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Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks

Article Index

  1. Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
  2. The decline of public parks
  3. The "transition guy"
  4. Campaigning, consultancy and research
  5. "Great parks make great cities"
  6. Sources and further reading
  7. All Pages


Campaigning, consultancy and research

It was the conviction that parks require a dedicated finance base protected from the whims of Whitehall that led Alan to devote the second half of his career to campaigning at a national level. His ideal is to see a national, grant-giving body for parks, together with separate, locally based parks authorities.

He cites the 120-year-old Vancouver Parks and Recreation Board in Canada, a separately elected body, which has its budget agreed locally. ‘They don't do anything other than fantastic parks and recreation centres and the quality is brilliant,' he says emphatically.

Photograph of Campbell Park, Milton Keynes, by Alan BarberCampbell Park, Milton KeynesIn Britain, he sees Milton Keynes as a good example to follow, where parks and green spaces have a dedicated finance base, paid for from the proceeds of an independent property portfolio.

Weary of the constant pressure on budgets, Alan left Bristol in 1992. By the time he went, he had 200 staff covering 1,800 hectares of parks - half the number he'd had in 1974. The introduction of the Standard Spending Assessment, where overnight the government took control of 75 per cent of the money given to councils, was the final nail in the coffin.

‘It's a preposterous calculation that mixes everything including the kitchen sink, but the number of parks and green spaces don't come into it. What is it about a system which says that one council can spend so much more than another on the same thing for the same people for the same purpose, and yet tell you that this is fair?' he exclaims.

Alan's first job as a freelance consultant was for Sheffield City Council, where he developed a strategy for parks. ‘All the problems that I'd experienced in Bristol were writ even larger in Sheffield. I knew then, if I didn't know already, that something was terribly wrong,' he says bluntly.

As chair of the Parks, Open Spaces and Countryside Panel of the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM) in 1993, Alan geared the organisation up to lobby Government on the financing and condition of public parks. As President of ILAM he wrote regular columns for the Institute's magazine on the issues facing public green space.

Alan's major breakthrough came when he was asked to advise on a new initiative for public parks by Lord Rothschild, then chairman of the newly established Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The paper he wrote with Ken Worpole led to the announcement of the three-year Urban Parks Programme, which was launched at Weston Park in Sheffield in January 1996.

The proudest moment of Alan's career came as he sat on the platform beside Lord Rothschild to launch the largest programme of investment in parks that Britain had ever seen.

‘Launching in Sheffield had been my idea but, come the day, the city was covered in two feet of snow! We had children planting trees, but we had to get all the snow out of the way first,' he laughs.

The amount of money to be spent on the programme had actually not been decided, until in response to a question from The Times Lord Rothschild came out with the figure of £50 million. ‘Nobody knew if he meant £50 million in total or each year, so we all worked very hard to make it sound as if he meant each year. We kind of deliberately misunderstood, and he went along with it!' says Alan with typical humour.

Eight months later, the HLF received 167 applications for the first round of grants. Alan went on to join the Historic Land and Buildings Panel of the HLF which oversaw the restoration of public parks, undertaking preliminary assessments for some of the most important parks in the UK.

One of the places he visited was Hesketh Park in Southport, where his career had begun. ‘The lamentable state of the park hit me hard,' he recalls. But at least by that time he was in a position to recognise what needed to be done and to do something about it.

By 2001 more than 200 neglected parks had been awarded over £250 million. The programme, originally meant to last three years, continues today as Parks for People.

Photograph of Victorian-style bedding at Mowbray Park, Sunderland, by Alan BarberVictorian-style bedding in Mowbray Park, Sunderland Alan lists Mowbray Park in Sunderland, Lister Park in Bradford and Alexandra Park in Oldham as being his favourites. Restored with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they are now ‘public parks as they were meant to be - full of people enjoying themselves, something new around every corner.'

Restorations only work well when people have understood the design, he argues, although restoring a park does not have to mean simply putting back what was once there. He cites the Mughal Garden in Lister Park as a superb new addition ‘because it's got the quality and it's been put in by people who thought through the local culture of the area. The Mughal dynasty combined the best of Hindu and Muslim traditions, and it works brilliantly.'

The Mughal Garden in Lister Park, Bradford. Photograph by Alan Barber.The Mughal Garden, Lister Park, Bradford With money now pouring into the restoration of parks, their on-going maintenance became even more of an issue. Working with Peter Goodchild of the University of York, in 1999 Alan helped to establish the Urban Parks Forum (now the charity GreenSpace) to promote good practice in park management.

In 1998, Alan, along with David Lambert became a special adviser to the pivotal House of Commons Inquiry into Town and Country Parks. This was followed in 2000 by a place on the Government's new Urban Green Spaces Taskforce.

Alongside his work in the corridors of power, from the early 1990s Alan had been teaching at the University of Sheffield, and then at Manchester, where he helped to set up a four-year masters degree in landscape planning and management.

As part of this, he ran a regular restoration project, where landscape students worked together in teams to tackle neglected parks in Manchester.

In 2003, Alan became Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, producing his report Green Future on the management of urban green spaces in England in 2005. His research and consultancy work have taken him all over the world where he has explored many models of park management, as well as examining practice in many different parts of Britain.