At last Wednesdays Environment Committee, the main item of business was the Royal Parks. This is an area of immense interest and concern to many Londoners given we have eight royal parks covering 5,000 acres providing some of the biggest green spaces in the capital for around 37 million visitors each year.
At the meeting, the chief executive of The Royal Parks, Mark Camley together with representatives from the Mayor’s Office, Jeff Jacobs and Sir Edward Lister were in front of us to discuss the change for the Royal Parks which has transpired more into a quasi devolution to the GLA.
However, what struck me more, having been told about the plans for the half hearted transfer, was the lack of vision and ambition being conveyed. This is given the enthusiasm orginally shown by the Mayor’s office last summer in his “The Mayor of London’s Proposals for Devolution”.
In June last year, the aim was to have responsibility for the Royal Parks devolved from Whitehall to the Mayor of London. This would have meant more democratic accountability to Londoners. Indeed, there was a statement published by the Department for Culture Media and Sports(DCMS)last January, in which its stated objective was to “transfer The Royal Parks to the GLA to ensure clear democratic accountability and have the Mayor as a visible champion for the Parks and to deliver management which is more responsive to the needs and expectations of park users and local people”. This would have meant the Royal Parks no longer being an Executive Agency of the DCMS but instead it would have become an integral but distinct part of the “GLA family” to include bye-laws conferring powers on the GLA to cover trade and business in the parks and the conduct of visitors to their grounds.
What we have ended up with is something very different. The Mayor has instead been given powers over a new Royal Parks Board, to which he has powers to appoint half of the 12 member board including the Chair. Of the remaining six, three are to be appointed by London’s local councils, one must be a member of the Royal Household with the final two seats held by the agency’s Chief Executive and a second executive. So the parks will remain in Crown ownership with City Hall merely gaining “a voice in the parks’ management”. Crucially, the Mayor does not control the budget for the Royal Parks. So as Sir Edward commented, we have ended up with a “half-way house”, which we will almost certainly have to return back to in a few years to reform further. Jeff Jacobs also conceded that the original ambition for the Parks had been compromised during the lengthy legalisative process of the Localism Bill.
As for vision, we got very little of this, as we were told that in essence, very little would change. However, even with the quasi devolution which we ended up with, I would still have preferred to see more ambition and vision expressed by the Mayor’s office. For example, ideas for allotments perhaps?, playing fields? or possibly a discussion on changes in the horticulture so as to inspire Londoners to use their Royals Parks a lot more. Instead, the meassage was no change on the horizon. This is disappointing, because whilst hoping for a “Londoner’s Park”, we ended up with a “half-baked Mayor’s Park” which obviously has yet to inspire the Mayor and his office to provide Londoners with a new vision for one of our most valued assets.