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Do readers share our concerns about the Standard taking over Russell Square Gardens for a festival?

13 December, 2018

Russell Square Gardens

• THE Marchmont Association is one of a long list of organisations, which includes landowners, hoteliers, businesses, residents’ associations, community groups and friends of gardens in the Bloomsbury area, who strongly object to the council allowing The Evening Standard “Festival of Culture” to be staged in Russell Square Gardens in June 2019 and in subsequent years.

The event was granted a licence by the council on November 22, despite these objections, and in the absence of a policy governing events in public parks and gardens in the borough. Such a policy might determine the maximum duration and size of events, whether they should be open to the public, the use of amplification and so on.

I have made this point to the cabinet member for improving Camden’s environment, while also asking who within the council authorised The Evening Standard to proceed with this proposal, which was presented by the applicant as part of the “Camden Alive” programme being organised by the council with a £225,000 grant from the Mayor of London. I await his response.

When I mentioned the absence of an events policy to the council’s events manager at the licence hearing, she confidently asserted that the council did have such a policy. So why do none of the friends of local parks, who meet the council on a regular basis, know anything about this?

We are not against events in local parks and gardens, as such, but we feel strongly that such events should be governed by a policy which has been devised in consultation with interest groups and stakeholders.

The Evening Standard’s proposal is to use 100 per cent of the gardens for 10 days, with three days each end to set up and take down, excluding the café and the park maintenance yard, fencing off 80 per cent for paid access, with the remaining 20 per cent designated for queuing.

This loss of public access to the gardens will be hugely detrimental to the many users of the gardens in the busy summer months, including residents, workers and the throngs of visitors who rely on the gardens’ Celebratory Way as a direct route from Russell Square station to the British Museum. The fountain, which is most popular with children during the month of June, will also be “out-of-bounds”.

The organisers are proposing two outdoor stages, doubling the sound output, with little consideration for the impact on Russell Square station and local streets of 5,000 event-goers at any one time (comparable to the Albert Hall audience, where streets are grid-locked after events), with the road through Russell Square rated as the fifth most congested in London.

So concerned are the trustees of nearby Queen Square about “spillage” of alcohol-fuelled visitors from the Festival of Culture, they are planning to close their garden for the duration of the event.

The parks department also estimate that a large part of the lawns will be out of use for at least two months (possibly more, if it rains during the event), thus denying the public full use of the gardens for most of the summer in 2019 and in subsequent years. It’s worth pointing out that treatment for reseeding the grass is still in operation 16 months after the last major event in these gardens.

Russell Square Gardens are Grade II-listed, in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, protected by the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931, and described by Camden as Bloomsbury’s “flagship” site.

This event fails to recognise the heritage value of the gardens and the potential risk of harm to its protected characteristics. Closing the gardens to the public also contravenes the terms of the lease between Camden and the Russell Square commissioners, which requires the gardens to remain open to the public all year round, and was a condition of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the restoration of the gardens in 2000.

There is also no agreement between Camden and the owners of the site, who consider the proposal to be too large, too long, the wrong time of year and exposing the gardens to damage that will render them unusable for an unacceptable length of time.

We understand the pressure on funding for parks and gardens, but the council stands to earn a big fee from this prestige event, with the money going into a central pot, and not Russell Square Gardens. If the event is allowed to proceed it will establish a precedent whereby every public park and garden in the borough could be similarly closed to the public.

We hope to persuade our councillors that, notwithstanding the licence approval, which is for 2019 and subsequent years, this is an event that should not be allowed to take place in Russell Square Gardens.

If your readers share our concerns, and don’t want their local open spaces to be the next ones to be closed to the public for a private event, they might like to write to the cabinet member for improving Camden’s environment: Adam.Harrison@camden.gov.uk. They might also want to consider writing to the Standard: letter@standard.co.uk or editor@standard.co.uk.

RICCI DE FREITAS
Chair, Marchmont Association

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