Application of Principles

The content of an email that I didn’t send,but which lays out more thoughts that deserve an airing.There’s a backstory, and some of this won’t make sense, but that can wait until there’s a better reason to rework this version.

The glory of Highbury is that it’s complicated; messy; not amenable to easy answers.
It’s a public park, and it’s not a public park.
It’s a Grade II listed ornamental garden, and it’s a neglected landscape adopted by diverse and awesome creatures.
It’s an asset of immense cultural value to Birmingham, and it’s a white elephant that nobody cares to maintain.

So I’m mainly inclined to go for Option 3: make a well-thought-through plan for 2016, and get the 500 whips somewhere else if need be.

But there’s more to that thought. A lot more. It’s not simply about wanting more time to work it out.

The glory of Highbury is that it is three things: it’s a public park – which means people want to use it for simple amenity purposes and for more complicated social provision: as a place of recreation, learning and health outcomes, for social cohesion and relaxation; it’s also a heritage asset – a unique combination of landscape and building, associated with a lot of civic pride, a hand-made pre-industrial landscape of open fields, pleasure gardens, kitchen garden, circuit paths and farm; and it’s a wildlife haven – for bats, badgers, buzzards, kestrels, owls, parakeets, foxes, mice, deer and lately a pheasant, among others.

Each of these aspects is crucial, and deserves to be kept in balance with the others.

The task of defending that balance does not fall to the Parks Department, nor to the Rangers. It should fall to the Trust, but they’ve been worse than useless at just about everything. So it falls to individuals with a bit of puff. For now.

That said, the question of where to plant a hedgerow might not seem like a particularly complex thing. But because it’s Highbury, it’s complex enough to prompt all these emails.

In responding to Alf’s most recent proposal, I supported Option 2 for a couple of incidental reasons. There’s a better reason that I didn’t mention at the time.

I like Option 2 because it helps address the matter of isolating the Grand Oak. As the tree officers have already said, that tree is now classed as a danger, and there are a limited number of options on offer to deal with it. The least destructive involves creating a vegetative barrier. That means bramble, or deadhedging, or a living hedge. I like the idea of a living hedge, because it answers more than one question, even if it’s managed in a cursory way.

Foremost, it solves the barrier question. Though if people object to having a barrier, the tree will be crown-pruned instead. Which means losing the wild and woolly shape that gives it so much character. In some sense it’s not an easy choice – because there are drawbacks to every solution.

What Alf proposes in Option 2 is to fractionally extend the area that’s not mowed, so that the vegetative barrier is one with the unmowable Spring Meadow. For me, it’s a beautiful solution that makes Spring Meadow slightly more coherent, addressing a question about managing wetland. It also creates a workable hedge based on traditional practices, answering a question about hedgerows. Three solutions. Win, win, win.

But there are also other factors that both complicate and ease the decision to support Option 2. The water table is rising on that part of the estate. There’s no money to dig out all the old drains, reinstate them, and drain away all the water that wasn’t there in Chamberlain’s time. We have seen the result of Landscape Practice Group hoovering up £90,000 to divert the runoff. Temporarily.

The springs that gave Spring Meadow its name have revived, and are turning that slope into a marsh, killing the big old beech trees. Three have died in the last 5 years. The Parks department has already stopped mowing the wetter bits because they can’t get the machinery in there. So mowing that area means doing it with scythes, and Brum Reapers haven’t got the woman-power to do that. Answer: it’s not going to get mowed, and it will turn to scrubland.

That area is going to change unless a stupid amount of money is put into holding back the tide of rising water. I suspect Milner’s landscape will go the way of all Birmingham’s water-intensive industries. Though we could pray for drought.

So I like Option 2 better than Option 1. (I’m not convinced that Option 1 is as good. The Chamberlain gardens extend to that part of Highbury too, and there are poor instances of piecemeal planting that’s then neglected for 30 years there too, along with other undermanaged woodlands.) But if other people object to Option 2 on the basis that it’s not Option 1, or that it’s damaging part of the Milner landscape, or because it’s just another opportunistic and peicemeal intervention like the eucalytpus grove and the redwood parade, we have a situation where there may be objections all round, and Alf ends up in an awkward position of making his own assessment and decision, or is left hanging due to the lack of overall agreement.

I think we can do better than that, and am inclined to agree with Ellen’s point about needing a comprehensive management plan, and taking the time that’s required to do it. 2016 might just be the answer.

Not done yet.

There are three further considerations in this complex mess, both of which are about the glory of a future Highbury.

First, given that the Council seem serious about getting a new Trust, and bidding for ~£9M? from Heritage Lottery to restore the hall (£7M) *and* gardens (£2M), there will be someone doing a landscape management plan within a few years. Highbury may or may not be in the public domain by that point. Or a restoration may only be for the estate. Just maybe, given the Council’s interest, it may get a joined up scheme covering the whole park.

So if we put in a hedge and they decide to grub it out, what have we gained?

I’m not suggesting we sit on our hands for 3 years while that gets answered. Instead, the thinking about hedgerows deserves about the same level of conseideration that went into proposing the orchard. (Though that was decided at Council, with John Alden, as much as on the ground at Highbury. While it would be right to involve Cllr. Davis, he’s got other things to contend with.)

Instead, and secondly, if we create a landscape management plan that’s pretty carefully thought out, and that starts to address the complexities of wildlife vs garden plan, of rising water table, of exotic plantings, of amenity use and heritage assets, it might be that the new Trust says we’ve done part of the job for them, and that they’re happy to carry on with it.

Third, and last, while we can’t second-guess at this point, we can think about where we’d like to be in relation to a new management regime in a few years time. I’d think