Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by The Handsworth Park Association (TCP 33)

  We welcome the Government's interest in town and country parks and this opportunity to make a submission to the Environment Sub-committee on the basis of our involvement with Handsworth Park in Birmingham. Our focus is therefore on a specific town park and our comments are organised round the five themes the committee wishes to examine.


  Since the term "economic", particularly now, seems to encompass "social" and "environmental" benefit as a means of defining "value" these comments will focus on that. Thus we may speak of the amenity value of a park as a place where people may enjoy peace and quiet in the open air; or the value to the community of a place where people may interact outside their homes and gather for festivals and entertainments, or where children may learn about nature other than in front of a television and perhaps with the guidance of teachers able to use the park as a classroom. The predominant reality remains that the greatest monetary value is gained from urban green space—including parks—in the form of profit when it is developed for building houses, sports arenas, factories or roads.

  In the face of this economic "fact of life" it is right we should be required to define—or redefine—the economic benefits of public parks and our own park in particular as something other than a land bank awaiting development—especially as our own association sprang from the union of many local people against a proposed housing development on part of the park. To go by the recorded memories of whose who used Handsworth Park prior to its decline, its benefit went without saying.[2] These heartfelt recollections lacked the analysis needed to defend that "benefit". Parks have lost rank as a public good. Unlike Handsworth Leisure Centre which has been something of an economic success, Handsworth Park has not presented itself as similarly viable and so, like the local graveyard of St Mary's Church, was among the casualties of a more commercially oriented approach to the delivery of local government services.

  But Handsworth Park was not at its inception in the 1880s an immediately popular idea to many practically minded residents. The idea of creating a "lung" in the city was strenuously opposed by a cross-section of the voting community who were ready to pay for a range of other local services—especially better roads and sewers. Nor was Handsworth Park a charitable bequest that could have enabled such an idea to avoid local resistance. Though voluntary bequests were made for its gates and other features, the local Board—having overseen the sewering, lighting and paving of Handsworth as well as the provision of a free library and clinic—had to gain local taxpayers' support for the largest loan it had ever applied for in order to buy and lay out much desired land, not for lucrative self-financing developing, but as a public park for present and future inhabitants of the area. As well as being a popular aesthetic achievement, Handsworth Park was first of all a political achievement.

  The inventiveness of politics is again needed to settle the economic benefit of this park. In the 1890s we might point to a Victorian calculation that a "green lung" in a rapidly expanding and densely housed industrial city would make for a more contented labour force or note the Chairman of Handsworth Local Board reassuring contemporary bean counters that the rates on the new and desirable houses that would shortly grace the park's northern edge would comfortably fund the project's loan interest and capital repayments. In the 1990s we could point to a family of emerging ideas (or perhaps rediscoveries, after a period of fragmented thinking) about how green spaces and especially well appointed public parks contribute to the wealth of cities.[3] The general view that the spaces between the buildings are as important to an environment as the building is helpfully confirmed in our case by recent studies of the operation of the housing market in Birmingham. It is commonly understood—as in all cities—that there are areas of smarter housing in Birmingham and on its outskirts, but this research[4] shows that as well as these familiar preferences there are, among those who wish to live in the city, a high proportion who choose homes where there is more access to open space. People, regardless of the size of their own gardens (private space), prefer areas with higher ratios of public green space to built environment or to repeat this another way, the economic value of housing is linked to that ratio in ways that emphasise the economic value of parks in a very straightforward way.


  Again it is most appropriate that the committee should turn to examining the condition of our local park, since the current state of Handsworth Park presents problems to anyone advocating its current economic value to the community let alone the city as a whole. The advent of CCT has meant that even those contract workers who do arrive in the park will say when asked "I don't work here—I work for (the grounds maintenance contractor)" and have often had to be told by local people which park they are in since their responsibility is for a number of separate Birmingham parks. Handsworth Park is 63 acres and has one visiting warden for some days in the week (note: the resident of the Park Lodge does not carry out warden functions). The park ponds are now unable to support water born life and so are not a haven for bird life that relies on such food. Roads surrounding the park are hazardous to cross. The list is familiar and seemingly endless. The following is an extract from the concluding section of an account of the founding of Handsworth Park:

