Arson, vandalism, neglect: our parks abandoned to their fate

Burnt out: the saddening sight of a memorial bench for covid victims, after an overnight fire in Grangewood Park

The ill-informed and tiresome calls from the borough’s third-rate politicians of “cut the grass” ignores modern and ecologically sound approaches to the maintenance of our parks and public open spaces. “No mow May” is a thing, and has been shown to work to improve the biodiversity in our parks.

But something is going on in Croydon’s parks in 2023 which goes far beyond a short period each year of benign neglect. What’s happening is the wholesale abandonment of many of the borough’s parks, after a decade of council budget cuts and two years of bankruptcy in the borough.

Croydon’s once proud parks department, full of hard-working and skilled horticulturalists, has been winnowed out to such an extent that it barely exists at all.

Bin and gone: the sight that greeted visitors to the Croydon Mela at Wandle Park tram stop last weekend

It’s not just the grass that isn’t being cut. Flower beds have been left untended, in some cases since before the first covid lockdown in 2020. Bins in some of the busier parks are emptied, but never as often as they should be.

Visitors to Wandle Park last Sunday for the Mela arrived to discover the unwelcoming sight of rubbish spilling out of the unemptied bins following the previous day’s Pridefest staged in the same park. And these were both supposedly highlight “Borough of Culture” events.

Yet no one at the council had twigged that the bins might need emptying in between them…

Yet wherever you go around the borough this summer, there’s a sad shabbiness about our once prized open spaces – and there’s nothing “chic” about it. Haling Grove, which used to be full of colour in mid-summer, doesn’t appear to have had any bedding plants for a couple of years.

We have reported previously on the neglected state of Norwood Grove, at the northern edge of the borough, and in the south, off Gravel Hill, the rundown state of Heathfield House and its abandoned lawns and gardens.

Demoralising: the park’s friends group is getting little support from the cash-strapped council

Now, the hard-working volunteers of another Croydon park’s friends group have expressed their dismay this week over the way their favourite park, Grangewood, is being allowed to fall into a chronic state of disrepair.

The discovery of the ashes of a burnt memorial bench was reported on the Friends’ group’s social media.

“It was saddening to see that another bench had been set alight in Grangewood Park… As you can see, nothing is left of it, and it was still smouldering when I took this picture in the overgrown sunken garden.

“It was particularly upsetting because it was one of two commemorative benches paid for by The Friends of Grangewood Park with support from the councillors’ community ward budgets.

“The destroyed bench was in memory of local people who lost their lives during covid, and I spent much time arranging, organising delivery and installation.

“It is soul-destroying for us all to see the park in this state and the increasing levels of vandalism. Another bench in the playground was set on fire recently, along with other fires around the park and graffiti…

“We have raised many issues over the years, but this last year the park suffered particularly from a general lack of TLC.

“The sunken garden is massively overgrown, and so is the entrance to the park at Wharncliffe gates, when in the past, these used to be always maintained because of the planting of seasonal bedding.

“The paths are overgrown, shrub beds uncut, and brambles and thistles are taking over.

“We all love butterflies, not so much the rats which I keep seeing, but this isn’t how formal spaces in the park should look. There has to be a balance, and the balance isn’t right, which is why it is attracting a destructive element.”

Read more: Locals concerned that Perry plans to sell listed Norwood Grove
Read more: Council’s once-prized listed building Heathfield House left to rot
Read more:Cressey College looks to be on the rocks over park and Ofsted

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8 Responses to Arson, vandalism, neglect: our parks abandoned to their fate

  1. Ian Kierans says:

    Borough of Culture? More like something from a petri dish. Frankly it is unsafe to go out to open spaces in Croydon. Rubbish, rats, mange ridden foxes, dead birds, maggots spewing out of overfilled bins many with bust lids or no lids, needles, broken glass, urine soaked bedding and mattresses and that is just from those ”perfectly legal developments” and crap landlords!

  2. Michael says:

    It is all the parks in Croydon that suffer from neglect and lack of support from Croydon Council ! Worst seems to be South Norwood Country Park with no toilets for the public who like to walk there and is in total decay! Beer tins everywhere and dogs poo on all the paths! Dog owners walk more than the restricted 4 dog limit, more often at least 6 and more! Sadly all parks lack any flowers anywhere and even the Queens Gardens are a joke!

