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Public sector, public space: Working for Sunderland

By Ruth Slavid
Landscape professionals have a vital role in the public sector. Merrick Denton-Thompson explains its significance in his introduction to this article on the work of the Sunderland Council landscape team.

Gradually, over the last 50 years, a symbiotic relationship has developed between landscape architects in the public sector and the private sector, and this relationship has been of huge benefit to the general public.However, much has changed over the last five years with as many as half of landscape posts in the public sector having been lost, mainly from local government. The consequences of such a loss will take time to appear and the private sector can only ever partially replace the lost influence the profession has had on the public sector – policies and programmes. 
Without landscape policies having a statutory base, the services have been a soft target in this period of public-sector financial turmoil. But nothing is safe in the public sector with the realisation that the balance between wealth generation and the level of public expenditure has been completely unsustainable for many years. Combine this with the continual erosion of the planning system and the changing priorities of local government and it is easy to see how things could get much worse. Many of the influences driving the changes are responses to failing elements in society, such as health and well-being. This is about fire fighting and sticking plaster rather than prevention, which is our focus. 
Looking forward, there is a new agenda. We are uniquely positioned to manage the development interface between people and natural systems, at the very moment that everyone is beginning to realise the vulnerability of humanity. Our approach to multi- functional landscapes can do so much more for the health and well-being of the young and the elderly. We can harness the power of natural systems, can cater for renewable energy, sequestrate carbon, control micro-climate, build resilience and reconnect people with sustainable food production. We should be repositioning the landscape profession to ensure that our democratic system receives direct, impartial advice from us. There should be advice from a small number of very senior landscape posts in every authority to identify issues, develop policy and act as an intelligent client in the commissioning of the private sector to do all the work. We ought to go further and suggest that no one department can bring the range of public goods that landscape can provide, and that it should be a corporate function of the chief executive and the cabinet.
Merrick Denton-Thompson 

If you stand in the office of the landscape department at Sunderland City Council, the view from the window is magnificent. From the civic centre, set on an eminence and designed in the 1960s by Sir Basil Spence as two interlocking hexagons, the team look down on Mowbray Park. This characterful early park was one of the first to be restored using money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sunderland’s team did not just manage the project – it did all the design work itself.

This is typical of a landscape department that seems to buck the trends. Sunderland has always been a staunchly Labour council, and it just does not believe in outsourcing. The landscape team is smaller than it was but still healthy. It has won awards, is designing a huge range of work and is generally esteemed both within and beyond the local authority. How has it done it?

Firstly, the team itself is strong. There are three landscape architects and two technicians. Although all three landscape architects appreciate the importance of working in a local authority, they have also spent time in the private sector, and they have an entrepreneurial attitude. ‘We get heavily involved in the production of bids and masterplanning for external funding,’ said Phil Dorian, one of the landscape architects. This means that the team brings in money for a lot of projects that it could not fund purely from the council budgets. But the council itself, and in particular its elected members, plays a vital part. There is a commitment to and understanding of the importance of landscape. Councillor Mel Speding, who is cabinet secretary for the council and whose responsibilities include regeneration, said, ‘The political commitment is still there. There is a genuine commitment to carry it forward.’ Sunderland has a history of massive restoration projects, such as the creation of Herrington Country Park and Hetton Lyons Country Park, both developed on the sites of former coalfields. Now the projects are smaller – and so are the budgets. ‘Given the austerity measures since 2010 it has been difficult but we have just tried to continue as best we can,’ Mel said. ‘We spend money on trees because it is good for the city, it gives an instant effect and it is good for the future.’

Particularly in the eastern part of Sunderland, the city is spending money on replacing an ageing tree stock, with ash coming to the end of its life and many whitebeam struggling as well. It helps that Mel understands the field himself, having worked in the private sector in landscape for 17 years, when he was a member of BALI.

The council is therefore committing capital resources to landscape, but what about maintenance? David Groark, the area response manager for responsive local services, said, ‘Maintenance is changing. There used to be different departments for cleaning and for parks, but we put it all together. As a result we have got a more diverse skills base, and standards have risen. We have engaged more with community groups and friends groups to see what is required. We have become more dynamic and responsive.’

