Mayor Johnson betrays his pre-election undertaking  December 2008


This article by Andrew Gilligan in the Evening Standard of 29th December 2008 exposed Mayor Boris Johnson's betrayal of his pre-election undertaking to preserve London's green and open spaces.


Stand by that promise to London's parks, Boris

by Andrew Gilligan

YOU KNOW, I remember a certain Tory Mayor of London who during his election campaign, and since, promised to "protect green spaces", "protect London's open spaces from development", make the capital "a leafier, more pleasant place to live" and even "defend back gardens" from developer land-grabs.

Crystal Palace Park is a bit bigger than a back garden. Or, if you prefer, it is a back garden for about 200,000 Londoners. But an application to build 180 homes on it and on adjacent metropolitan open land, has just been approved by Bromley Council. And the applicant is - that same Mayor of London. Forget developer land-grabs: Boris, in the form of his London Development Agency, appears to be cutting out the middleman.

It's true that not all the open land to be built on is open to the public: most of it is currently used as a tree-lined caravan park (though some is part of the park proper). It's true that the most controversial part of the proposal, a new multi-storey housing and retail block, has been removed. The LDA also says the revenue from the housing (none of which will be classed as "affordable") is needed to help pay for improving the rest of the run-down park.

But we are still creating a dangerous precedent: not just for replacing trees and grass with concrete and brick; not just for building on metropolitan open land, which is meant to be protected; but also for funding improvements by chipping away at what we are supposed to be improving.

I would not expect the NHS to defray the cost of my heart bypass operation by asking me to donate a kidney. And a park lives a lot longer than a person. Crystal Palace is one of only 30 Grade II* listed parks in Britain precisely because it has been preserved for the past 150 years. If we knock bits off every few decades to pay for the latest upgrade, there won't be much left in another 150 years' time.

A park is almost the definition of the public realm. It's precisely what the public purse should be for. It's something to benefit the whole community, not just sections of it. It's the only municipal service, apart from refuse collection, that many taxpayers use. Civilised governments provide varying services -not all, for instance, pay for healthcare - but they all pay for parks.

In London, however, our patrimony, held in trust for the public, is clearly seen as a tradeable asset, to be bargained for short-term purposes. Crystal Palace is not the only park under threat. Part of Deptford Park has already been built on.

At Gunnersbury Park there are plans for a "significant acreage" to be taken by "a small number of high-spec houses". And at Greenwich, of course, there's the even more extraordinary proposal to risk the park's most precious features for a week of televised horseriding.

The benefits in every one of these cases are nugatory, far outweighed by the damage they will do. Even at Crystal Palace, the new housing will provide only about a tenth of the money needed to do up the park. Would it be too cynical to fear that we'll get the houses but not many of the improvements?

In policing, in transport, in most other areas Boris has, I think, started brilliantly down the change road that London so needed. But in planning, not enough has changed. Inappropriate tall buildings are still being allowed. Ken-era plans, such as the LDA's for Crystal Palace, have gone unchallenged.

London is a city of parks. In compromising our parks, Boris and the capital's councils are losing sight of their basic public purpose.

You can comment on this article on the Evening Standard website

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