Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
Alan Barber has spent his life in parks: working in them, campaigning for them, and latterly playing in them with his grandchildren. They are, he says ‘one of this country's greatest cultural achievements', but they have been betrayed.
With a combination of practical expertise and reforming zeal, Alan has fought unceasingly for better public understanding of the value of parks, together with dedicated funds for their upkeep. His work has helped to secure the millions of pounds spent on restoring public parks in the past decade.
Born on 11 June 1942 in Southport, Lancashire, Alan began work at the age of 16 as an indentured apprentice with Southport Parks Department. His love of wide open spaces was engendered by a childhood playing in the sandhills around Birkdale and Southport, and was reinforced by an awareness of his father's hatred of nine-to-five office life.
‘His escape from the drudgery was to grow chrysanthemums. That got me interested in growing stuff, so he bought me a greenhouse that I erected myself when I was about 14 and I grew plants to sell to the local florist,' recalls Alan.
Early on, Alan showed signs of the dissenting nature that has led him always to question the system and those in authority.
‘The local council's idea of day release was to shove us in the back of classes at the local technical college for anything they could find that was even remotely relevant. We rebelled because we'd heard that in Liverpool their apprentices went to a proper class where they got taught botany and horticulture, and we insisted we be part of that!' he laughs.
Leaving Southport at the age of 21, Alan went to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1963, where he completed two years before deciding that he'd had enough of being a student and needed to earn some money in order to get married.
He got a job with the Lancashire playing fields service, where his boss was delighted to recruit a technical officer with Kew training. ‘He wanted school grounds to be much more horticultural. It's common now, but it wasn't then,' explains Alan, ‘so I was designing schemes for the front gardens of schools as well as doing the basic work.'
While there, Alan learned the ancient art of dowsing, which was used to detect old drains beneath playing fields. Each area manager would travel with a pair of copper welding rods bent at right angles in the back of the car. ‘We got accused in the profession of practising black magic, but we said scoff as much as you like, because it works!' he laughs.
Moving on to Middleton Borough Council (now part of Rochdale, Manchester) in 1968, Alan's third job had the grand title of Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation and Deputy Registrar of Cemeteries and Crematoria. ‘But the grade was AP3 and the salary was only about £1200 per annum,' he grins.
The decline of public parks
In 1971, aged 29, he moved again to become Deputy Parks Manager for Bristol City Council, where he stayed for the next 21 years. Three years later there was a huge upheaval in local government, with the amalgamation of small councils into much bigger authorities and the introduction of corporate management. Parks departments were subsumed into much larger directorates of leisure and recreation, and Alan became Bristol's Parks Manager.
It was during his time at Bristol that Alan began to realise how public parks had been allowed to degenerate since the Second World War. He got to know a number of knowledgeable local people, who helped to instil a growing awareness of the importance of a place's history.
‘I think the dreadful thing, looking back on it, is that I didn't even know there was a decline,' he says. ‘I never knew when I first went to work in Hesketh Park in Southport that it was a Kemp landscape, and that it was grossly overgrown then, so that Kemp would not have recognised it. The park chiefs did things without a moment's regard to the heritage or what they were interfering with.'
Alan believes that a gradual erosion of the parks tradition and chronic under-funding, exacerbated by local government reorganisation in 1974, had led to a situation where people no longer knew what a good park should be like.
‘I could not get together a budget that allowed me to keep parks as they should be. When you find you're arranging concerts in a park which once had a bandstand, and they're on tarmac where the bandstand once stood, you realise that these places have seen better days!'
The irony was that while local authorities were responsible for creating many of the great Victorian and Edwardian parks, they were also largely responsible for their chronic institutionalised neglect.
‘Some of the earliest parks superintendents were very good. In those days, there was so much that was good going on that even the copyists did very good work. The brilliance of people like Paxton and Kemp spilled over, and people knew how parks worked and how to create them,' says Alan.
Alexandra Park in Oldham, created by unemployed people during the Cotton Famine, is one of his favourites. ‘It is an utterly beautiful, brilliant design with as far as I know no great pedigree attached to it - people just knew what they were doing,‘ he says admiringly.
The introduction of a new managerial class into local authorities in 1974 sounded the death knell for what was left of the ‘old school' parks superintendents. In the mid-70s, more than half of the new ‘leisure' departments in London were headed by former parks superintendents; 20 years later, there were just two left.
‘There was this push for more indoor recreation, more sports centres, and they started appointing young leisure managers and the like. They were better-educated and they made the rest of us look as if we were plodding around in garden boots,' Alan says wryly.
