Revealed: creeping privatisation of London parks in summer

Exclusive figures show extent to which London councils are using parks for ticketed music festivals such as Wireless to plug budget gaps

As chugging guitars reverberated over Finsbury Park last Sunday afternoon, crowds streamed through the Manor House gate past a banner commemorating the parks 150th anniversary. Next to it was another temporary sign: Welcome! Your park is open as usual. The statement was at best disingenuous the gates were certainly open, and so were many of the facilities, but it rather overlooked the 49,000-capacity festival surrounded by 12-foot-high grey metal fencing and audible a mile away.


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The festival was called Community, but at 50 a ticket, and with a narrow lineup of indie rock, its not that kind of community festival. Outside the perimeter fencing a father and two children on their bikes took advice from security staff in hi-vis jackets on where they were still able to cycle, and when the fencing would come down.

In Blurs 1994 single, it was all the people who went hand-in-hand through their parklife. In 2019 London, we should be so lucky. The rapid rise of city-based summer music festivals has become the latest fight in the attritional war over the privatisation of public space, which now includes the question of who has the right to use Londons parks in the warmest months of the year.

People relax in the sun in Finsbury Park. Photograph: David Mirzoeff/PA

Exclusive new figures obtained by Guardian Cities through freedom of information (FoI) requests show that Londons councils are hiring out public parks for commercial, paid-for events, such as music festivals, for large portions of the summer. Local authorities were asked how many festival days would see parks be off-limits to local residents during May-August because of events with an entry fee: of the 30 out of 32 councils that responded, the outer London boroughs of Brent and Enfield scored the highest, with 41 and 42 days respectively; Hackney and Southwark, with 35 and 38 days, scored the highest in inner London.

Moreover, as park users know, its not just the days when the festivals are taking place that are disruptive: the heavy-duty stage infrastructure and fencing require days or sometimes weeks to set up and de-rig, cutting off access to substantial parts of Londons parks for large portions of the summer. Councils were also asked how long that infrastructure would stay up: in many cases this number was more than 40 days; in Enfields case, over 100, the equivalent of a major park being privatised for more than three months.

London boroughs losing 40 or more days to festivals May – August 2109

Parks have become a very significant commodity, says University of Westminster academic Andrew Smith, whose research focuses on live events and urban tourism. He says the last decade has seen a much greater use of parks for big commercial music festivals, sporting and entertainment events. We live in what is called an experience economy now, where these kinds of events are an increasingly large part of the way in which people spend their money.

Along with this heightened demand from Londoners with disposable income to spend, he says, there is the key push factor: almost a decade of swingeing cuts from central government. A report by MPs in 2017 found that a staggering 92% of parks budgets had been cut since 2010-11. Local authorities have become desperate to subsidise their budgets.


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Kate Nash performs at Community festival in Finsbury Park last weekend. Photograph: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

Inevitably, the largest, loudest and longest-lasting events attract the highest hire fee. Its very much a financial calculation, he says. And its all combined with the overriding context, which is increasing concern about the restriction of access to public space I think people are more aware now of this issue of privatisation of public space.

Opposition to the commercial use of the parks is growing. Angry residents are organising to demand access to fenced-off parks and contesting damage to plants and wildlife, as well as noise and anti-social behaviour. The campaign by residents near Battersea Park against Formula E racing eventually triumphed, and the race has not returned.

Days lost to festivals
*In Greenwich the royal parks do not come under the jurisdiction of the council. Note: some boroughs have limited park space and therefore no festivals. Croydon and Hillingdon had not responded by the time of publication. Source: FoI request

In north London, meanwhile, Friends of Finsbury Park has mounted a high-profile struggle against the summer festivals there, particularly over the noise and anti-social behaviour connected to Wireless festival. In October 2018, it secured licence conditions that included lower volume limits, and a restriction on vulgar, obscene or banned songs, and even vulgar gestures, actions or remarks during the performance.

These objections drew accusations of Nimbyism and of racist undertones, as Wireless has become Britains premier black music festival. But for Simon Hunt, chair of the group, the problem isnt Wireless festival per se.

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Its not just the days where the events are on, but the weeks either side, he said, echoing the FoI results. By the time the festivals are finally gone, there are huge parts of the park without any grass any more, theres litter strewn everywhere, broken pathways and fences.

Lovebox festival 2017 at Victoria Park. It has now moved to Gunnersbury Park. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

He also emphasises the groups fears that Haringey council has been using their local park as a cash cow to fund depleted parks services.

Ten years ago this wasnt really a huge issue, Hunt said. There would be one festival or concert every year or two. But five years ago, Haringey decided to change their major events policy to allow for up to five major festivals a year in Finsbury Park, and an unlimited number of smaller festivals. And suddenly the number of events increased enormously.

Indeed, the phenomenon seems linked to the equally strong desire to keep parks free at a time of squeezed council budgets. Enfield councils head of finance and procurement, Mary Maguire, points the finger at austerity.

As a result of government spending cuts and increased pressures on services, Enfield council has had to save 178m since 2010. In 2019/20 alone, we have to save 18m, she said. As such it is more important than it has ever been for local authorities to explore a range of different commercial opportunities to raise revenue. Maguire also said Enfield was one of the greenest boroughs, and most of its parks were open and event-free all summer.

Other campaigners are less worried about noise and disruption and more about the growing normalisation of privatisation. One of British parks key institutional backers, the Heritage Lottery Fund, has recently encouraged local authorities to replace grant income with commercial income. It has created Prosperous Parks, a green space income generation toolkit, and pushed advertising, sponsorship and other commercial activities in parks, as well as hiring for live events.

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There are several boroughs actively aiming for a zero-pound parks budget now, Andrew Smith says. They want to see their parks entirely self-financed: theres an implicit idea that the parks should pay for themselves.

Last years Field Day festival in Brockwell Park. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In other parks, such as Gunnersbury, management has shifted away from local authority control to a community interest company, which could effectively privatise park governance and put it beyond the democratic accountability that local authorities still face.

And yet, Hunt suggests, there is some optimism. He says their group is now consulted comprehensively by council and festival organisers alike, and has succeeded in establishing a legal clarification that revenue generated by events must be spent in the specific park it came from. Its quite funny, says Hunt, because the council werent expecting this legal precedent to be set, so theyve been scrambling to find ways to spend money in Finsbury Park, because they have to.

Haringey has also responded by bunching major festivals in June and September to avoid interrupting the school holidays. A council spokesperson disputed any suggestion that the park was out of bounds to normal residents. Finsbury Park is not, has never been and will never be an exclusive plaything for just relatively affluent young adults going to music festivals. The spokesperson also pointed to the 1.2m investment in the park generated by the major events held there, and the 59% reduction in government funding since 2010.

Some commenters argue that there is a progressive case to be made for festivals in parks beyond raising revenues, such as disrupting staid Victorian identities and encouraging people of all ages, classes and races to use them. If bandstands were built specifically as platforms for the popular public entertainment of the 19th century, when most of these parks were established, why shouldnt they now host the pop music of 2019?

For Andrew Smith, unpicking the extent to which local campaigners are just getting worked up about cigarette butts in the flower beds is vital to understanding the role parks play in the 21st-century city.

Most of these opponents arent just moaners, complaining about a bit of noise on a Saturday night, he says. Some of them have been defending their local parks for decades, against various forms of development, and they see these festivals as only the latest threat.

A lot of people see parks as the last vestiges of public democracy, accessible for everyone. And there arent many places like that left.

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Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific

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