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Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Friends of Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells (TCP 20)

  1. This memorandum, in response to Press Notice 19/1998-99 dated 3 March 1999, is made in the name of the 270-strong Friends of Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells by resolution in General Meeting on 24 March 1999. After seven years continuing struggle to restore one neglected park in Tunbridge Wells we conclude, arguing from the specific to the general, that this study is timely and vital if both functionality and civic pride are to be restored to publicly-owned town and country parks since neither local authorities nor Lottery Fund show the capability of succeeding nation-wide.

  2. The social, economic and environmental benefits of this and other local public parks are abundantly clear, from the widespread support this body of Friends receives, even in the well-favoured country town of Tunbridge Wells. The proximity of much land of Outstanding Natural Beauty seems to increase public appetite to experience it at close quarters, as this park allows: some of the range of users are listed at paragraph 24. Economically this park attracts tourism and therapeutically it must aid the NHS: environmentally it educates as well as continuing to provide lungs for the built-up areas, a place to breathe with all the senses.

  3. The condition of the public parks is much run-down, in Tunbridge Wells as elsewhere, and it was fear for the very survival of the disappearing glories of Dunorlan Park that sparked the formation, with Council encouragement, of this properly-constituted charity number 1063715/0 whose objects are "the restoration and preservation for public benefit of an open space known as Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells, in the county of Kent". Deficiencies to the tune of £2 million to rectify, and still incompletely, are detailed in two independent assessments supporting bids for an HLF grant.

  4. The roles and responsibilities of Government Departments are much to blame. The ill-judged introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and the closure of direct labour organisations that could not show a profit, underlie the general decline of public parks and the rot has been continued by local authorities, whose annual funding has, in real terms, declined drastically since 1945. In our case at least, the trend continues as an inevitable consequence of the established system of financing and control of policy. Parks are one of the few discretionary subjects of expenditure and tend to come last in the pecking order. At a time when parks department staffing is effectively two down on what it was three years ago and notwithstanding the concurrent submission of a bid for Lottery money to restore the park, the revenue budget for the coming year has just been reduced by more than £20,000 or the gross cost of one much-needed employee.

  5. The inadequacy of annual funding of public parks such as ours is the nub of the continuing problem of decline and, following an official tip-off, we have for several months been openly searching for the alternatives, such as Trusts and the Parliament-voted system applying to London parks. This is proving difficult.

  6. The National Lottery distributions have done much to raise popular awareness of the widespread need for re-funding and better management of parks but the original Urban Parks Programme announced in February 1996 appears to have been exhausted before we, and numberless other parks, could claim a share. Unfortunately the runaway success of the programme has led to rationing of grants and significant revision of the rules whereby communities could contribute to partnership funding. As expanded later, at paragraph 23, those rules now seem very discouraging of community involvement and urgently deserve review.

  7. Sustainability of parks is essential and requires much more than money, though a fair bit of that will be needed too. A healthy park must have continuing caring patronage: generous but impersonal funding, divorced from day to day care, has too often been wasted in high-profile but short-lived greening ventures elsewhere. The patrons may be individuals or organisations but will often be Leagues of Friends or otherwise involve the local community who can be expected to keep a day to day eye on the state of a park and trigger remedies before any problems escalate.

  8. User support groups such as ours should have a valuable continuing role which could be much enhanced by a nation-wide umbrella organisation for mutual self-help including insurance, exchange of information, guidance for incipient groups including a "formation pack" such as the Charity Commissioners offer for new charities, development of standards (for problems such as dog-fouling or dealing with unwanted wild-life) and, potentially, very much more. A nucleus body, albeit with somewhat different objectives, may already exist.

  9. The restoration of iron railings and magnificent park entrances, removed during the last war for the supposed manufacture of munitions, is mentioned here as an incidental opportunity for a Central Government initiative that could attract general approbation, be timely for the Millennium, help to focus civic pride in parks and possibly bolster a declining ironwork industry.

  10. A further incidental suggestion, inspired by the rural abutment to this particular park, is to attach picturesque grazing where this may be possible using set-aside farmland for instance, as recently introduced at Darwin's Down House, or even operating a small mixed farm to complement the park, as at nearby Titsey Place which is run by a Foundation.

  11. The lake in the park could possibly be subject to the Reservoirs Act 1975 (?) which presumably safeguards people downstream from any breach in the dam. Compliance could be onerous and expensive and far-reaching if there are, as reported, 20,000 relevant water bodies in Britain. This deserves review to ensure that needless expense is not added to the already excessive burdens on the parks.

  12. The rest of this memorandum is concerned with its provenance and supporting detail. We describe Dunorlan Park and touch on its history and current problems as well as the seven-year continuing story of attempts to save it from decay.

  13. Dunorlan Park (31 hectares) lies one mile east of Tunbridge Wells town centre, south of the A264 Pembury Road which was formerly known as Millionaires' Row. It was created by Robert Marnock around 1850, to grace the mansion of one Henry Reed, a Yorkshireman who made his millions in Tasmania. In 1941 the house with 390 acres of adjacent park and farm lands fell into the possession of the local council who subsequently demolished the mansion for private housing and sold the farms but retained Dunorlan Park for public enjoyment. The park comprises a valley in which the River Teise rises, twice dammed to form a large pond, then a six-acre lake whose outfall takes a man-made cascade into a classic Victorian garden with pond, stepping stones and ornamental stream to a once-magnificent fountain by George Pulham (exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1861/2), which stands at the bottom of a broken Avenue originally comprising 24 Douglas firs alternating with as many Deodar cedars. In the summer the lake is used for boating and there is a refreshment café.