The "transition guy"
He sees himself as a ‘transition guy', grounded in the old tradition and yet able to hold his own in the brave new world of local authorities post-1974. While at Lancashire, he had been introduced to the technique of Work Study, imported to the public sector from industry, which taught him about management by objectives.
The introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) in 1988, which aimed to force down costs by making the council's own workforce compete for work with external contractors, was another threat to the quality of parks. The focus on routine maintenance undermined the long-term vision needed to keep parks in peak condition.
At this point, Alan discovered Quality Assurance, another technique which, like Work Study, had been developed in industry and made its way into the public sector. He organised a quality management system for Bristol parks that helped with the introduction of CCT.
Putting the emphasis on parks as places for people, Alan also forged links with the Civic Society and Avon Wildlife Trust, encouraged Friends groups and greatly increased the number of events taking place in the city's parks. Under him, the council was the first in the country to appoint a community initiatives officer to encourage volunteer involvement.
Despite these achievements, the battle for adequate funding for parks was never-ending. The crunch for Alan came over a programme for the management of Bristol's 300 hectares of ageing urban woodland, which included the woodland gorge of the Blaise Castle Estate. A detailed 20-year plan, developed by a number of experts over the previous five years, was put to a meeting of the council.
Unfortunately, the council was being forced to make cuts, and axing the entire woodland initiative allowed them to shave £150,000 off the budget at a stroke with the loss of just five jobs.
‘To find that all that could be scuppered in a night was heart-breaking,' says Alan grimly. ‘The debate raged for hours, but I was powerless. I got home at 10pm and I was still crying at 2am.'
Nonetheless, Alan doesn't blame local politicians for their savagery: ‘Their backs were against the wall and they had to cut budgets,' he says simply. ‘At the end of the day it's the system that's wrong. Whitehall controls what local authorities do: they don't have a proper taxation base. Parks are very vulnerable because they're not a statutory service. When councils are under pressure, they claw back money from things like leisure and recreation.'
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.
In 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.
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.'
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.
"Great parks make great cities"
Alan deplores the design of many contemporary parks. His description of most of them as ‘flat, dull, colourless spaces' is the least scathing of his comments.
‘A lot of landscape architects turn up their noses at public parks and say that Victorian parks are out of date. But the only reason they don't meet today's needs is because they've had so much stripped out of them. These were wonderful, joyous, fully featured places in their heyday,' he says vehemently.
Few of today's new parks and civic spaces offer any sense of discovery or delight, he believes. They are soulless places which have lost their focus on pleasing people and are too reliant on paving slabs at the expense of plants.
As chairman of the adjudicators for the British Association of Landscape Industries' National Landscape Awards for over 10 years, he was struck by the quality of the domestic gardens he saw.
‘Although you can't take a garden design and simply blow it up to be a park, garden designers seem to be able to work with colour and in three dimensions. I got the feeling that landscape architects couldn't do it any more, at least when it came to public parks.'
Alan's unstinting lobby for a national body to champion parks was rewarded eventually with the launch of an addition to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), known as CABE Space in May 2003. The new body was welcome, although it fell somewhat short of his vision for a national agency able to influence through the power to award grant aid.
Alan became a commissioner for CABE with the portfolio for urban parks and open spaces. He feels that a lot has been achieved in a short time to raise the profile of public parks and green spaces, but remains concerned at the continuing shortage of funds for their maintenance.
‘The HLF has done wonderful work, but we've got to crack the revenue problem. Otherwise it all falls apart in time,' he says.
Reluctantly Alan has had to reduce his commitments recently, having lost both his kidneys to cancer, which means regular trips to the local hospital for dialysis. He had to step down from CABE earlier this year, although he continues to act as an adviser.
‘I am sorry I am having to bow out of the battle. Arguments on the value of green space are being won, and positive action is being taken, but the fight is still not over,' he says.
He believes that the future of public parks will never truly be secure until the system for their management is reformed and their funding assured, and for a while he seems despondent: ‘Why is this case so difficult to make? There's a limit to the amount of time we can spend talking to ourselves,' he sighs.
Yet in the end he remains optimistic: ‘What Vancouver has known for over 100 years, the UK will eventually learn: that great parks make great cities,' he asserts.
Barber, Alan. Personal interview, 4 June 2008.
Barber, Alan, ‘The future is CLERE', Green Places, winter 2004/5, pp34-36.
Barber, Alan, ‘Delight-free design', Green Places, winter 2005/6, pp 46-47.
Barber, Alan, ‘Taken on Trust?', Green Places, April 2006, pp24-27.
Barber, Alan, Green Future, (Reading: Greenspace, 2005). Can be downloaded at http://www.green-space.org.uk/resources/library/policyresearch/GSresearch.php