Friday, April 12, 2013

The vandal in the park - Margaret Thatcher


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.


12 comments:

Roger Brook said...

What a perceptive commentary.
As a lecturer to the Amenity college courses at Askham Bryan College we had many wonderful and able students from local Parks Depts for many years, Many have since made their mark on horticulture. With the changes that came along this rich opportunity for horticultural opportunities diminished and the body of knowledge that resided in local Parks Depts died. I know there have been many other factors involved but look at the state of horticultural education now!

Susan ITPH said...

Sounds like Thatcher Americanized your parks system. Your description of the situation of your public parks pretty much described the entire horticultural landscape of America. Is it any wonder serious gardeners here look to Europe for inspiration. There are a few exceptions, especially here in the West, but we're stuck in municipal garden hell for the most part.

Noel Kingsbury said...

Yes, I basically agree with you,Susan, except that in the US there is a greater tradition of philanthropy and when the private financing happens the results can be superlative, like the Highline , Lurie Garden, St. Louis Sculpture Park, etc. But of course it so patchy and tends to be high end. Noel

Jason said...

I usually try to keep my garden blogging and my politics seperate, but I thought this was an excellent post, and much needed. There is so much damaged caused by the mentality that everything should be run like a business, but providing public services is usually NOT like a business. Privatization creates its own self-perpetuating political dynamic, as contractors buy influence with politicians and push to cannibalize even more public assets as a means to private profit.

Acantholimon said...

The legacy of Reagan has been equally grim: it sets my teeth on edge when I hear people eulogize him and Margaret Thatcher. They both opened floodgates of corporate greed and selfishness and the impoverishment of the commonweal. In the United States we now have a meritocracy that has led to the highest incarceration rate of the world (and I'm not talking "free world"). Prior to Reagan I do not remember a beggar in America. Today we have a burgeoning underclass worthy of Dickens. Thatcher and Reagan both effectively undid two centuries of social progress. They were an unmitigated blight on our two nations' history: your comments on Thatcher's policies impact on public spaces makes me sick to stomach.

ianinmon said...

Thank you, Noel. There is much to regret, to despise, about the Thatcher mal-influence on this country. Your comment really nicely selects just one very real but almost achingly, human example of the result of her policies. Your example may seem tiny compared with the whole community trashing that went on, however it beautifully illustrates the malign effect.

Iri Ani said...

A contact linked to this post and I'm glad she did because as a New Zealander I hadn't known any of that part of Thatcherism of course. Here from the mid-eighties, we had Roger Douglas (finance minister for the Labour Party even, talk about being sold down the river), who slavishly followed the Thatcherist policies. Even today it is noticeable in our town that we also have contractors bidding for our small parks and gardens. For a few years we had a local guy working for the contractor (for a pittance of course) who really cared and went the extra mile and kept our wee town looking really nice, then his firm was underbid and omigosh, everything is followed to the letter of the contract and oh, how down at heel, our town was suddenly looking.

David East said...

It's amazing the effects that a lot of policies have that people don't even notice. As you rightly point out the tragic downturn of our public green space was criminally under appreciated by all but a few, leaving us in the situation we find ourselves in now. It's both sad and troubling for how long the effects of ill thought out policies can linger.

Forgetmenot525 said...


Hi I usually stop by and read your blog, this one I sympathise with, I was nursing in a hospital at the time of Maggie and she is the woman who was responsible for contracting out hospital cleaning and catering services. That was horrible, the cleaning deteriorated and the cleaners had to apply to the new cleaning agencies for their old jobs but with reduced pay, reduced holidays and no job security. Maggie was the woman who started the practice of short term contracts.
Anyway.............there is something else I want to ask, has any one seen any frogs yet this year? I live in Scotland and last year had frogspawn in the pond on 10th March. I had frogs in my garden and could hear then croaking away to each other most evenings. My sister lives in Northampton and has frogs and frogspawn every year. So far neither of us has seen any sign of the frogs or the frogspawn this year. We have asked and no one we know has seen any frogs this year. Do you think the severe weather has killed them?? I really hope not I like the frogs in my garden.

Alain said...

It is very good of you to provide concrete examples of her terrible legacy. The influence of Thatcher and Regan has been felt in all of the western world, not only in Britain and the U.S. but certainly here, in Canada as well.
Thank you for explaining to your readers how this "community thrashing" came about in one specific area.

ProfessorRoush said...

Sorry to hear that Noel. Yes, I never had any inkling that Thatcher affected your green spaces so much. The downside, I suppose of reorganizing your economy.

garden fence said...

Council contractor planting team members are doing great job!!