By Cllr Asma Begum (Bow West and Shadow Cabinet member for the Environment)
How do we balance the need for local authorities to raise funds for vital services (in an era of budget cuts and austerity) against the fundamental right for residents to access the green spaces they collectively own? This delicate question comes to a head in Tower Hamlets, where Victoria Park – opened in 1845 as a refuge for the East End’s working class – faces an uncertain future.
Vicky Park is more than just a green patch in the urban sprawl. It’s a vital part of a green corridor stretching from Epping Forest to Mile End, serving as East London’s lungs. Its history is equally impressive, a vibrant tapestry woven with struggles for health, happiness, and liberty:
A mass chartist’s demonstration was forcibly broken up at the park in 1847 and striking East London dock workers held rallies at the park throughout the 1800s.
Annie Beasant, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann and William Morris spoke at the park’s speaker’s corners. In the early 1900s it hosted suffragette rallies, with local volunteers enlisted to protect speakers such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Norah Smyth from arrest.
In 1936 it was the intended destination of the British Union of Fascists before they were halted at the battle of Cable Street by Jewish east enders supported by Socialists and Trade Unionists.
In 1978 it hosted the Anti-Nazi League’s ‘Rock against Racism’ – attended by 100,000 people who attended to protest the rise of the National Front.
Today, Tower Hamlets is the most densely populated area of the whole country, with it still being the case as it was in 1845 (when the park was created) that our country’s working-class communities have the least access to green and open space. The pandemic exposed this inequality in access to nature, with more affluent Londoners being able to escape our built-up environments, leaving low-income residents stuck in what is far too often overcrowded conditions and no access to greenery.
Vicky Park remains a lifeline for Tower Hamlets, particularly its densely populated areas, where access to green space is historically scarce. For many residents, especially those with children, the park offers free entertainment and exercise, a rare gem in an increasingly monetised world.
Yet, this rich legacy and the park’s role as a vital community asset is at risk.
Tory austerity was and still is, a concerted attack on the social contract that our residents have with the state. Budget cuts and the outsourcing of services reconfigured our country to serve private and corporate interests – not the interests of our residents.
This has forced local authorities into positions where they are responsible for higher volumes of increasingly complex work with budgets that have been cut to the bone. Against this backdrop, local authorities like Tower Hamlets have been forced into untenable positions where there is seemingly little choice but to commercialise the public commons.
Ticketed festivals have taken place on Vicky Park for nearly two decades under different political administrations. This has historically been managed by the council’s Major Events Policy which limits the number of large events that take place in the park and how they are managed.
It was a compromise that sought to balance the rights of residents who entrust their council with the duty of managing their park in their interests, against the need to raise money for the delivery of vital services.
Recently in Tower Hamlets we believe that compromise has been put in jeopardy – the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, and his Cabinet have made changes to the policy that completely removed the guard rails that limited the number of large events that can take place on the park and when they could happen.
The new policy significantly loosens restrictions, allowing an extra weekend of music festivals, raising the attendee threshold for “major events,” and focusing solely on music festivals. This throws open the door to an intense commercialisation of the park, potentially disrupting residents’ lives for extended periods.
Labour councillors decided to ‘call in’ the decision to alter the policy, to the Overview and Scrutiny committee in December. Assurances were offered: limited park closures, oversight in place, and ultimately, control remaining with the council. But past experiences, like Finsbury Park’s “Tough Mudder” event that left sections ravaged, raise worrying questions. Can assurances truly hold when profit comes knocking?
It’s disturbing that the report justifying the policy cites Finsbury Park as a model for maximizing revenue. This flies in the face of Vicky Park’s history and its role as a community space. This is why hundreds of local residents have signed a petition that they are presenting to council on Wednesday 24th January – asking the mayor to reconsider his decision, they call for a compromise, one that respects both the council’s needs and the community’s right to enjoy their park.
We understand the difficult choices faced by local authorities under financial pressure. Yet, sacrificing a cherished green space like Vicky Park for a mere £1.6 million, a fraction of the council’s yearly £487m expenditure, feels like a heavy price to pay. Austerity his hitting the council’s coffers, but we shouldn’t allow it to suffocate our green spaces. Let’s keep Victoria Park open for the people, not for profit.