    In 1911 Handsworth Park came under the control of Birmingham Corporation and there, densely surrounded by houses, as its founders had foreseen, it thrived for half a century under the guardianship of the City's Parks Committee and a ground staff of at least 16 people. Many events were run as a matter of course in Handsworth Park. It hosted the Birmingham Flower Show, annual Jamborees for the Scouts and Girl Guides, horse shows, cycle races, walking events and other local and citywide celebrations, until during the 1970s as the problem of car parking and access reduced its availability for city wide events and with the diminishing power of Birmingham City Council to exercise their previous stewardship, its fortunes faltered . . .

    . . . Unlike Kew Gardens or Hyde Park in London or Sefton Park in Liverpool—which inspired the creator of New York's Central Park—larger history ignores the name of Handsworth Park implying that this and other such parks not on tourist itineraries, might have been valuable in their heyday, but have little significance for the current population. Such history regards a local history of the Park as mainly concerned with enriching the memories of a shrinking minority . . . Another generation is taking part in a different history—written from a forensic perspective analysing urban pathology.

[5]They may recount memories of an unattended and even risky space, recalling teachers who warned them not to "cut across the park" on their way to or from school. Some will say they feared the place or that their parents never encouraged them to go there. Less apprehensive residents—on foot or cycle—may remember that the resulting emptiness could make Handsworth Park more serene than many rural areas, and children will always find their pleasures. Some will recall the hurling of sticks to gather conkers; others with mild self-reproach, unaware of the pain they caused some of their neighbours, may remember how they spray painted their tags on old gravestones in St Mary's Churchyard and the sides of buildings, while others will remember their frustration at broken playground furniture, graffiti, neglected buildings, polluted ponds, damaged trees, and the ever renewed detritus of a consumer society. Students must sieve their evidence for selective views of past and present, but having done that try their best to describe what they have learned. On the evidence, Handsworth Park in the 1990s is not what it was, nor meant to be.

  And here are the concluding sections of a detailed survey of Handsworth Park, carried out in 1998 on behalf of the local authority, which refers to its many positive features obscured by neglect:[6]

    Despite being in one of Birmingham's most crowded neighbourhoods, Handsworth Park can still convey a feeling of open, rural space. In the western area of the park the formality of the tree-lined walks and features seems to balance with the informality of the open areas, belts of trees and "village" cricket ground. However, in the eastern area, this aspect of the park's character has become eroded by the maturing trees, which have gradually obscured the church, compromising the "village" character so evident in early photographs. The gradual loss of the views, the harsh resurfacing of paths and the lack of maintenance have accelerated the urbanisation of the park.

    In fact, Handsworth Park does not feel a particularly secure place; it is not an area which would be welcoming at dusk or on dull winter days. There is evidence of vandalism, but, in comparison with other city parks, Handsworth has experienced relatively little; it is significant that the park benefits from the presence of mounted police, whose main stables are in the vicinity. (Note: mounted officers are to be withdrawn by West Midlands Police—February 1999). We believe there is also a park keeper living in the lodge; this role could be very important in securing the future health of the park.

    The number of apparently unemployed (unoccupied) youths and men seen wandering around the park accentuates the feeling of insecurity. Most of all, however, it is the degradation of the landscape design and the failure of maintenance which really give cause for concern. Shapeless, open areas where original paths and features have been removed or become obscured; untended shrubberies; neglected features; smelly litter bins and skips; and the considerable extent of hard, modern surfacing—all contribute to the sense of threat. This is exacerbated in the vicinity of the church, which emphasises the fact that the park cannot be restored without also attending to the condition of the graveyard. . . .

    There is no doubt that Handsworth Park is a successful design, one where everything from the basic landform to the elements of planting and ornament were the outcome of careful consideration, both of the site and the requirements of the local community. There are theatrical contrasts of panoramic space and enclosure, apparently wild nature and intricate artistic detail. All this is linked by an elegant circulation system which afforded opportunities for healthy exercise and ensured that every landscape incident was visited and enjoyed.

