#1: fighting for public green space in West Dulwich

How many trees do you think should come down?

A great partnership with Southwark . . . . .

The Friends of Belair Park became a formal organisation in 1993. It has served on the cutting edge of the battle to safeguard public open space. Behind us lie a long series of confrontations with the London Borough of Southwark. Over the last few years, however, the Friends of Belair Park, and the family of organisations of which they are a part, have entered into a constructive partnership with Southwark.

We have been grateful in particular to Southwark officers Sharon Lomas, Ursula Allison, Jon Best, Paul Highman, Anderson Springer and Rebecca Towers for their unfailing support and for their very genuine commitment to co-operation and specifically to ecology. Our policy is to be as supportive of today’s ecologically-aware Southwark as we were critical when we faced a shamefully ungreen Council. We expect that the best of our relationship with Southwark is yet to come.

. . . . . but here’s an issue which has to go public

Be that as it may, we have had a series of wake up calls that have reminded us thatXcomplacency is not an option. For example, certain ideas under discussion could see tree felling or coppicing around the lake. Some would prefer the plan to be worked out in private before it is taken to the public in a Council-run meeting. Of course, if the Friends went along with that, we would, in effect, have ceased to exist as a meaningful body – which is unacceptable. We are concerned also about a drift towards important decisions about Belair being made by a few individuals and council officers at closed meetings during the working day, when most people simply can’t participate.

This is your Park and the trees are your trees.
Our job is to make sure that you own the process through which important decisions are taken about a Park which you love. The governance of public open space is a matter for the community at large. We will work to ensure a transparent and accountable process, rather than Park users finding themselves faced with fait accompli decisions over which they have so little control that they are mere helpless spectators. Shortly, we shall set in motion a series of public meetings in the evenings or at weekends, when the maximum number of people can, if they wish, get there and have their views heard.

So, just what is this all about? Please read on . . . . 

It’s not only about trees, it’s about community empowerment versus paternalistic, top-down local politics . . . . . . in other words it’s about your right to be treated as intelligent adults.
For many years, the Friends have worked to create an ecology area
dubbed the “Lakeside Walk.” Before we started, there was nothing
but amenity grass, bamboo, and trees (mostly alders) lining the bank.
Today, there is a broad patch of hedgerow with a double line of
trees, and wetland habitat. It has attracted colourful butterflies,
damselflies, dragonflies and spiders, amongst other wildlife. Our
longstanding project become a significant force for promoting
enthusiastic community involvement in the Park. Young volunteers
with the Orange Rock Corps have thrown themselves into project and world-famous DJ and record producer Mark Ronson has stood beside
the Lakeside Walk, wielded a spade, and told the TV cameras that it’s
cool to get stuck into eco-gardening. Also, we work closely with the
innovative New Leaf project, which has achieved major success in
rehabilitating youngsters with the Southwark youth offending team.

On August 15, 2010, we launched an ecology management committee
to bring together expertise and to pursue the development of a
management plan for the Park. We have brought in academics from
respected institutions, such as the British Museum Natural History,
through the OPAL project to survey wildlife. We invited all interested
parties to participate in our committee, which would bring the
process of Park management to a sharp focus at public meetings,
where local residents could discuss their concerns about their Park.
We would consider the future of lakeside trees, for example, on a
tree-by-tree basis. After hearing various speakers and being able to
participate in discussions, the public would be able to make informed
choices, balancing issues about wildlife, aesthetics and amenity.

Shortly, however, a suggestion emerged that the future of the site
should be determined by a hired ecology consultant, the public
brought in only when a plan had been drawn up, and that it should be the Council, not the Friends who would be calling the meeting.
Whatever the motive, we could be forgiven for wondering if this were
an exocet fired at our flagship exercise in community ecology – a
flanking manoeuvre by those who prefer keep a lid on community involvement. In any event, we intend to put up a strenuous effort for fraternalism as opposed to paternalism, and we ask Southwark
officers to support us.

Democracy is not a happily-ever-after panacea – it’s a relationship that requires hard work to keep it on track.

We believe that input from a consultant could be very valuable, but the public must hold the reins. Any consultant would have to work sensitively within the general framework of the existing project, not attempt to re-start it from scratch. They must understand, for example, how the Lakeside Walk has been designed around numerous massive, long-established woodpiles, which have successsfully encouraged invertebrates such as stag beetle larvae. Take a closer look at the briar patches on the site. They are not unmanaged and neglected areas. They are actually woodpiles over which brambles and roses have been trained to discourage disturbance, not least by arsonists. Again, those of us with scientific backgrounds will not receive a consultant’s work uncritically, but will wish to assess it and have it peer-reviewed by a range of experts. We shall insist that the results of management work are actually monitored to gauge its success – something that is all too rare. It is important to remember also that there is no single best way to manage a site for ecology. Different methods favour different kinds of wildlife. Above all, we insist, any consultant must work in a way that promotes rather than stifles our successful community project.

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