  14. Concern for the survival of the park began about 1991, when the run-down of maintenance expenditure had been biting for several years and protracted repairs to the main dam required the lake level to be lowered, drawing disgusted attention to the heavy silting and the failure of the stream feeding the water system.

  15. The half-dozen active worriers, getting no useful response from the Council, approached existing watchdog organisations for help and, in 1995, raised their concern in a public meeting when it was agreed to form a group of Friends of Dunorlan Park, analogous to the existing Friends of the local Commons which, in turn, had been modelled on the Friends of Ashdown Forest.

  16. Notwithstanding these antecedents the founding members found it no easy matter to set about the formalities and practicalities of establishing the registered charity, whose original and continuing mission statement is Restoring the lake and ponds, Providing a path round the lake, Restoring the fountain and avenue of cedars, Reinstating the historic Victorian garden, Helping countryside protection in the extension lands and Helping to raise the £2 million needed to implement the Council's plans.

  17. The launch in February 1996 of the Heritage Lottery Fund's Urban Parks Programme offered a bait for Council involvement and timely questioning at a public meeting that summer ensured that a formal bid for a grant was submitted before the closing date.

  18. The bid lost to superior competition for the monies available but the HLF did offer a grant of 75 per cent of the cost of an Historic Restoration Plan to be prepared by appropriate specialists.

  19. The wheels grind slowly but the plan, for a "historic building" rather than a park, has just been completed and submitted. Meanwhile the Friends have been advised that any efforts towards partnership funding, by work or by cash, could be counter-productive in advance of the hoped-for award of a grant. Afterwards their efforts should attract the customary matching or gearing. There is an attempt, at paragraph 23, to explain the "Catch 22" that we see in this and to propose a generic remedy.

  20. Continuing problems. The bid seems unlikely to solve the park's problems because of;

    (a)  Missing elements, such as draining the lake and dredging it.

    (b)  Maintenance being by contract and lowest tender rather than committed staff: see paragraph 22 below.

    (c)  Inadequacy and impermanence of council funding in a competitive world.

    (d)  The funding gap in what the council is prepared to put up as partnership money, £120,000 against a need for at least £450,000 towards a total cost of £1.8 million.

  21. Inadequacy of staffing. The best feature we have noticed in many Urban Parks awards and one included in the current consultant's proposals, is the initial revenue funding of additional parks staff (a head gardener in our case). Yet the council, bowing to economic pressure, seems bent on the opposite tack.

  22. Snags of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. Park maintenance is contracted out to the lowest bidder, and it shows in shoddiness of management in spite of having some good individuals at operator level. The care of the park's 1,100 trees has been badly compromised in this way and the decay of the historic fountain under the contractors' neglect would never have been countenanced without protest by a self-respecting head gardener in direct employment. Even the café in the park stayed closed for 18 months while the procedures to compete for the franchise were tortuously applied and the preferred and demonstrably excellent operator lost interest. Commonsense, which is apparently not an option for local authorities, would have let the franchise on short lease while the long-term contract was being negotiated. Even now the authority seems obliged to choose the lowest bidder when a businessman or private individual would recognise that better value could be had by paying a little more.

  23. Shortcomings of the HLF distribution system. We have been contending for help from the HLF since the Urban Parks Programme was announced in 1996, a very frustrating experience because it is addressed to Park Owners rather than park users. Some owners (councils) may be more interested in the money to be gained than in the well-being of the park per se. The UPP had the indirect benefit of gaining the attention of both council and public and helped us to recruit members supporting our objectives. Unfortunately, as we have found to our cost, the apparently inconstant rules operated for partnership funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund now seem counter-productive. When the Urban Parks Programme was announced in 1996 and KCC encouraged us to promote a bid for a grant, which TWBC eventually completed and submitted, many of our members joined in voluntary conservation work in the park believing that we were accumulating a partnership funding credit of over £2,000 in the process. As the bid failed, a possibility we recognised at the time, all that effort is now lost (which we had not expected: we think the goalposts have been moved) and counts for nothing towards our second bid for essentially the same thing now dressed in different words. So without some promise of continuity of recognition there is a natural reluctance in the community to risk a second loss of effort or money by starting too soon. Indeed, we have been advised to wait a year or more until a grant has been agreed. From our perspective such delay and discontinuity are damaging since enthusiasm soon wanes when momentum is lost and, while councils and other park owners may reasonably be debarred from aggregating all past expenditure on a project as if it were partnership funding, the relatively modest input from community effort is most efficacious if it is generated continuously over an extended period because it is simultaneously bonding the community and the park. So we would argue that a limited portion of partnership funding in cash or kind from community effort should be allowed to accumulate over some years, if the need arises, before the grant is given.

  24. Some kinds of people who use the park.

    Dog walkers.

    People with souls, religious or agnostic, who come to appreciate the restorative ambience of this peaceful window on nature.

    Mums with young children.

    Carers of the physically and mentally disabled.

    Growing families who enjoy boating, jogging, kite-flying, picnicking, sailing radio-controlled model boats.

    Followers of guided walks learning while looking at trees, flowers, birds, bats insects, fungi, lichen and so forth.

SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS

    —  Ring-fence annual parks maintenance expenditure.

    —  Review the impact of and need for Compulsory Competitive Tendering.

    —  Encourage and involve groups of Friends.

    —  Provide incentive for fund-raising and otherwise helping them to promote the care of their adopted parks.

    —  Seek a better mechanism than local authorities for funding and control/management.

    —  Keep parks freely accessible to all and promote their variety.

    —  Reinstate the traditional railings and gates.

    —  Attach picturesque grazing fields where this is appropriate and practical.

    —  Review the application of the Reservoirs Act 1975 (?) to ornamental lakes in parks.

April 1999


 
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Prepared 8 June 1999