    Today, of course, it takes some time to perceive all this. There is a melancholy quality, conveyed particularly by the dark tree cover, the poor maintenance and lack of care, and—less easy to resolve—the modern intrusions of leisure centre and car parks. The latter have completely altered the character of this park and ensured that attention and resources have been removed from any of those facilities or features which once appealed to the whole community and not just the young and fit.

    Notwithstanding these problems, the park has long proved its value to Handsworth and still commands fierce loyalties. Its attractions are surprisingly robust and, once measures have been taken to unite the leisure centre with the heart of the park, the whole has the potential to be a landscape of delight, enhancing the lives of both residents of the locality and those visiting from much further afield.


  A management guru said that solutions to problems lay in answers to the questions "Who knows? Who cares? Who can?" More and more people "know" and "care" about what has happened to our park. The existence of this committee suggests this applies to parks generally.[7]

  How to enable the local council and other agencies to be more responsive to the last question is critical to this aspect of the committee's interest, but it was when city parks ceased to be factored into local authority Standard Spending Assessments that their decline accelerated. I interviewed a man who retired from working in Handsworth Park in 1975. He showed me his retirement card signed by 16 co-workers and gave me a thumbnail sketch of each. Central-Local government financing arrangements contain one answer to the "who can?" question.

  If you consider the poor condition of the ponds in Handsworth Park you must consider the need—if improvements are to be achieved—for shared commitment from Severn Trent Water Company, the Main Drainage Division of Birmingham City Council Transportation Department, the City Council's Environmental Department and the Environment Agency as the overseeing regulatory body. It has clearly been helpful for the water company to have had a Tame River Basin Strategy since the consultation process for that strategy allowed our group to make an input on the state of the ponds and the watercourses feeding them into the final document.[8] Information from the City Council's Conservation officer and the creation of a City Conservation Strategy helped to focus attention to the park ponds as an existing and potentially even richer nature reserve along with other features of the park.

  Similarly if more security is to be achieved in and around the park there needs to be closer liaison between the local police, the Ranger Service of the City Council's Leisure and Community Services Department, Social Services and Urban Renewal. Such liaison has been assisted by an SRB grant on Community Safety to which our group contributed during the consultation process where we drew attention to the current view of individuals and schools that the park was not a safe place and that fear of traffic in bordering roads added to fear of conventional crime in making too many local people wary about visiting or allowing their children to visit Handsworth Park.

  The role of the local community is of course crucial and the following "Inventory of activities[9] ", drawn up for local authority officers with whom we have been participating in preparing a lottery bid on behalf of Handsworth Park, gives an idea of how much can be achieved by a dynamic local voluntary group committed to its local park and keen to widen its base of community support (it is less important that all items in the list are referenced than that the list gives a feel for the range and detail of our activities in connection with Handsworth Park):


Community Forum Report on Handsworth Park: Barry Toon's 1994 illustrated overview of problems and possibilities in the park

Conservation Strategy Response: "Save Handsworth Park's" response by John Richfield to the City's invitation to consult on a conservation strategy for Birmingham. 1995

"The Founding of Handsworth Park 1882-1898"—A history by Simon Baddeley (1996) sold by "SHP" and through Soho House—reissued 1997

Tame Catchment Area Management Plan: response by "SHP" to invitation to consult. Involved tracing watercourses and beginning to liaise with range of separate agencies able to begin to clean up the park ponds and restore flow. 1996

Handsworth Park: Educational Package: prepared for Maxine Howell at Welford Primary School. There are already six schools being co-ordinated by Graham Winfield, A Governor at St Peter's school who are expressing interest but awaiting the refurbishment of Sons of Rest Pavilion. A video record has been made of one class visiting the park in February 1999 and displays prepared of the children's accounts. 1998-99

Cycle route link to Sustrans: "SHP"s response to City Cycling Strategy document which includes our proposal for a link between Handsworth Park and the main Sustrans route through Birmingham. 1996

