James Wisdom Asks Has Ealing Run Out of Options?

After governance of Gunnersbury collapses 'yet again'

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The next meeting of the Gunnersbury Park Joint Advisory Panel which will take place on Monday 30 November 2009 at which results from the recent public consultation about options for the future of the park will be presented to the panel.

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Friends of Gunnersbury Park and Museum Chair James Wisdom writes:

We have to face the fact that the governance of Gunnersbury has collapsed – yet again – and that the estate and the museum will continue to decay and decline until this is radically changed.

The specific event this time is that Ealing’s councillors have voted against the proposal that they themselves placed before the public, namely to support the restoration of the estate in part by building houses on park-land. They appear to have rejected this proposal despite knowing that the outcome of the consultation exercise is in favour of the scheme. (This is being written before the full details are made public, but an Ealing councillor has revealed the main fact to a journalist / blogger.)

Ealing’s councillors took this decision without consulting or even informing either councillors or officers from Hounslow, who were left to read it in a press release. In that release, Phil Taylor (the lead councillor on this subject at Ealing and a major contributor to the design and wording of the consultation questionnaire) announced that he had in fact never been in favour of the proposal and his motive for the consultation had merely been to strengthen his hand in negotiation with English Heritage for grant funding.

This was followed up by another Ealing councillor, Joanna Dabrowska, writing to the Ealing Gazette to claim that: “Whereas Ealing Council has always provided monetary support, our neighbour, Hounslow has not been willing enough to put money where their mouth is.”

Looking at the dereliction at Gunnersbury, which has been evidenced by a number of major studies going back many years, it is clear that the joint ownership is not working. The Gunnersbury Park Joint Committee was ineffective and frequently fell apart in conflict and recrimination. Both English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund told that Committee that they would not get financial support until they had sorted out the mess.

Councillors agreed to create a Regeneration Board with a wider membership than just themselves, with the task of setting up a Trust which could then apply for grants and with the power to act independently of the councils. A Regeneration Manager would lead the project. Then they lost their nerve and backed away from it, keeping the power to themselves by setting up a smaller Regeneration Board which met in secret. This was eventually forced to meet in public, but as only the two lead members have decision-making authority now, it has become the Joint Advisory Panel, split by the Ealing decision.

Fortunately the Joint Committee had already commissioned the major Conservation Management Plan, because it had been told such a plan was essential to get any grants. Could this plan be put into operation? And if so, how much would it cost and where might the money come from? The Options Appraisal said it could, but there was only one realistic source of substantial funding (building on the strip of parkland). And even then grants would be needed, which would come with conditions (such as having effective governance, secure long-term funding, maintaining public access to historic buildings, restoring the historic landscape, supporting the Museum etc).

I predicted what would happen next in the article Consultation on the Future of the Park, posted on the web-site on 28 July and printed in the previous Newsletter, saying “However, we should praise both Councils for at last tackling the issue. With local elections coming in May 2010 they may falter, but – who knows? – there may even be votes in sorting this out once and for all.”

I listed three alternatives – that many would be so ashamed of the state of Gunnersbury that they would support even the sale of land, that many would resist a sale despite the consequences, and that the councillors would appear to act while actually doing nothing. Now all three outcomes are happening together.

It is surprisingly easy to cause councillors to falter. On this occasion the trip has been provided by the Save Trees in Gunnersbury group, which has lobbied with the Green Party and some Liberal Democrats, to persuade people to vote against the proposal in the consultation. It has had a lot of press coverage with good photographs, it has used the internet extensively to broadcast its message and build a group and claims to have leafleted the area. It has been very critical of some of the questions in the consultation document, it has rejected the work behind the Options Appraisal, it has down-played or ignored the other elements proposed and it has failed to offer any funding alternative. It has all the strength of a single issue campaign with an emotional focus, but it appears to have been unsuccessful in persuading the public to reject the proposals.

We may be seeing the slow end of Ealing’s policy of jointly owning and managing one of its major parks in a neighbouring borough. It bought the park (one-fifth of Brentford) against the wishes of the Brentford and Chiswick Urban District Council in the 1920s and, of course, LB Hounslow now holds the planning authority. Many times in the last 30 years we have seen hard-won co-operation between the councils shattered for short-term political advantage, and a procession of new councillors, council leaders (and officers) who arrive thinking that this time they will sort it out, that the problem is only the incompetence of the previous lot. It isn’t. It is structural.

They are not strong enough to sort it because it requires leader-ship and courage to take gruesome and painful decisions – both about money and about governance – but they are strong enough to prevent progress. They have been told in endless reports what to do and how to do it. Even the big grant-giving bodies have offered support. It appears – from what we know at the moment – that the public have told them to get on with it. But they have panicked, and it will take a few more years to get the pieces back on the board and working together. I guess the Stables will have gone by then and the Museum will probably be facing closure.

James Wisdom, November 2009

The next meeting of the Gunnersbury Park Joint Advisory Panel which will take place on Monday 30 November 2009 at which results from the recent public consultation about options for the future of the park will be presented to the panel.

November 24, 2009