-by Colin Brown, Chief Political Officer - The Independent, Sunday 6th November 1999
ENGLISH HERITAGE was accused of "appalling neglect" of Britain's fine Victorian and Edwardian town parks in a report by a cross-party select committee of MPs today.
The parks and gardens laid out by city fathers at the turn of the century are in danger because English Heritage has not listed them in its national register, the MPs warned.
Original features like statues, urns, fountains, greenhouses, cafes, and bathhouses, have "suffered particularly badly" from decay, neglect, vandalism and poor repairs.
"It is clear that if nothing is done, many of them will become albatrosses around the necks of local authorities," the Commons subcommittee on the environment said.
Unused, they become derelict havens for crime and vandalism, the committee said. "It would be better to close them and re-use the land than to leave them to decay further."
But Oliver Pearcey, the director of conservation for English Heritage, defended the exclusion of local parks and gardens. "The register is not designed to pick up every park," he said. "It is a register of historic parks and gardens related to quality in terms of historical significance. There may be a significant number of parks in urban areas which are of considerable local importance and we recognise that but they are not in the register."
The committee said English Heritage "vigorously" protected historic buildings but did not appear to take "any interest" in protecting parks of special historic interest.
The subcommittee, chaired by Andrew Bennett, who drew up the stinging report, said the expenditure and commitment of English Heritage on parks and gardens in towns has been derisory. "English Heritage must take its responsibility for parks much more seriously," the MPs said.
The attack on English Heritage, which is headed by Sir Jocelyn Stevens, came after the committee found many of Britain's 5,000 town and country parks were falling into dereliction and decay.
The MPs found a string of omissions in English Heritage's list of parks and gardens of special historic interest during a visit to Greater Manchester.
They heard that national spending on parks had fallen since 1990 by £100m to £538m, plunging many parks into a "spiral of decline".
"Lack of funds leads to dereliction, and dereliction causes further expense," the MPs said. It "prevents the further dereliction being promptly and appropriately attended to, and even more dereliction results."
Urging government action, the committee called on the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to pump a "substantial sum" from any new green tax into parks. That would boost employment and training, the MPs said.
The committee recognised the importance of parks in play, recreation, health, the environment and employment saying: 'We believe that parks are key features in the renaissance of our urban areas.
"They have been instrumental in the regeneration of New York, Barcelona and Paris." They should be recognised as such and given the resources they need by central and local government, it said, adding that a "substantial amount" of the National Lottery's new opportunities fund should be earmarked for parks.
Calling for an accurate parks register to be kept the MPs said: "We expect the Government to come up with an effective research programme for parks as part of its Urban White Paper.
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE VANDALISING OF A HERITAGE
Aston Park - Birmingham
Has received a National Lottery heritage grant.
Alexandra Park, Oldham
Built by unemployed cotton workers in 1863-65, the park has been subject to "acute" vandalism. The Palm House has had much of its glass smashed and the council was forced to remove its contents. It is estimated that renovation of this feature of the park, alone, would cost more than £150,000.
Queens Park, Manchester
This dates to 1846. Most of its Victorian features have gone, as have the leisure facilities, including tennis courts, bowling greens and a paddling pool. A run-down playground is left. A lottery bid for funds to regenerate the park failed.
North Reddish Park, Stockport
Though well used, the park suffers vandalism. The authors of the report found that on one night alone, 28 of the windows in the park's community centre were broken. Motor cycles are ridden through the area. The park's pavilion needs to be repaired: this would cost some £57,000.
Play areas - Thameside
Cut-backs ended a 1992 plan to establish 54 high-quality play areas when only 26 had been refurbished. Lack of funds means the council can only afford to pay for essential maintenance. Attempts to win lottery funding were frustrated by lottery rules. The council has been forced to lease the areas to groups who then apply for the funding.