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With battalions of umbrellas fighting Farringdon’s construction barriers, London Society members escaped to the calm of The Gallery – where Alan Baxter is celebrating 40 years at Cowcross Street – transported to some (mostly) pastoral peace and quiet, as Colin Buttery and Paul Thomson explained why and how the City of London Corporation looks after such a diverse portfolio of green and open spaces. Sarah Jarvis reports

The City of London’s sandwich-eating workers have long been grateful for the many pockets of green respite scattered among the Square Mile’s glass towers. Yet on a map showing the more than 11,000 acres of publicly accessible land under the care of the City of London Corporation, these City Gardens shrink to a tiny dot.

Lunchtimes would need to get much longer for a tour of all the green and open spaces owned and managed by the City of London. Clockwise from the ancient woodland of Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats they encircle Greater London via West Ham Park in LB Newham, West Wickham Park and Spring Park in LB Bromley; Riddlesdown, Kenley Common, Coulson Common and Farthing Downs south of Croydon, Ashtead Common in Surrey, west to Stoke Common and Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, back in to Queen’s Park in LB Brent and finally Hampstead Heath (mostly) in LB Camden, and Highgate Wood in LB Haringey.

Overall responsibility for this vast green portfolio – not to mention heritage attractions such as Tower Bridge and Keats House – belongs to Director of Open Spaces Colin Buttery. Colin is clear that however unlikely it may seem, Open Spaces align perfectly with the wider aims of the City of London Corporation, contributing to a flourishing society and outstanding environment, with proven health and wellbeing benefits. The official number of annual visitors is 24 million, but he suspects it is much, much higher.

These Open Spaces share much in common, though their back stories might be quite different. Some were donated, like West Ham Park in 1899, while Hampstead Heath transferred from the London Residuary Body (post GLC) in 1989; Epping Forest we will hear more about shortly. Most are run as charities, with their annual maintenance funded through the ‘City’s Cash’ endowment, and they have all been facing increasingly ‘modern’ challenges that the original parliamentary acts weren’t designed for.

After two years’ work this has now been addressed. The City of London Corporation (Open Spaces) Act 2018 updates ‘powers, freedoms and flexibilities’ to match contemporary challenges, like allowing longer leases for commercial operators, and managing issues such as drones and antisocial behaviour.

To call Colin’s role multifaceted is something of an understatement, but no doubt his previous experience as Deputy Chief Executive of The Royal Parks and over 30 years’ involvement in conservation land management with organisations like the National Trust and Woodland Trust help him balance competing needs – ecology with economics, wildlife with weddings. His aim is to increase income generation rather than cut services, including getting contributions from people who use the open spaces without currently contributing to it, like professional dog walkers, but he sees a distinction between optimising income and maximising it. And capital receipts are increasingly funding projects that need capital investment, such as selling property to fund the recent Hampstead Heath Ponds Project in 2015-2017.

When the Environment Agency found the Highgate chain of ponds to be at ‘high risk’ of flood, potentially affecting over 600 people, a project was designed to heighten and reinforce the dams while also introducing marginal vegetation and spillways. It proved hugely controversial, with some local residents taking the City of London to Judicial Review, and a major lesson was learned about communication and the need for early engagement.

Colin believes that in future all open spaces, whoever owns them, will face the same pressures: intensification, with more people visiting and the potential damage this can bring. As development increases, what new levels of open space will be needed to offset it? This is the focus for the future – finding a combination of development tariffs and green finance initiatives, legacies and donations, and more partnerships with local authorities and other organisations, to find a sustainable way forwards.

From this bird’s eye view of what’s ahead, Colin’s colleague Paul Thomson took us deep into the remarkable history of Epping Forest, where he has been Superintendent since 2008 managing a team of Forest Keepers and other staff. At 2,400 hectares it is London’s largest open space, characterised by open canopies and glades, historically managed through pollarding. There is evidence for tree cover here since before the Iron Age, but we jumped in in the mid-19th century, when the City of London first got involved in the fight to save Epping Forest.

Following the sale of the Royal Forestal Rights after 1851, the threat of enclosure, erosion of commoners rights and the sudden felling of 3,000 acres of nearby Hainault Forest, an assorted coalition of interests joined the fight for Epping, including political radicals, social reformers and religious non-conformists, alongside commoners with lopping rights and the forest Verderer, or local judiciary. Through its ownership of the cemetery in Aldersbrook the City of London was also a commoner, and as the only body with sufficient resources launched a lawsuit alongside the demonstrations which eventually resulted in the enclosures being declared illegal. The City bought up other land and in 1878 the Epping Forest Act was passed establishing the City of London as the Conservators of Epping Forest.

By 1882 Queen Victoria could graciously declare open ‘this beautiful forest to the use and enjoyment of my people for all time’. Today, many of those people are extremely pleased to be able to play golf, cricket or football here, or ride their bikes or horses across the forest, as well as new rather more alarming ways of getting around the tranquil glades, like electric skateboards – and around half of the 2.2 million annual visitors are dog walkers. Inevitably, some of these visitors are not always happy with the choices other people make. Paul quotes Doreen Massey’s observation that open spaces are contested places. Some of the forest statistics are certainly less than pastoral: last year alone there were 47 forest fires (40 of which were caused by arson or barbeques), dealing with litter cost £1/4 million, commercial fly-tipping around £5,000. There are around 50 encampments per annum.

And then there’s the wildlife. As well as recreation, two-thirds of its land is designated Site of Scientific Interest and most of that is a Special Area of Conservation. Natural challenges can be just as taxing as man-made ones – imported diseases affecting the horse chestnut, blue-green algae on the lakes and ponds, and the onward march of the oak processionary moth.

Among questions from the audience were warm words of congratulation and appreciation for Colin and Paul on the quality of work carried out by the City of London and their many volunteers. Our speakers conceded that while keen to highlight the wide-ranging challenges they face they had perhaps overlooked the many positive responses and battles won. Even many of objectors to the Hampstead Heath Ponds Project have since congratulated them on an excellent outcome.