It seems July is the right time of year to launch a new environmental organisation. We’ve seen the grand launch of Rewilding Britain and now the official release of the Greater London National Park City proposal.*
There’s always a little uncertainty when a new organisation like this comes along – high on marketing, single figure head with a little history of self-promotion (see previous moans about Project Wild Thing). There’s always the worry that there is the possibility this is a vanity project, subject to the whims of founders syndrome. This is one of the reasons I am glad to see that Monbiot, though heavily involved in the creation of Rewilding Britain, appears to taking a back seat.
The sparkly new website opens with the exhortation Why Not? Well, you may have noticed that I am generally of a misanthropic, misinformed miserabilist persuasion, so of course I have to ask Why?
And the answer, to me at least, is not immediately obvious. Apparently there are only two Frequently Asked Questions about National Park City. Well, I’ve had a read through the proposal, and I’ve got a few more.
Dissecting this proposal thoroughly could take a while, and as ever I strive for brevity (and usual miss by several hundred words). I’ll try and limit this to a few points within the proposal that I have qualms about. First of all, lets have a look at what exactly the organisation intends to do:
- The National Park City Partnership will aim to:
- Ensure 100% of Londoners have free and easy access to high-quality green space
- Connect 100% of London’s children to nature
- Make the majority of London physically green
- Improve London’s air and water quality, year on year
- Improve the richness, connectivity and biodiversity of London’s habitats
- Inspire the building of affordable green homes
- Inspire new business activities
- Promote London as a Green World City
- Nurture a shared National Park City identity for Londoners
All very noble and hard to degree with. Also, bar the air and water quality point, pretty difficult to evaluate. It’s hard to quibble with this, but it is difficult to see what this adds to the existing multitude of environmental organisations that operate in London. It is also not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’ that I am a little confused with. On to the money…
It is estimated that the organisation is likely to eventually cost £4 million a year to run – about the cost of running a medium-sized secondary school.
£4m – that’s yet more money from an ever-decreasing pool of resources. What impact will this have on established environmental charities in London and beyond? This figure seems to have been plucked out because it is similar to the running costs of other National Parks. Snowdonia, for example had an expenditure last year of £3.8m. But that’s Snowdonia. Around £1m of that goes on employing wardens and estate workers, £750,000 on forestry, conservation and agricultural work – both of which would be reduced/non-existent for London NPC. Snowdonia also recovers a significant amount in things such as car parking fees (around £300,000 annually) that London NPC would not re-coup. Snowdonia also has £14m in reserves to fall back on. So I do question the £4 million figure and using other National Park figures as a baseline when they are very different beasts.
There’s also the worry about where exactly this money is coming from. There doesn’t seem to be a decision over whether this will be a charity or not and a lot is made of corporate sponsorship as a revenue stream:
The Greater London National Park City Partnership will be funded through private and corporate giving, and selling services including sponsorship and campaign delivery to companies. These will include services that will be of interest to horticulture, recreation, insurance and hospitality companies, all of which have a direct interest in the success of the National Park City.
But £4m. That’s a lot of sponsorship. It already seems as though there’s a fair bit of funding pushing it. With such a seemingly high dependency on corporate sponsorship it does inevitably raise concerns over the freedom and latitude of the organisation to voice opposition. For example, the end of the proposal lists funders who have contributed to the proposal (though not the organisation as a whole). AECOM is listed, and it’s not too difficult to foresee the potential for a difference of opinion.
With its distinctive, urban natural and cultural heritage, historic landscape, and many opportunities for outdoor recreation, London meets many requirements for becoming a National Park. It isn’t, however, an ‘extensive tract of country’, in the spirit of existing legislation, nor would it be respectful to our current National Parks to claim that it should be.
National Park City will have to strive for some other, new, designation. Which does bring me back to my original question, Why? On to management and structure, and it’s not a surprise to see the set-up, right from the off, of that tried, tested (and often failed) apeing of corporate structures within environmental organisations:
The Executive Team will be in charge of day-to-day management decisions and the implementation of the organisation’s short- and long-term plans. A National Park City leader will manager the Staff Unit and act as the key liaison between the Trustees and staff, communities of action and the public.
I’ve got my own opinions about this kind of structure. I’ve written about it before and how I think it doesn’t benefit environmental charities and organisations – particularly those that involve a lot of front-facing activity. So clearly I’m going to grumble about the same-old, same-old way of working when there’s an opportunity to do something new and really innovative. Onto something a bit more in my ball-park, now. Who’ll be doing whatever it is the National Park cities does?:
The City Ranger team will offer specialist training and advice on related legal matters, fundraising, publicity, standards and accreditation, proactive mediation, evidence-based practice and linking people to opportunities.
This, to me, does not seem like the role of what I would call a ‘Ranger.’ But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I clearly can’t do any of these things, so there’s no way I’m getting a salaried slice of that £4m.
A while back, I got behind this project. I still am in theory, a National Park City is a great idea in principal, but I’m still to work out exactly what it is.
*Ok, I’m a little slow off the mark here. This happened a couple of weeks ago.