The ability to exercise dogs in open spaces has come under increasing threat from restrictive by-laws in recent years and several campaigns have sought to protect long-used access. However, in addition, a new threat was brought home to me this weekend when a dog was killed by an event organiser in a local park.
Many parks and open spaces that were run by councils for the general benefit of the public have been privatised and are now run by large companies such as Mitie, Carillion and Amey that have fingers in several pies. There are approximately 27,000 public parks in the UK, although it is difficult to arrive at an exact figure as many councils do not have accurate records and planning guidelines no longer define public parks. Most are owned by local authorities, although there are “royal” parks in London such as Hyde park, Bushey park and Richmond Park that are owned by the crown and run by a government agency. Some parks were deliberately created in the early 19thC in an attempt to prevent Chartists from holding “monster” rallies and some, including the “royal” parks, were hunting grounds. Many parks were created when philanthropists bequeathed them in perpetuity for the benefit of local people. The latter is true of the park where the dog was killed and should be protected by a set of covenants that attempted to restrict building and other uses to ensure that the public would always have free access.
Parks had traditionally been funded by local authorities with support from community groups that volunteer and raise funds. There are approximately 5,000 such organisations across the UK generating about £30M annually. A Heritage Lottery Fund report found that 86% of parks had revenues cut in the three years prior to the study. Almost half of councils are planning to dispose of some of their green spaces with 19% considering outright disposal of parks. Many more are selling off sections of parks for development and/or running multiple, intrusive events, claiming that the revenue generated will fund upkeep.
The park where the dog was killed occupies 186 acres of land and includes Grade II listed buildings and many extraordinary plant and tree specimens. It is a much valued resource for local dog walkers and is one of the few parks in the area not to impose on-lead restrictions. Since it was gifted to the public in 1926, it was run jointly by two local authorities who spent much of the last 35 years or so passing the buck in a perpetual rally that resulted in the buildings going to wrack and ruin, the planting being overgrown and the tress neglected – sometimes dangerously so. Recent lottery funding has seen huge improvements being made to some of the buildings, but staffing levels remain low and some planting has been ripped up to save on maintenance costs. Management of the park will be handed over to a so called “Community Interest” Company (CIC) which, in the council’s own words “provides freedom for the park to operate in a commercial manner”. This has included winning a successful licence to run multiple commercial events including sound systems, alcohol and vehicles all year round and increased the finishing time from 21.00 hrs to 23.00 hrs. Up to 10,000 people would be licensed to attend for the larger events and in total, events are allowed to be held for 28 days every year. This of course does not include the setting up and striking of events which typically occupies several days either side of public access. In spite of 109 written objections and opposition at the hearing, which ran for four hours until nearly midnight, permission was granted in full.
Opposition to the event at the weekend had run for many years as it was clearly seen by many to be breaking the covenants on the use of the park. The original owners had sold off adjacent land after World War I resulting in the park being fringed by housing and local residents were (rightly) worried about the levels of disruption. Permission was however granted and the organisers began to set up for the 2017 last week. The event occupies the old polo grounds and was not segregated from the public during set up. Fencing was erected on the day of the event to prevent revellers from accessing the existing café and the staff member there was in turn prevented from accessing the lavatory which was subsequently damaged. It could be deduced from these actions that the fencing was there primarily to protect revenues rather than people.
Complaints had been made by several park users about the speed at which vehicles were traversing the park. Great care has been taken during the building works to ensure that plant and other vehicles travel within the 5mph limit and plant is accompanied by a supervising pedestrian. No such care was taken by the event organisers and, in spite of being warned by park staff, one of their member ran into a dog. The dog subsequently died of its injuries.
The increasing use of parks for commercial events not only deprives the users for whom it was intended of facilities, it further restricts the ability for dog owners to exercise their dogs in a relaxed environment. Parks, towpaths and pavements are already major hazards for pedestrians and dogs due to illegal and reckless cycling. Even if dogs are safe and segregated, few will want to access parks whilst amplified sound is being blasted out and hordes of people are crowding the spaces.
This should be a spur to all to redouble their efforts to save and preserve open spaces as havens of peace and quiet in an increasingly tumultuous world. A dog should never again been sacrificed to commercial gain just by engaging in natural and essential behaviour.