#55: Councils and protocols for friends of parks groups – some thoughts.

Statement from Dr. Martin Heath, Chair, Friends of Belair Park.
I have now received a range of comments about councils’ requiring parks groups to sign up to protocols, and about Southwark’s suggested protocol for friends of parks.

Two people, so far, have written in favour of us signing Southwark’s protocol. One extolled the virtues of democracy and of holding AGM’s (apparently unaware that he was preaching to the converted) and warning us that if we refused to sign, Southwark might quickly switch to ignoring us. The other, whose experiences with Southwark have clearly been very good, felt
that Southwark would not become heavy-handed or abuse the protocol to meddle in the way parks groups function. Others have shown various levels of concern. The most concern has been shown by those groups and individuals who have been most closely involved in disputes with councils, in which accusations of being undemocratic have been thrown at groups opposing developments in parks.

Concerns range across a wide spectrum.

On an immediate and practical level, some parts of Southwark’s protocol do not (at least, read with the obvious meaning) appear realistic For example:

“18. Friends will send a representative to meetings regarding park and open space maintenance and development and feedback to their members as and when necessary.”

With the best will in the world, volunteer workers cannot commit themselves to attend meetings as summoned by the Council. We cannot guarantee that anyone in a particular association will actually be free at that time. Should the draft phrasing be clarified?

Again, it is not clear what, if any, legal implications are associated with signing this document (drawn up by the Southwark Council Parks and Open Spaces Business Unit). Legal advice must be sought from an independent source.

Of course, councils have a right (and duty) to check out any groups with whom they enter into any kind of partnership or to whom they provide support. Groups that fail to encourage membership from every section of the community, which actively exclude sections of the community, or which take key decisions without their membership being involved, should not be supported. The problem is that if many amenity societies look like bastions of the white middle class, the reasons are not as simple as anyone having a constitution that actually bars Afro-Caribbeans, Muslims, Hindus, or any other minority. If there is any discouragement to join, it is more complex and subtle and harder to identify and remedy.

Otherwise, we should give ourselves a reality check. Can this paranoia from councils about allegedly less-than-democratic friends of parks bodies be justified? What are we talking about here in real terms? A memorial bench too far? The danger of a non-quorate committee demanding more litter bins? A complaint about vandalised drinking fountains coming from a meeting where that gentleman in the front row was denied his tenth point of order that evening? The foundations of civilisation must be shaking!

Another concern surrounds whether signing up to councils’ protocols could undermine the ability of groups to mount campaigns against councils, when necessary. This is something of an open-ended question. This notion of drawing up protocols began, apparently, outside Southwark and we are asking questions about its ultimate origin – which may help us to understand the real motives behind it. It may not be the intention of Southwark officers to restrict the freedom of parks groups, but it may be an unintended consequence.

Our own experience of a previous Southwark regime was disturbing. A low point was when we were told that if we wanted to have a say in the Park, that we must join a stakeholders’ forum for the Park, in which we would be merely one of several groups to be appointed by Southwark. We were told that we must no longer communicate directly with the public and press, and must surrender this role entirely to consultants who would be chosen by the Council to run the forum and speak for it. We refused to be coerced (through fear of being left out of the loop) into participation, and the plan was dropped.

A dialogue process at Crystal Palace Park (which is in Bromley) saw dissenters from a longstanding and substantial local amenity society excluded as disruptive and two housing estates planned for the Park, a pre-condition imposed despite an overwhelming majority of participants objecting. From our long and bitter years of fighting councils to prevent developments on parks, we are only too aware that for a council promoting development, a “democratic” group all-too-often means a group backing the council (regardless of how unrepresentative and undemocratic it may be in reality) and an “undemocratic” group is one struggling to save their park, or otherwise not doing as it’s told.

Genuine independent civic societies play an essential role in our free and democratic society and the most important function of friends groups is that they are the first line of defence for our parks and open spaces. We were launched to oppose the sale of Belair Park, and we later stopped two attempts by a big commercial sports company to impose a smothering development. We fought so that a restaurant scheme for the mansion would not interfere with public access. We could do this only because we existed on our own terms, not those of the Council. That is why we have never let the Council have too much say in our group.

There are also broader questions about the nature of a free society, which arise from any council arrogating the right to, in effect, license friends of parks. A free society is one in which the government is obliged to recognise the status of ordinary people as autonomous adults, capable of functioning responsibly without being superintended. That applies particularly to opposition groups, which is what friends of parks sometimes become, when
they work to moderate the behaviour of councils. It would not be a healthy step for us allow councils to turn the tables on us. We must not forget that parks groups are not about us having to satisfy councils that we are functioning properly. We exist to apply pressure on councils to make sure that they are doing their job.

Presumably, unregulated parks groups are not specially prone to becoming mini-fascist dictatorships, so fears about democracy and inclusiveness must surely apply no less to other kinds of groups. A logical extension of the rationale for a parks groups’ protocol is that all amenity societies should have to sign a protocol (be de facto licensed), as should the astronomical society, the bowls club and the ramblers group. Not a good idea, I think!

I am offering Southwark a new starting point for a protocol, which would involve a firm undertaking that all parks and public open spaces in Southwark will henceforth be considered sacrosanct and immune from encroachments. If that is not considered feasible by Southwark, then the idea of parks groups having to sign up should also be re-thought.


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Filed under Belair Park, Southwark Council

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