We have to face the fact that the governance of Gunnersbury has collapsed – yet again – and that the estate and the museum will continue to decay and decline until this is radically changed.
The specific event this time is that Ealing’s councillors have voted against the proposal that they themselves placed before the public, namely to support the restoration of the estate in part by building houses on park-land. They appear to have rejected this proposal despite knowing that the outcome of the consultation exercise is in favour of the scheme. (This is being written before the full details are made public, but an Ealing councillor has revealed the main fact to a journalist/blogger.)
Ealing’s councillors took this decision without consulting or even informing either councillors or officers from Hounslow, who were left to read it in a press release. In that release, Phil Taylor (the lead councillor on this subject at Ealing and a major contributor to the design and wording of the consultation questionnaire) announced that he had in fact never been in favour of the proposal and his motive for the consultation had merely been to strengthen his hand in negotiation with English Heritage for grant funding.
This was followed up by another Ealing councillor, Joanna Dabrowska, writing to the Ealing Gazette to claim that: “Whereas Ealing Council has always provided monetary support, our neighbour, Hounslow has not been willing enough to put money where their mouth is.”
Looking at the dereliction at Gunnersbury, which has been evidenced by a number of major studies going back many years, it is clear that the joint ownership is not working. The Gunnersbury Park Joint Committee was ineffective and frequently fell apart in conflict and recrimination. Both English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund told that Committee that they would not get financial support until they had sorted out the mess.
Councillors agreed to create a Regeneration Board with a wider membership than just themselves, with the task of setting up a Trust which could then apply for grants and with the power to act independently of the councils. A Regeneration Manager would lead the project. Then they lost their nerve and backed away from it, keeping the power to themselves by setting up a smaller Regeneration Board which met in secret. This was eventually forced to meet in public, but as only the two lead members have decision-making authority now, it has become the Joint Advisory Panel, split by the Ealing decision.
Fortunately the Joint Committee had already commissioned the major Conservation Management Plan, because it had been told such a plan was essential to get any grants. Could this plan be put into operation? And if so, how much would it cost and where might the money come from? The Options Appraisal said it could, but there was only one realistic source of substantial funding (building on the strip of parkland). And even then grants would be needed, which would come with conditions (such as having effective governance, secure long-term funding, maintaining public access to historic buildings, restoring the historic landscape, supporting the Museum etc).
I predicted what would happen next in the article Consultation on the Future of the Park, posted on the web-site on 28 July and printed in the previous Newsletter, saying “However, we should praise both Councils for at last tackling the issue. With local elections coming in May 2010 they may falter, but – who knows? – there may even be votes in sorting this out once and for all.”
I listed 3 alternatives – that many would be so ashamed of the state of Gunnersbury that they would support even the sale of land, that many would resist a sale despite the consequences, and that the councillors would appear to act while actually doing nothing. Now all three outcomes are happening together.
It is surprisingly easy to cause councillors to falter. On this occasion the trip has been provided by the Save Trees in Gunnersbury group, which has lobbied with the Green Party and some Liberal Democrats, to persuade people to vote against the proposal in the consultation. It has had a lot of press coverage with good photographs, it has used the internet extensively to broadcast its message and build a group and claims to have leafleted the area. It has been very critical of some of the questions in the consultation document, it has rejected the work behind the Options Appraisal, it has down-played or ignored the other elements proposed and it has failed to offer any funding alternative. It has all the strength of a single issue campaign with an emotional focus, but it appears to have been unsuccessful in persuading the public to reject the proposals.
We may be seeing the slow end of Ealing’s policy of jointly owning and managing one of its major parks in a neighbouring borough. It bought the park (one-fifth of Brentford) against the wishes of the Brentford and Chiswick Urban District Council in the 1920s and, of course, LB Hounslow now holds the planning authority. Many times in the last 30 years we have seen hard-won co-operation between the councils shattered for short-term political advantage, and a procession of new councillors, council leaders (and officers) who arrive thinking that this time they will sort it out, that the problem is only the incompetence of the previous lot. It isn’t. It is structural.
They are not strong enough to sort it because it requires leader-ship and courage to take gruesome and painful decisions – both about money and about governance – but they are strong enough to prevent progress. They have been told in endless reports what to do and how to do it. Even the big grant-giving bodies have offered support. It appears – from what we know at the moment – that the public have told them to get on with it. But they have panicked, and it will take a few more years to get the pieces back on the board and working together. I guess the Stables will have gone by then and the Museum will probably be facing closure.
James Wisdom, November 2009
Dear Mr Wisdom,
STIG has stated many times independency from any party involved in this matter since the very first meeting. STIG welcomes everyone that demonstrates environmental concerns, as long as the goals and the ethics are the same. You would be more than welcome to join STIG if you would just widen your love for this cherished park by considering the landscape and the invaluable woodlands that the Jura proposal wanted to see destroyed forever. If the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for the same ideals, then STIG can only be pleased and hope to combine the strengths for achieving similar goals.
Likewise, STIG is very grateful to the Ealing Councillors for the brave decision to vote against the housing development, whatever the reason might have been behind this decision…STIG lobbying or more likely, the upcoming elections..
STIG has been covered by the press, used internet extensively and leafleted the area. STIG is a pressure group and as such this is the only way to push for a change. I have to say that STIG campaign has made aware hundreds of people that unfortunately did not know what was going to happen to Gunnersbury Park (thanks to the very poor advertising campaign implemented by the Councils and by the Regeneration Manager). In this respect I think STIG has done a very good work for the Councils…without such a fuss probably the number of questionnaires that were sent back would have been much less the 4304!
STIG has not ignored at all the work behind the Options Appraisal; it has only criticized the complete absence of consultation of the real users of the park, those that actually enjoy walking in the woods and appreciate this small corner of paradise. STIG has called on the councils to widen the scope of the appraisal, explain the full impact of each option on the landscape and consider what has been completely down-played in the appraisal: the environmental aspect of Gunnersbury Park regeneration. It is unfair to say that STIG has ignored elements proposed by the appraisal whilst it has always declared its support to restore listed buildings and welcomed some of the schemes listed in this Option Appraisal, certainly those less ostentatious but surely more feasible and environmentally more friendly than the one proposed by the survey.
On the opposite, one can say that Friends of Gunnersbury has had a restricted view by supporting a proposal that was only considering the historical elements of Gunnersbury Park, leaving out completely the environmental aspects and the impact of the proposal on the landscape.
Finally, STIG was not borne as a fund raising association or a group providing alternative ideas on sources of funds: Jura Consultants were paid for doing so. STIG’s primary objective was, it is and it will always be the protection of the green space for the community and that’s where STIG’s strength is set on. STIG is supposed to fill the absence of groups protecting the green spaces of the park and it has offered the means to voice concerns and ideas to all those that do care about the green spaces of Gunnersbury Park. It is an emotional focus: it’s a genuine interest in keeping a few acres of green land that provide joy and offer moments of peace for everyone in search of it …and I think this is reason why STIG has already many members…
I don’t think STIG has been completely unsuccessful in persuading the public to reject the proposal. As a matter of fact, more than 40% of the respondents did not accept the sale of the land and the majority of the comments related to this aspect expressed a clear opposition to this funding strategy. Anyway, considering how the survey was structured and run, these results cannot be considered the true expression of the public opinion; therefore I do wonder who is the real winner in this battle…
on 7th December 2009 at 00:06 AM