The team has reached a point where many skilled people are approaching retirement, and the council has tackled this by setting up what David describes as ‘a really good apprenticeship scheme’. The apprentices are working alongside the established staff and, as a result of the scheme, several have gained full-time jobs.

It will not be surprising to learn that the council is also calling on the involvement of volunteers. It has prioritised certain parks and other facilities to receive more intensive maintenance. In areas which are less of a priority, it is combining a light touch with working with volunteers. Michael Mordey, another member of the council, said, ‘We are looking to voluntary schemes to step up to work alongside us, to adopt plants and so on, and to take a bigger role in maintenance. There are areas that could be maintained with a lower skills base, where voluntary groups are following a programme of works that we devise.’

There is a worry that so much in the civic realm is now becoming the responsibility of volunteers that we could simply run out of voluntary effort, but Mel sees this kind of volunteering as being in a strong tradition of the area. All the heavy industries, such as coal, shipbuilding, the brewery and glassworks, had welfare organisations, he said, and these would have their own football teams and other sports facilities. All maintenance was voluntary. When these industries collapsed, many of the facilities were taken over by the local authority. Now what it is doing, Mel says, is simply asking people to go back to the kind of volunteering that they did in the past.

This is just one of the ways in which the city is making the most of the money it has. It has also leveraged money from beyond its coffers, both through its success in winning grants and through partnerships with the private sector. In the city centre, which is very much a work in progress, combining exciting projects with run-down areas, it set up a business improvement district (BID) last year to, as David put it, ‘create a cleaner, greener, safer space for business people.’ They have, for example, introduced planters and hanging baskets in the city centre and, David said, ‘We have a really good relationship with traders.’

Last November Sunderland set up a joint venture company with Igloo and Carillion called Siglion to provide development and asset management in the city centre which has also bought a portfolio of property for redevelopment. The plan is to carry out at least £100 million worth of development in the next eight years. ‘In five years we will see a remarkable transformation,’ said Michael. ‘The forward plan is absolutely fantastic.’

There is a close relationship within the council between landscape architecture and planning. Dan Hattle is the planning and implementation manager within the council’s planning and property services and part of his role is to act as the client body for projects that the landscape architects carry out. Until recently, the landscape architecture team reviewed all relevant planning applications, but latterly, when it switched to being entirely fee earning, it has reduced this role so that it only deals with very large projects. Hattle’s team has a wide skills base, including two ecologists, two conservation officers, two urban designers and three regeneration planners, but there is a feeling in the landscape team that some subtle appreciations may be lost.

Still they have plenty to get on with. Projects range from a city-centre square to park restoration to revitalisation of the seafront. The team have picked up a slew of awards and, such is their expertise, they are also advising other local authorities. If one were working as a landscape architect for Sunderland, it would be with the knowledge that the future is uncertain and that, however committed the council might be to retaining standards, there was an uncertain future ahead. But it would also mean having a fascinating variety of work and the knowledge that one was appreciated both from within and outside the organisation. Things could be much worse.


Keel Square
If a new civic square sounds like a good but not adventurous idea, think again. The new Keel Square is radically transforming an area of the city centre. In addition to providing a gathering place for events that was sadly lacking, it gives a far greater sense of arrival to people coming into the city and also helps reconnect the centre to a derelict site that represents one of the hopes for the future.

The former Vaux brewery sits on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. After the council fought off attempts by Tesco to develop the site (the supermarket now has a large store further from the centre), it became one of the sites to be developed by the Carillion-Igloo-Sunderland joint venture, to provide office space that should generate much-wanted employment.

But the road that divided the site from the centre was unattractive and blighted the centre. The council therefore realigned the road (‘the landscape team led the highways engineers,’ said landscape architect James Gordon) with planting along the centre line that includes 83 mature trees, predominantly planes and Metasequoia.