Management plan for St Mary's Graveyard: "SHP" involved in setting up "Graveyard Planning Group" to modify cutting regime and move towards meadow cut and cassation of poisoning. New gates for the graveyard designed by the children, constructed by a local craftsman and part funded by Cemeteries Section of the City Council and officially opened at a gathering led by the local vicar, the school and members of "SHP" who have responsibility for opening and locking gates. 1995-97

Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) "Community Safety Proposals": contributions by "SHP" to a joint bid for funds for programmes to reduce the levels of crime and the fear of crime in the community—January 1998

Joint report for the DETR "Committee on the Future for Allotments": outlining case study of campaign to prove demand for threatened Victoria Jubilee Allotments site (in collaboration with representatives of threatened private allotment sites in South Birmingham). Continuing campaign by sister organisation—the Handswoth Allotments Information Group (HAIG)—to oppose plans to build houses on 18 acres of private allotments adjoining the Park—linked to campaign to build on "brown field" sites and restore many derelict homes in Handsworth. 1998-99


Water pollution in ponds: leaflet explaining complexity of the problem and the agencies involved widely circulated and available on request. 1996

Allotments in Handsworth: leaflet explaining location of the allotments and their potential in order to confirm demand for allotments in the area. 1996


Swimming Baths: petition against building on the site into the park: approximately 250 signatures. 1994

Park Lodge 2—following serious vandalism and arson approximately 90 and 100 signatures 1994 and 1996

Traffic calming in Hamstead Road: approximately 60 signatures 1997. Sons of Rest Pavilion petition—approximately 400 signatures. 1997

Children's play area: petition signed only by local children—300 signatures. 1999


Picnic in the park 2. 1997—2-o'clock slot on Sundays—safe hour in the park. 1997


Regular public meetings since 1994.

Regular business meetings.

6 consultation meetings with City's "Landscape Planning Group" preparing Heritage Fund Lottery bid. 1997

5 Graveyard management meetings (7 people).

Meeting with solicitor (Gary Death) re Charity status and Karen Wright (and other meetings on Charity Status with accompanying background work). 1998

Preparation by Dannie Peters of constitution for new group "The Handsworth Park Association" ("HPA"). 1999

Site Meetings

Councillors and officers tour of the Park. 1996

Meeting with Environment Agency, Severn Trent Water and Transportation Department sewage agency officers. 1997

Meeting with National Trust officer re Lottery. 1997

Jeff Rooker MP-tour in park in October 1996

Schools/ranger/teacher at Playcentre 2. 1998

Simon Cooper/Robin Bryan checking contract compliance 2. 1998

Railway Development Society meeting re Handsworth Wood and Soho Road rail stations re-opening review. 1998


Companies House, Friendly Association Head Office

Maps, etc. papers for "History" in Central Library. 1995-1997

Identification of trees: Environment Agency "Black Poplar Survey". 1996


Sefton Park, Liverpool. 1996

The Living Churchyard and Cemetery Project, Stoneleigh Park Warwick. 1997

Chumleigh Multi-Cultural Gardens, Southwalk. 1997

West Park, Wolverhampton. 1998


Contract monitoring work (photos, collecting contracts, bills of quantity etc). 1997


Handsworth Historical Society and Great Barr History Societies. 1998

Ward area sub-committees. 1994

Handsworth One Group. 1997

Woodcraft Folk. 1997

Talk on seminar "Role of Parks in Urban and Social Regeneration"—Birmingham University. 1998

Phone Communications

Miscellaneous and varied. John Richfield and Simon Baddeley have used phones for recording responses to Allotments Need Survey and for "Park Watch" enquiries.

TV/Radio (Studio and OB)Newspapers

Ava Ming show (BBC). 1998

Carl Chinn et al (BBC). 1996-1997—1998-1999

Various outside broadcasts with TV and Radio

"Lord of Handsworth" story Evening Mail/BBC/Cable

Playground story, etc., in all local papers and many other stories in Evening Mail and Metronews. 1995

