How To Save A Park: Old Manor Way Playground and Bexley Council
A very warm Tuesday evening seemed the ideal time to sit in a council chamber for a session of the Places Scrutiny Committee. Well, plenty of people, including me, thought so, as the subject of the possible sale of Old Manor Way Playground was first on the agenda. Here the committee would hear a presentation from those who had headed up a rather popular petition against the sale of the playground, and discuss possible next steps.
Chairman Melvin Seymour started in a rather gruff and matter-of-fact way, asking those in attendance to “make it known if you’re filming or recording” (thought I’d share that for fans of local government perspectives on the recording of public meetings) followed by “let’s get on with it”. It wasn’t the most welcoming start to a public meeting, probably one of the first tastes of ongoing local democracy for most of us in attendance.
Lauran Allam took the floor for the campaigners against the sale of the park, and frankly did a brilliant job.
Prior to the meeting I heard particular Tory councillors tell Allam not to be nervous, reassuring her that it wouldn’t be an antagonistic or adversarial experience. Chairman Seymour reiterated this in his introduction. Either the councillors know their reputation precedes them, or are so used to being antagonistic and adversarial that they thought their change of approach was worth acknowledging.
Either way, Allam’s presentation played it completely straight – avoiding easy emoting or anger in favour of a very well-argued case for why Bexley not only shouldn’t sell the land, but arguably couldn’t anyway.
Allam revealed that the land has a series of deneholes underneath, ancient mining holes, that not only serve a valuable modern purpose in dealing with overflowing water in an area susceptible to flood, but also are a clear instability hazard in the event of someone trying to build on them.
The case was then put that moving to playground to a proposed location that is really very secluded is hardly the best idea, in light of the recent arson attack on the playground at nearby Lesnes Abbey woods.
The discussion then moved to the committee members, with one of the councillors who covers the park, Howard Marriner, unveiling a further argument against the sale of the land. Marinner revealed paperwork from 1939 showing the land had been bestowed by the Kent County Playing Fields Association to the then Urban District of Crayford, subject to a covenant that the site be maintained as a playground for children “for all time”.
The debate that continued was largely pointless. The deneholes showed you couldn’t build on it, even if you wanted to, despite the council suggesting that all land can potentially be developed. And the deed of covenant made any sale unlikely, anyway.
Can’t sell. Can’t build.
Which brought the meeting to its grand finale. Councillor Peter Craske asked Chairman Seymour if he could announce what he intended to recommend to the full Council meeting on 21st July – when the final decision will be taken. Seymour agreed, and Craske took the floor.
Craske had received the technical evaluation Friday, and following such a constructive campaign (he couldn’t resist the aside “something other campaigns might want to think about”) his recommendation would be to take Old Manor Way Playground off the list for sale.
So, a huge success for those campaigning to save the park. Local democracy can work. And I do wonder if we would have ever found out about the deneholes or deeds of covenant without the campaign.
And yet. Bexley Council will now have to find more money from elsewhere. One vital resource saved, and other ones are now potentially at risk.
There was something rather theatrical about the whole event. Stage-managed even. Marriner’s grand reveal of the covenant. Craske pausing before asking to make the announcement right now. The manipulation of the decision as anything other than a practical one – really they couldn’t recommend anything else.
Somehow the Conservative Council have managed to put a children’s park at risk, yet emerge at the heroes of the day, saving the playground from their very own decision. Smart political maneuvering. I just hope all those in attendance can see through it.
And I just hope the likes of Lauran Allam are the future of local politics in Bexley, not the old guard sitting on the Places Scrutiny Committee.