. The council wanted shot of it, sold it to a Community Interest Company who then engaged a business consultant who was passionate about the place. The chap in question has now invested a considerable sum of his own money into the place in order to turn it around. The whole thing was like one of those TV programmes where the business whizz kid goes into to rescue the failing country house or whatever. The entrepreneur described to me the great difficulty of finding out what went on, who did what, when they did it, or to get staff to change age-old working practices, such as working at weekends (when most of the public visit) etc. etc. It was a good example of 'the bad old days' that has given local government in Britain a bad name, and of course helped open the door to Thatcherism. The garden in question will be very interesting to watch. First signs are very hopeful - and again, more later.
There has to be a better way – to modernise the way public space is managed yet maintain flexibility. Germany, Sweden, Holland, France, all have much better parks and greenspace, although all very different. There are different emphases on public and private ownership, but what actually counts is a political commitment to continually improving quality, openness to innovation and a career path for staff.