"Private Investigations" (currently being filmed) BBC, White City

Voluntary Work

Litter picks 2

Graveyard gates project with St Mary's Church and school

Graveyard graffiti removal and estate management

Leisure Centre graffiti removal

Sons of Rest repairs and graffiti removal

Monitoring grounds maintenance

Traffic monitoring

"Parkwatch" liaison with Thornhill Road Police

Survey of users of park with City Council

Bird survey list

Leaflet Delivery/Subs Collection etc

Regular team sub collection and membership drive led by Dulcie Szereter


  For us the issue of funding revolves round the political assertion that the Park is by definition a "public good". A way to secure a certain idea of green space would be to make it private like the Botanic Gardens in Edgbaston, Birmingham which charge for entrance or the Winterbourne Gardens attached to Birmingham University which are supported by annual subscription. These exquisite spaces preserve a certain version of Handsworth Park's splendour, with few (though skilled) staff and minimal security through being exclusive and inaccessible by price and location. But when the Earl of Dartmouth, using a silver key, unlocked the ornate Hamstead Road gates[10] of Handsworth Park on 30 March 1898, he declared in a loud voice that Handsworth Park was to be "open to the people for ever".[11]

  There are many causes not all fathomable—but the least acceptable of all the explanations for what has happened is that Handsworth Park was once better looked after because it was a pleasure garden for the area's now departed rich. Handsworth Park, like many city parks has lost the stewardship needed to maintain Lord Dartmouth's declaration. Its founders, though prosperous, never meant this park to be exclusive to those who could afford it. As the civic gospel of municipal improvement spread from Birmingham into the estates of Handsworth, its local government leaders saw a park as a benefit for the district. Following the setting up of an education board and a free library, the adoption and proper kerbing of roads, street lighting, tramways and the construction of sewers, influential voices in the district began to speak of the need for a "lung" in the city. They did not pursue such an idea simply out of expediency or to raise the value of their properties. Such self-interest was present—used unashamedly to strengthen their case among the practically minded citizens of Handsworth and more covertly to mitigate social conditions that might spur political unrest—but opposition to the Park from some of those who would be paying for it was at times so intense that calculative motives alone would not have carried the project through.

  One off funding from a source such as the National Heritage Lottery would be of great benefit to Handsworth Park in providing funding to replace lost features such as gates, railing, trees and shrubs and to repair the water flow through the park, but the key funding must be continued revenue support for stewardship—by skilled wardens and gardeners. This income could be supplemented by appropriately bonded local entertainments and festivals. Obviously it would be preferable if park staff could be drawn from the local population and if their source of funding could foster local attachment. Here, if ever, is a case for a revival of a parish rate—a tax that is attached to a sense of place, already supported by keen local voluntary work committed to the manifold acts of husbandry that go to create or renew a sense of place.


  In our discussions of Handsworth Park with the local authority we find ourselves returning continuously to limitations in the local authority's capacity to think about or imagine Handsworth Park in the way that seems normal to those of us who live near it and visit it regularly.

  Where the local government officers we deal with (not all) perhaps have to think of a bounded space for which they have responsibilities defined by their job description and budget we think of an area with more permeable boundaries.

  Thus we cannot think of access to the park without thinking about the state of traffic on surrounding roads, nor can we think about the park's paths without imagining how they can be used by walkers and cyclists to visit not only the park but to get via the park from one area of Handsworth to another.

  Such thinking also connects to our hope of having a link from the park to the main SUSTRANS route through the city, and thinking about transport by cycle we recall the closed-down railway stations of "Handsworth Wood"—actually in the park—and "Soho Road", a few hundred yards south of the park, on the working line that runs through the centre of the park and was there before the park was founded.

  We cannot think about security in the park without thinking about the role of local schools in using the park as a classroom or about ways in which different agencies might collaborate to teach a new generation respect for the park they visit during school or pass through on their way to and from school, nor can we think about the playgrounds for younger children in the park without thinking about how these fit into the larger picture of play and sport in the park and its linkage to the activities of the Leisure Centre which at present operates almost entirely separately from the park in which it is located.

  While we celebrate the park as a local space we want to see how it fits into an overall strategy for using and protecting green space across the city.

  We cannot think about staff in the park without being drawn to the possibilities of sponsored apprenticeships in estate management and horticulture in association with local colleges, nor about wildlife and conservation without thinking of the 18 acres of private allotments currently threatened with building development immediately adjacent to the southern edge of the park, and thinking about allotments brings us to issues of sustainability and local food growing as part of the role of the whole space that we think of as Handsworth Park.

