Way back in December 2011, Millfields User Group voted to remove the railings around the ‘village green’ in Millfields south (the dog-free / dog training area). This was agreed (12 votes to 6).
This is the fenced, grassed area, near the old Lodge building and next to the basketball and tennis courts.
After a long delay, Hackney Council now plans to implement this historic decision without further consultation.
Should the original decision be reviewed first, if only to check that it still commands broad support and that the reasons in favour of the scheme are still valid?
We think the proposals are flawed. When the full details are known and the impacts understood (probably when it’s too late to reconsider), this is likely to prove unpopular and another ‘own goal’. The Parks Department should, therefore, carefully reconsider the decision to keep the railings around this section of Millfields.
If this was a good and popular decision in 2011, supporters should not be afraid of taking the time to re-state the reasons why this is still the best option.
The concerns reported to the meeting in 2011 were about a small number of irresponsible and obviously anti-social dog owners who were allowing their dogs to foul the area and not clearing up afterwards. Children from a nearby school were playing in the areas of undergrowth and came into physical contact with dog mess. Obviously of deep concern, but ultimately a single incident.
There were no advisory signs, as can be found in enclosed areas in Parks throughout Hackney, including Millfields north. It was, and is, far from clear what the area is meant to be for. Is it supposed to be ‘dog-free’, ‘children and parents only’, and/or ‘quiet space for older people’. Even responsible dog owners are confused - some sincerely believe it is a dedicated dog training area.
The result of a freedom of information (FOI) request to Hackney Council reveals that the Parks Department is also confused and holds contradictory positions. Is all this confusion the underlying cause of the problem, not the railings?
If responsible local dog owners are not clearly advised on the right thing to do, no wonder less responsible owners take advantage of the confusion in policy and do not fear any enforcement.
If the problem is in any way caused or exacerbated by the railings around the grassed area, it is far from clear that removing the railings will suddenly cause all dog owners to behave responsibly. It will certainly not create a single square metre of open space that is any safer for children to play in than the rest of Millfields, and it will not add a single piece of play equipment.
Cogent arguments in favour of keeping the railings were made at the meeting in 2011. A far simpler and cheaper solution, easy to implement as an experiment, is to make the signage crystal clear. Either:
· make it clear this is a dog-free area; or
· if dogs are allowed, reminds owners of the need to clear up after their dogs (our preference).
Either way (and whatever the case for and against), the cheap and simple option of putting up clear signage should clearly be tried first. Even if the railings are taken down, there is still a need for a similar level of signage and enforcement.
The 2011 meeting was well chaired by Amy Erickson of the Hackney Parks Forum (HPF). She counseled the group to carefully consider the issues before voting to remove the railings. In her experience, parks user groups were struggling to persuade the Parks Department to install railings for quiet areas, children’s play space and to create dog free zones. Once lost, getting railings reinstated, here or elsewhere on Millfields, will clearly be an uphill struggle and will probably need expensive planning permission as well.
The results of the FOI request reveal that the Parks Department believes HPF are now in favour of removing the railings. We do not know whether this is correct and HPF has now shifted its position in favour. If so, this could have implications for other parks that may be arguing for fenced off areas.
It is too easy for the issues to become narrowly focused on a dog’s freedom to roam vs. children’s freedom to play safely. In fact, there are wider and equally important concerns. Millfields’ Biodiversity Plan describes this area as: “one of the most diverse areas of scrub / woodland on the entire site”. It states it would be an: "ideal area to create a small nature garden with meadow areas, minibeast habitats and possibly a pond or other wetland feature."
Removing the railings will:
1. take away a quiet haven and a pleasant counterpoint to the predominant areas of open grassland;
2. diminish Millfields’ biodiversity and wildlife (see Wild Spaces: Protecting Hackney Nature);
3. penalise responsible dog owners by removing an area which acts as a useful dog training area.
Let’s hope the Parks Department and the User group think again before it’s too late.
Examples of railings (protecting wildlife areas) and clear signage at nearby Markfield Park: