What are London's parks for anyway?
A mud competition gone wrong reminds us of London's lack of green space
Morning — literal mudslinging turned into figurative mudslinging this week. There’s been a fair amount of outrage about a mud competition “trashing” Finsbury Park, so much so that it’s been banned from returning. We dive into another battle over London’s scarce green space after your briefing below.
Plus: Extinction Rebellion are back in London this weekend, and another step forward for self-driving cars in the capital.
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🏃♂️ It might get chaotic this weekend as 30,000 climate protesters head into central London on the same day as the marathon. Extinction Rebellion is returning to the capital from Friday for four days of action, in an event dubbed “the Big One”. This time organisers say they have no “specific intention to disrupt the public”, unlike the group’s last outing in the city in 2019 which saw a thousand arrests and a pink boat parked in Oxford Circus. There’s a bit of fear for the London Marathon on Sunday, as one of its central stretches will be near where protestors are congregating in Westminster. But on Wednesday marathon organisers struck a deal with XR to help guard the event. That still leaves Just Stop Oil though, the group that interrupted the World Snooker Championship on Monday. They’ve confirmed to the Independent that they are also attending the Big One and that they are “committed” to disrupting sporting and cultural events.
🏚️ Fines for rogue landlords in London have hit a record £8.6 million according to a new report, as councils clamp down on shoddy housing. London’s councils have the power to levy fines against landlords renting unsafe properties and are now doing so more than ever. One such landlord was fined £8,000 for renting rooms in a cockroach-infested house with exposed electrical wiring and damp. Another was fined £165,000 for cramming 11 adults and seven children into a single house.
🚗 Asda has launched a self-driving grocery delivery trial in west London. For the next year, goods ordered from the Park Royal superstore will be delivered in an autonomous vehicle, though staff members will also be sat in the van. There seems to be growing confidence in the tech in London — in February a three-year test run of driverless cars in Woolwich concluded with zero crashes.
👮 An inquiry has been launched into the death of a man in south London who fell off a balcony after being tasered by police. Police officers were called due to concerns for the man’s welfare, who had been threatening to jump from the balcony of a property in Peckham. After an hour-long standoff, the man was tasered while on the balcony and then fell to the ground. The Met has said the man was thought to be black. The death is now being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
📺 Plans for a Grenfell Tower fire TV drama and play are facing opposition from survivors and the families of the 72 who died. They’re apparently considering disrupting the BBC’s attempts to film near the tower for its drama Grenfell. Meanwhile others say the National Theatre is stealing their experiences for its upcoming play Grenfell: in the words of survivors.
🚄 It was expected, but now official word has come that the HS2 link to central London is being delayed. Last month the government pushed back the north-west section of the high-speed railway project, which will connect Manchester to Birmingham and then to London. That fuelled speculation the London legs would be deferred too and indeed that was confirmed on Tuesday. HS2 now says it’s focusing on building the link between Birmingham and Honour Oak in west London. Euston is meant to be the final stop of HS2, and the entire station was getting a big revamp to coincide, but transport secretary Mark Harper now suggests that the railway may only reach central London by the 2040s.
📚 A bit of drama for the return of the London Book Fair this week after a left-wing French publisher was arrested on terrorism charges on his way to the festival. Ernest Mornet was detained by British police under the Terrorism Act on Tuesday over alleged links to the pension protests in France. Today is the last day of the London Book Fair, one of the biggest set pieces of the international publishing calendar that’s been on a bit of hiatus due to the pandemic. And while we’re on books: Islington council has announced it’s abolishing library fines in light of the cost-of-living crisis.
🦦 Any Londoner lucky enough to spot an extremely cute water vole is being asked to report the sighting as part of a new conservation effort. The Zoological Society of London is trying to collect data on the city’s water vole population. Vole numbers have plummeted over the past three decades but they’re still suspected to be out and about in London’s waterways. There’s a form to report sightings here.
💰 Hundreds of retro London street signs are being put up for auction. Westminster Council will be selling 340 signs dating back to the 1950s and 1960s to raise money for local services. The signs are expected to fetch between £80 to £300 and are being sold via an online auction ending on May 18.
When mud hits the fan
If you visited Finsbury Park on Sunday, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d ended up in a military training camp. The park had been transformed into a mud-themed obstacle course for an event known as ‘Tough Mudder’, complete with a slippery 13-foot quarterpipe, a barbed wire crawl and electrified curtains. Videos show crowds cheering as participants struggled over the full array of obstacles, tearing up the ground as they went. Photos of the aftermath revealed a muddy hellscape.
Social media was quick to light up with anger at the scenes. One user hit out at Haringey council for letting the event “trash” Finsbury Park, saying the racers “tramped through our community planted orchard in the middle of bird nesting season”. The charitable organisation Friends of Finsbury Park tweeted to condemn the “devastation” it caused, adding: “We can not let this happen again”. One user even likened the damage to the Battle of the Somme.
Next to pile in was Tottenham MP David Lammy, who tweeted to say he was “utterly appalled” by the damage left by the racers, describing it as “an environmental disgrace”. By Monday afternoon, Haringey council’s deputy leader Mike Hakata had posted a statement saying that the event would be banned from Finsbury Park. The story soon got picked up by essentially every major newspaper.
While Sunday’s mud-fest prompted a uniquely dramatic response, there’s no doubt that it raises some big questions about what London’s parks are actually for and how they’re run. Many have pointed out the recent growth in the number of commercial events taking place in London’s parks, where the public is shut out for ticket-paying punters. A recent investigation by the Guardian showed that public access to Haringey’s parks was disrupted for 41 days of the year. Other councils’ parks were disrupted even more: Enfields’ lost 111 days to fee-paying events, equivalent to almost a third of the year. The events often come with big hits to park biodiversity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a crucial undercurrent to this ‘creeping privatisation’ of London’s parks — local funding cuts. Six years ago, MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee issued a warning about park funding, saying cuts could “herald a return to the period of neglect” seen in the 1980s and 90s. Squeezed budgets, they said, had triggered the closure of parks’ paddling pools, toilets and gyms, reduced opening hours, and even increased the prevalence of vermin. Faced with such a grim decline, many of the London’s councils are ramping up commercial events to generate more money.
And yet there’s undeniably a balance here. Many Londoners love the sheer range of world-class festivals held in the city’s park in the summer. In the next four months alone there are ten major festivals in the calendar, from Wide Awake to Gala to Field Day. Kicking them out of London’s parks and ringfencing the space off to just those who live nearby has a strong whiff of NIMBYism about it.
More than anything, the Tough Mudder drama highlights the scarcity of green space in London, and the competing claims to use it. Most Londoners don’t have a garden of their own. Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems obvious now that a precious London park was a poor choice for a literal day of mudslinging. A stark reminder, then, of how desperate the boroughs are for some extra cash.
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