  When we think of Handsworth Park and the adjoining Victoria Jubilee Allotments we also think of the church of St Mary's and the graveyard and its association with the remains of the founding fathers of the industrial revolution—Watt, Murdock and Boulton—and the link of this building with Soho House Museum hardly half-a-mile away celebrating the work of the Lunar Society.

  When we think about the ponds in Handsworth Park, hoping that one day they may again be used for boating as at West Park, Wolverhampton (also landscaped by Richard Hartland Vertegans) we think of the surrounding water courses that run from other parts of Handsworth, usually culverted, to the river Tame and beyond and reflect on the possibility of being able to reopen these water courses as a reminder that surface water drains away across the whole area and that road grills in the gutters are not places down which it is all right to dispose of sump oil, detergent and other pollutants.

  Finally while we recall the history of the park and draw on it to make sense of the present we know that whatever it becomes will be uniquely and originally connected to the current and future population of Handsworth and its surrounding districts.

2   We had some lovely summers there when we were kiddies./ When I was young we used to spend virtually all our school holidays in the park./ We went down to Handsworth Park practically every day to meet all the other young mums and their babies./ There was skating on the pool./ When the boathouse was there you hired a boat to go round the pool./ It really was an interesting place. And they always had the Scout's Rally there once a year./ And the flower show was there in those days. The dog show. The Park House where you got ice creams. The cabbage patch where you went to play football./ Bands in the bandstand on a Sunday./ There used to be a group of old Sikh gentlemen playing cards by the boathouse./ The park used to be packed; crowded out with kiddies, all with a bottle of pop or something like that to last you for the day./ Mothers with prams and pushchairs going through./ Oh there was tennis, bowls, tiddlers in the pool. It was a beautiful park then. (extracts from recorded accounts collected by S. Baddeley during 1995) Back

3   Ken Worpole and Liz Greenhalgh (1999) The Richness of Cities: Final Report (Comedia/Demos). Back

4   Geographic information systems analysis of the operation of the housing market: Birmingham City Council Housing Department-courtesy of Dr Alan Elkin, Deputy Director of Housing, lead officer for Handsworth Ward Sub-Committee. Back

5   An exception is apparent in the photographic record of African-Caribbean presence in Handsworth by Vanley Burke (Sealey, M(ed)(1993) Vanley Burke: A Retrospective (Lawrence and Wishart: London) see especially pp. 26, 39, 45, 49, 55, 63, and especially pp. 74-75 the tableau of a crowd overlooking the Handsworth Park bandstand in 1975. Back

6   Handsworth Park Landscape Survey (1-2 September 1998 "Rain, brightening, overcast late afternoon." Grid Ref: SP 054905) by Dr Hilary Taylor, Parlkands Consortium. Back

7   Conway, H (1991) People's Parks: the Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press), Greenhalgh, L and Worpole, K (1996) People, Parks and Cities: A Guide to Current good Practice in Urban Parks: A Report for the Department of the Environment (London: HMSO), Grove-White, R (1996) Public Parks, Public Authorities, and Public Sensibilities (Unpublished draft received January 1996) (Centre for the Study of Environmental Change [CSEC]: Lancaster University), Alan Barber (1998) "Best Value" for Public Parks, ILAM Seminar, London. Back

8   Tame Catchment Area Management Plan Consultation Report-response by John Richfield for "Save Handsworth Park"-March 1996. The author with assistance from other "SHP" members traced and photographed the course of the Handsworth Brook while preparing this report on the now degraded water sources polluting the ponds in the Park. Back

9   Inventory of activities by "Save Handsworth Park" prepared for Adrian Rourke, Birmingham Design Services, Landscape Practise Group, Department of Leisure and Community Services, Birmingham City Council-October 1998. Back

10   Not the present gates. The originals went, with the other fine Victorian railings, to assist the war effort in 1939. Back

11   Handsworth Herald and North Birmingham News, 2 April 1898-Birmingham Central Library. Back

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