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The son of TV traveller Michael Palin says our parks are meant to be enjoyed by all
Whose park is it anyway?

Museum curator William Palin says we must all fight to keep commercialisation out of our public space.

What has happened to the sanctity of our public parks and gardens? How is it that the capital’s open spaces, so envied by visitors from foreign cities and so vital to everyLondoner’s quality of life are suddenly up for grabs?
Last month, the community around Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London’s largest and most historic garden square, successfully defeated Camden Council in its attempt to sweep away laws protecting the park from private exploitation, but elsewhere, the commercialisation of the capital’s green lungs continues apace.
Regent’s Park, arguably the most beautiful of all central London’s green spaces will be suffering a similar fate, as the Royal Parks, under pressure from the Culture Department to increase revenue, close off more and more acreage for corporate events.
No public park should have to justify its existence in economic terms nor should its upkeep depend on commercial use. Yet, unless the political will is there to protect the principals of public open space, the London park will become increasingly the resort of companies and corporations who are able simply to purchase them for their own exclusive use.
The case of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, is an interesting one, and at least provides some hope for the future. The square is an iconic open space in one of the most built-up parts of London.
It was enclosed and protected in the early 17th century “as a meanes to frustrate the covetous and greedy endeavours of such persons as daylie seek to fill upp that small remainder of ayre in those partes with uneccessary and unprofitable buildings.”
In 1894, following the passing of an Act of Parliament, it was leased to the London County Council as a public park and on its opening in 1895 the Chairman of the LCC exclaimed that the dream of John Ruskin “when children shall no longer play in the gutter” had almost been realised.
The Fields later passed to the GLC and finally, in 1970, to Camden Council. In the 1980s, the state of the park deteriorated and the Fields famously became a homeless encampment for a number of years. Following the threat of legal action the council finally agreed to clear and properly enclose the Fields.
However, this only hailed a new occupying force. In 2001, the council began erecting large marquees for corporate events. These proliferated, resulting in the exclusion of the public from large parts of the square.
In 2002, an events company erected an 18-metre-high steel-framed structure in the centre of the square. It was ugly, took weeks to erect and dismantle and housed events that rocked the square past 1am. The atmosphere of the square had changed, regular users felt intimidated and excluded and for those working and living on and around the square the noise became a nightmare.
Yet, it transpired that all this time Camden had been breaking the law. The Act of 1894 forbade the erection of any structures in the Fields. When this was discovered, Camden were forced to sacrifice a lucrative contract with an events organiser and get out of the Fields. We hoped they would be gone for good.
Yet it seems the community had underestimated the “covetous and greedy” officers at Camden. Early in 2004, notifications were sent of the council’s intent to change the law to allow them to continue to use the Fields for private events.
This was a serious step, but not serious enough it seems for the officers involved to notify their own councillors. Not even the chairman of the planning committee had been told. It was at this point that the Lincoln’s Inn Fields community pulled together, petitions again the clause were submitted and a long legal battle ensued, culminating in a seven-day hearing in the House of Lords.
The council argued that they needed the money generated by private events for the maintenance and improvement of the square, yet they provided no reliable figures to back this up.
They also admitted that they had not explored other ways of raising revenue (through donations from the businesses around the square for example). To many, the council’s argument was profoundly disturbing – the implication being that private events should lift the financial burden of looking after a public space away from the council.
The Lords were not impressed by Camden’s case, not least because it was shown that the council had not bothered to consult with the local community, and the clause was thrown out. It is not known how many tens of thousands of pounds of ratepayers money was squandered by Camden on this case.
The battle cost the petitioners too. Sir John Soane’s Museum, a public museum supported by a government grant, shelled out over £12,000 to fight its own local authority.
It is hoped that the victory over Camden in the battle for Lincoln’s Inn Fields will inspire other community groups to fight the exploitation of their own coveted open spaces. The message is clear, the public realm is not open to negotiation and the principals that inspired the LCC to enshrine in law the public status of Lincoln’s Inn Fields should never be compromised.

William Palin is assistant curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum
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