    • Pete Jenkins says:

      In our local park – Haling Grove – the fine old shelter is gradually being vandalised (as well as there being an abundance of litter, cans, etc.), but there are no signs of any restrictions being placed around it to stop people accessing it and it gradually gets worse. For five days recently, when on my morning jogs, there was broken glass all across the paths nearby. Dangerous for little ones and animals. Nobody (if there now is anybody) had bothered to clear it up, so later on my wife and I went along and cleared it ourselves. At least the dogs and their owners might thank us, as may parents, but the Council won’t.

  3. Chris Flynn says:

    When my kids wanted to go to park playgrounds every weekend, I really noticed that the ‘good parks’ were across the border in Sutton or Tandridge. Can any parents name any good playgrounds in Croydon? “There’s a zipwire here! Oh, it’s broken :(“.

  4. Lewis White says:

    The question is… who is responsible for Croydon parks now, and who was responsible 3 years ago, 6 years ago, and 10?

    Is it Mayor Perry, CEO Kerswell or ?

    When last did Croydon have a senior post of Parks Manager ?

    The problems actually set in years ago, all across the Parks of the UK, when Mrs Thatcher brought in “Compulsory Competitive tendering” which forced councils to go into a very costly process of going out to tender for the maintenance of parks, trees (in parks, streets and on council housing) cems and crems, and grass verges.

    Not forgetting the massive area of highway maintenance, housing repairs, local sewer repairs et al.

    With regard to Parks, London and other bigger boroughs around the UK used to have a Parks Superintendent or Manager, with a staff of Area managers, who were responsible for managing their own “patch” which might include several parks, playgrounds, a lot of grass verges, maybe some woodlands, and many housing estates and old peope’s homes. These managers would have a workforce of gardeners and park keepers. Smaller boroughs had smaller versions of the same structure.

    The managers themselves, and selected people in their teams, would make decisions about a host of topics, ranging from grass cutting, managing hedges, planting and maintaining shrubs, flower beds, and specialised items like children’s playgrounds and paddling pools, of which there were once a large number until the mid 1990’s, after which they started to be closed and emptied, as there were fewer and fewer staff to do the daily water chlorination, water tests and the Health and Safety supervision.

    Most boroughs also had a tree team, with tree officers who inspected and managed the borough’s trees, arranging work via their own workforce and via contractors, and designed street planting layouts, implementing the same via their own workforce.

    There were specialist staff who would tackle things like designing or commissioning new playgrounds and revamps of existing ones, and those running the plant growing side with nurseries, and cresting floral displays for the municipal concert halls, town hall lobbies, window boxes and hanging baskets and for open days.

    The manual workers in parks might rise through the ranks gradually, getting a little more pay along with training and greater responsibility. There were keepers and gardeners based in a park or group of parks. There were mowing and maintenance teams who would move around their patch, frass mowing, and trimming shrubs and hedges.

    Some workers would make the transtition from working on the tools to join the “officer” team– maybe becoming a foreperson, then a deputy area manager– all depending on the size of the organisation.

    There was nothing to stop a motivated person with the skills and talent to rise after some years to become a senior manager, often — but not always– moving to another borough.

    The vision of Time can be seen through rose-tinted spectacles, but I can honestly say that, how ever I might quibble at aspects of the Parks then– such as the over-wide use of chemicals and the lack of wild flowers in grasslands as opposed to close cut lawns– the whole operation was done with care, knowledge, economy, and often–intense pride and in some aspects, keen rivalry : between areas of one borough, and between boroughs. Towns like Nottingham were held in massive esteem, as the ultimate “floral Nirvana” rather as the Royal parks still are rated highly in the public mind.

    Many staff stayed working as a glass-house worker, or gardener, for a whole career.

    Then– the cold winds of CCT–Compulsory Competive Tendering– changed everything. Pulled it up, root and branch. The rot set in. Sorry, mixed terminology here, but all are true.

    Most boroughs split the organisatrion into “Client” side and “Contract side” or “DLO” (Dircect labour organisation)

    The managers who went to the Client Side lost their workforces. The joys and skills as well as the frustrations of managing a workforce were lost to them.

