Tower Hamlets has announced the reopening of Victoria Park from this Saturday, albeit with reduced opening hours of between 8am and 4pm.
The closure of the park on 25 March provoked an outcry from councillors and residents alike, following a joint police and Tower Hamlets’ decision to close the park after users failed to heed social distancing advice.
The closure of one of London’s largest green spaces stood in apparent contrast to Hackney, which has argued strongly for the associated health benefits of public space during the lockdown, while rolling out a messaging campaign reminding park users to keep their distance from each other.
Richard Desmond, Chair of the Victoria Park Friends, said: “Victoria Park reopening in these challenging times requires all of us who love the park to take responsibility for using it in ways that are safe.
“We are pleased that the council have found a way to reopen the park safely and introduced new control measures to support this.
“Our experience is that a combination of improving weather and a long Easter weekend will put more pressure on Victoria Park. For now, we ask that people don’t travel long distances to Victoria Park and use a park closer to home where possible.”
Hackney Council warned soon after the park’s closure of a displacement effect which could make the police’s job in enforcing all-important social distancing rules more difficult, as well as the impact it would have on residents locked in homes without gardens.
The park will now reopen with strict “control measures” with Tower Hamlets parks and enforcement officers on patrol, as well as the police, with community volunteers also drafted in to help enforce the park’s safe use.
The measures include limiting leisure cycling to children under the age of 12 when accompanied by an adult; exercise to be defined as “keep moving, get home, stay home”; all gatherings, sunbathing, picnics and sports games to be banned; and users to stay two metres from other visitors at all times.
The use of all playgrounds, toilets, gym equipment and benches in the park will also be prohibited, with narrow paths to be avoided.
Police were given power at the end of March to instruct people to return home and issue fines ranging from £30 to £120 for breaches of social distancing rules, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines.
However, it remains unclear under what legal power local authorities are able to use to close and police public spaces during the crisis.
Leslie Blohm QC said: “Municipal parks are held by local authorities under a duty to allow the public access to them. Some open spaces are regulated by special Acts of Parliament, but most are governed by the provisions of the Open Spaces Act 1906.
“A local authority has no general power to close any public park or pleasure ground, but can regulate the usage of the parks by byelaws.
“The decision of some local authorities to close parks on the grounds of contravention of social distancing advice by the public, on occasion in conjunction with advice from the police is controversial, as it is argued that the effect is to concentrate those who take exercise into smaller available space, and unclear as to the power relied upon to take this step.”
The two boroughs’ mayors, John Biggs for Tower Hamlets and Philip Glanville for Hackney, released a joint statement on the parks’ opening, with an attached warning that a failure to comply with the new rules could result in fines or the park’s renewed closure.
Mayor Biggs said: “I’d like to remind all visitors, do not ignore clear instructions and respect our staff, the police and other visitors.
“Public health remains our top priority, especially for those who are most vulnerable. We know coronavirus does not discriminate based on age or health and that anyone can carry it and infect others.
“We want to be able to keep the park open but we all need to play our part by following the government advice.”
Mayor Glanville added: “We’re pleased to see Victoria Park reopening, giving residents vital space to exercise responsibly while following social distancing rules.
“Councils like our neighbours in Tower Hamlets are doing everything they can to keep parks open, but everyone must do their bit and stay home wherever possible.”
Responsibility for Victoria Park was passed from the Greater London Council to a joint arrangement between Tower Hamlets and Hackney in 1986, with Tower Hamlets securing sole responsibility for the park in 1994.
The 213-acre green space usually sees around nine million visitors every year.
For further information on Victoria Park visit towerhamlets.gov.uk/victoriapark
For the latest government guidance on what you need to do during the pandemic, click here – https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus.