By Prof Antonia Layard, Professor of Law (University of Bristol Law School)
The Covid-19 virus has thrown both housing inequality and its corollary, a lack of access to green or open space, into sharp relief. For some, being told to stay home is boring, awkward and restrictive. For others, home has become a site of confinement, lacking any opportunity to play on grass, sit down in the sunshine or socialise at a safe distance.
At this time of national crisis, local authorities have demonstrated their powers to close parks without public consultation. Lambeth Council temporarily shut Brockwell Park for Sunday 5th April, announcing the news on Twitter, describing the revellers’ behaviour as “unacceptable” saying that it was acting “to comply with the national guidelines on social distancing needed fight Covid-19”. Victoria Park is closed for the foreseeable future, Tower Hamlets reaching their decision jointly with Hackney Police, due to “the failure of some visitors to follow social distancing guidance”. On Radio 4, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that these were decisions for the councils to make, noting only that: “I have asked them to be very judicious in taking that step and only to do that where they feel it is impossible to maintain social distancing rules within their parks or open spaces”.
Parks are property as much as spaces, generally belonging to the local authority, who also have administrative powers over the green spaces. In 2017, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government’s Inquiry into Public Parks refused the call for a statutory duty to provide and maintain parks, concluding that while they recognised that “reductions in local authority budgets may disproportionately disadvantage discretionary services, such as parks”, they were “not persuaded that such a statutory duty, which could be burdensome and complex, would achieve the outcomes intended”. The then government rejected even the Committee’s compromise proposals for guidance on how local authorities could prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies. It reprised localism, stating that central government “did not want to impose excessive central reporting burdens on local government”. “Local authorities are best placed”, the government said: “ to determine their communitiesʼ needs and priorities and how best to meet these”. These are local decisions.
Despite this lack of central oversight, poor housing quality and parks have long been linked. Victoria Park was opened in the East End of London in 1845, following a petition by 30,000 people to Queen Victoria when the Government bought the land, previously used land for market gardens, grazing and gravel digging. In 1839, William Farr, the physician and first Registrar for Births, Deaths and Marriages, had claimed in his first report that: “a park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousands, prevent many years of sickness, and add several years to the lives of the entire population” (cited by John L. Crompton).
Even then, a new park led to gentrification (though the term was not invented until the 1960s). George Emerson commented in his book London: How the Great City Grew on “the increased value of property in the neighbourhood. A new town of handsome villa residences has sprung up where before were open fields, waste lands, or miserable rookeries, tenanted by a squalid, criminal population”. Yet, borough-wide, in what became Tower Hamlets, poverty remained. In 1983, Simon Rendel, working for the GLC, observed that despite many housing improvements, Victoria Park “is still an oasis in an impoverished part of London whose urban fabric has always received inadequate investment”. Today, homes near greenspace still command a premium, particularly in London. Taking a national view, the Office of National Statistics found that “houses and flats within 100 metres of public green spaces are an average of £2,500 more expensive than they would be if they were more than 500 metres away – an average premium of 1.1% in 2016”.
The quality of housing in Tower Hamlets is finally improving, with only 13% of housing judged to be of poor quality in 2015-16 (compared to 52% in previous years). Yet the borough remains highly deprived, averaging out as the 10th most deprived local authority in England, even while hotspots of deprivation have declined. The borough has the highest rate of pensioner poverty in England – over half of all residents aged 60 and over are living below the poverty line – as well as the highest rate of child poverty in Great Britain: 31 per cent of children live in families below the poverty line, almost double the national rate of 17%.
While housing quality advances, poverty is persistent and open space remains in short supply. Tower Hamlets contains just over 260 hectares of open space, providing a total of 0.89 ha per 1,000 residents, significantly less than the local open space standard of 1.2 ha per 1000 residents and far lower than the National Playing Fields Association standard of 2.4 hectares per 1,000. Closing Victoria Park at a time when people are confined to their homes – without even a cursory equalities assessment – is contentious at best.
As this crisis illustrates, when push comes to shove, local authorities can exercise their powers, both as landowners and as regulators. Park closures come as little surprise to lawyers, confirming the approach taken in the Finsbury Park litigation 2017 litigation where the Court of Appeal upheld Haringey’s decision to license the park to the promoters of the Wireless Festival. Parks are governed by administrative regulation and cultural expectations, ultimately, however, they are also (almost always) the property of the local authority.
Just as the National Trust have closed their parks, gardens, properties and many car parks “to restrict the spread of coronavirus”. The Trust “urgently request people to stay local, observe social distancing and to not travel”, local authorities can do so too. Ultimately the biggest restriction on local authorities’ use of parks is rhetorical and discursive, media coverage has undoubtedly been influential in decisions not to close parks, for there are only limited differences between public and private property. The call for “people’s parks” resonates loudly at the moment. Perhaps, when this crisis has passed and we have better understood both the implications of greenspace for mental and physical health and its unequal distribution, we might have better protection for parks.