Hackney dead-ends talks on Abney Park changes

THE FUTURE of Abney Park is again under question. Having this year survived the Sainsbury’s scheme to build a superstore on land next to it, one of Hackney’s greatest assets is now to be subject to the plans of a planning consultant.

The public will not be consulted.

Hackney council has appointed consultant Jon Sheaff. His firm, inevitably called “Jon Sheaff Associates”, will, says the town hall, “undertake a strategic review of options, and hence development of a vision for the future of Abney Park”. He will “identify the best means of delivering this”. (And you thought Doonesbury Mellowspeak ‎was fiction.)

The council brief envisages no “open public consultation”. Discussion with “key nominated stakeholders” (New Labour-speak lives) will have to suffice.

The council brief refers also to a need to find funding to pay for the changes to and maintenance of Abney Park, chapel detail, above. The website of the Heritage Lottery Fund says that Sheaff is a committee member for London, which raises the issue of a possible conflict of interest.

Hackney praises the “recently restored Arnos Vale cemetery  in Bristol”. Arnos Vale, however, would not have been saved but for public involvement, something Hackney stays it wants to avoid.

Local groups are already trying to find ways around this. The Abney Park Trust, which helps the council to manage the cemetery’s 13 hectares (32 acres), has, for example, offered to be a conduit to the consultant for the views of another interested party, the Tree Musketeers.

Mustafa Korel, founder  of the Hackney First pressure group, comments: “Consulting stakeholders should be a part of any consultation. This definition includes the general public and people who live in the area.”

Otherwise, says Korel, it is not a consultation. “Any end result,” he continues, “will be a botched-up job that damages the nature reserve.” The aim should be to create an asset for Hackney people, not a legacy of neglected buildings and spaces or luxuries for the rich.

He adds: “I would have thought that given the planning committee’s rejecting the Sainsbury’s/Newmark development on account of biodiversity, the council would have sought community input beforehand  about restoring some sort of Hackney’s history in an area that has a precarious balance.

“The council has a very disjointed plan and definition of what its think heritage is and what it actually is, and is renowned for letting things rot in our backyard while they become toxic assets at the expense of the public purse.”

The council says its brief to the consultant “noted that open public consultation is not envisaged as part of this review, although discussion with key nominated stakeholders is essential”.

Abney Park was laid out in the 1840s as a labelled-tree collection before becoming a cemetery and in 1993 a nature reserve. The council says it is valued “for people and wildlife”.

Hamish Scott 100513

* The inaugural meeting of Abney Park User Group will be held in the classroom next to Abney Park lodge, Stoke Newington High Street, Hackney N16 0LH, on Thursday 30 May 2013 at 7pm.

* Emboldened underscored words in most cases indicate a hyperlink, a reader service that is rare among websites. If a link does not work, it is probably because the site to which the URL refers has not been maintained.

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