The new square, which highlights the brick magnificence of the Edwardian magistrates’ court, will be paved predominantly in sandstone and granite. An art feature will cross the square, cross the road, pass through the brewery site and go all the way to the cliff overlooking the river. Known as the Keel Line and designed by graphic artist Bryan Talbot, it will be 292m long, the length of the longest ship ever built in Sunderland, and will be inscribed with the names, arranged by date, of the ships built there. Kevin Johnson, principal landscape architect, said, ‘I had to proof-read all the names, and it was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done at work’.

At the square end, the start of the Keel Line will be marked by another artwork, designed by Stephen Broadbent and called Propellers of the City. Made of bronze and glass, it will incorporate photographs of former shipyard workers.

At the other end, the Keel Line will terminate in a lookout over the river, a suspended structure that should be popular at all times but particularly when the Tall Ships Race comes to Sunderland in 2018.

Roker and Seaburn
Last year, Sunderland Council won an RTPI award for its work on Seaburn and Roker seafronts. The award was for ‘excellence in planning and design for the public realm’. What it has done is taken two run-down seaside areas very much within the city (they are walkable from the centre if you are feeling energetic) and given them a considered and impressive sprucing up. Work at Roker is largely complete; there is still a considerable amount to do in Seaburn.

Dan Hattle said, ‘We recognised as a council that the seafront needed investment, that we could have been doing a lot better. We looked at places like Seaham and South Shields. We saw we could do something great but that we needed pump priming.’ The city managed to get money first from Sea Change and then from the Coastal Communities Fund. Phil Dorian, one of the landscape team, said, ‘We got highly involved in the production of bids and master-planning. We managed to get £1 million for Seaburn.’

Both places, which are adjacent but connected only at road level, not on the beach, have been conceived as relatively low-key facilities – as leisure spots for locals rather than as major attractions. And they are all the better for that.

The seafront at Roker sits at the base of a cliff, so that it benefits from quiet but is also somewhat cut off. The regeneration therefore includes the provision of new public lavatories at the level of the marine walk. Both areas have high-quality surfacing and imaginative planting. The projects include the use of ‘cannonball limestone’, characteristic of the area.

In Roker, the team has rethought a play area, but kept a giant concrete whale that formed a key part of it. This would have been difficult to demolish and was well loved. Instead the school children worked with local graffiti artist Creative Ginger to come up with a decorative solution. Seaburn, in contrast, has the main road running through it at almost beach level. The team has introduced traffic calming between two roundabouts and, on the pavement, a kind of shared surface for use by pedestrians and cyclists – but not cars. A new restaurant is being built on the seafront and the area should have a new heart and spirit.

Mowbray Park
The restoration of Mowbray Park was the first HLF-funded project that the council team won and executed. ‘We showed that we could do it,’ Kevin said, commenting on the fact that local authorities are normally expected to win these bids with an external landscape architect. One of the earliest municipal parks in the north-east, Mowbray opened in 1857, with an extension a decade later. It incorporates a former quarry and a railway cutting, giving it a surprisingly dramatic topography for a city centre park – a little like the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris.

It couldn’t be nearer to the civic centre – in fact that building was built on part of the park. Despite the park’s illustrious history, it fell into disrepair and was seen as dangerous to use. The council received an HLF grant of £3.3 million in 1994 and the park re-opened in 2000. New additions include a playground with an Alice in Wonderland theme, as Kevin learnt that Lewis Carroll had strong connections to the area.

It is now a delight to walk in, a city-centre oasis whose winding paths allow you to lose yourself. The HLF described the park as ‘the jewel in the crown of the city-centre restoration’.

Barnes Park
Another £3 million from the HLF funded the restoration of Barnes Park, which started in 2009 and was completed in phases. This park, about a mile from the city centre and constructed at the end of the 19th and start of the early 20th ceuntry, had become considerably overgrown, so that part of the restoration work involved the removal of trees. A brook in the park had to be cleared out and enewed, and there is a new children’s playground and a winter garden.

This is an ambitious project and some elements are not entirely successful, but will doubtless be moderated in time. Overall however the team has created an enjoyable place for repose and relaxation. To have a few failings as a result of trying too hard, or enjoying new ideas, is the best kind of error. 

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