    Other officers, who once had input into beautifying their patches, and had a large degree of freedom in deciding the day to day and month to month management of their patches, suddenly lost all of that– and became staff managers and implementers of policy decided by the Client side.

    Loss of status and job satisfaction went hand-in-hand.

    Massive amounts of money were spent by boroughs on land surveys of every park and every site, resulting in thousands of maps, each accompanied by a schedule of the area of grass to be mown, the hedges, shrub beds and flower beds.

    The reason being that the maintenance of each area would be specified and tendered to grounds maintenance firms, in giant packages of tender diocuments.

    A massive amount of time effort and money was tied up in all of this.

    There are perhaps some who experienced these momentous changes who survived and even thrived as result, but over the years since, many have been and some are still in mourning for the days when the world of the parks department was rather feudal, but rather fulfilling too. It was also full of characters, many of whom had a real love of plants and growing, as well as taking pride in the quality of the mowing.

    Since then, and I am unsure of any universal pattern, some boroughs seem to still have their own manual staff, as well as managers for large parks or clusters of parks.
    In most, large private grounds maintenance firms (not the Council wokforce) do the maintenance.

    Some boroughs even have a Parks Manager.

    Croydon does not. Lambeth does, Southwark does.
    How are the Parks of Lambeth and Southwark?
    Good. Some, very good.

    And Croydon?
    Not so good. Some….. a real photo speaks a thousand words…… as seen in a number of Inside Croydon articles. They shows some deeply sad, appalling images of the run-down reality of once beautifully kept, highly valued, much-loved parks.

    How and why have we sunk so low ?

    Well…. proper management of large areas of land of any kind needs significant amounts of money, well-applied, as well as skill and knowledge on the part of the managers and workers. Otherwise, dereliction sets in.

    Parks are even more difficult as they are open to the public– and open to abuse by rubbish dumpers, vandals and arsonists. Parks are designed to create things for the public to use and enjoy– without serious risk. Sadly, there are also people out there who like destroying things in parks.

    Croydon has suffred more than many other London Boroughs from reduction of central government funding.

    When the Blair Labour government came in, there was Prudence.
    Then, when the Conservatives came back– Austerity.

    Did North Sea oil fund the Golden age of mid 20th century Parks, before Mrs T?

    I am not in possession of figures to see the amount Croydon had in income, nor how it allocated the money, and the share appportioned to running the borough’s huge acreage of parks.

    I hate to say it– but part of the reason why many of Croydon’s parks are in the very poor state we now see– some are at rock bottom– surely must be a result of Councillors who don’t set foot in any park, and who have no clue as to the benefits of parks to the well-being of their wards, and the people of all ages who use – and who have used at earlier stages of their lives– their local parks.

    I also think that we the public now have very low expectations.
    Once, people would phone up to complain.
    Now, it is nigh-on impossible to find out who is responsible, and to speak with them.
    We are prepared and self-conditioned to accept lower and lower standards. We don’t bother any more.

    The Parks staff of today is far smaller than the past workforce.

    I am sure that the council parks and related “green” people and teams who remain are caring, and professional– this is my experience of meeting them.

    However, a look at a children’s playground will show gaps where there were once play items. Often, years and years ago. Staff, how ever keen, can’t magic up funds from nowhere.

    Can things get better?

    Money alone is not enough.

    If there were a Parks and Public Realm Environment Committee, things would be very much better. A parks manager would also be key to renewal of Croydon’s parks

    Staff + money + intelligent & skilled management
    + senior management & councillor support + pride
    = Good parks
    (and a happier, healthier population).

  5. Ian Kierans says:

    Lewis is right and that rosy view was across most public services – but the cost of that was too high in the 80s for the country to bear. Tatchers sell off was an option to regenerate but as usual too many took advantage of the fiscal freedom and fleeced the taxpayer whilst failing to ever meet the service requirements.
    Call it CCT, PPI, Make or Buy, Outsourcing – unfortunately public procurement in Croydon has got a very unsavoury reputation and does planning and it has had this for some time.
    The reality is that we are paying high premium costs for a piss poor service in so many areas within Croydon. Both parties are failing to get a grip on this severe decline and there are no blue sky’s on the horizon as yet.

    Perversely the smallest parties in Croydon are representing residents the most.

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