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What the Royal Parks is doing to a charity softball league should matter to us all

We live in a country where charity workers can be threatened with the police by a private company for playing softball in a public park.

In summertime games on public parks are the delight of everyone. 

Softball is one such game, and it is easy to play. There is no need for any pitch markings. With some basic equipment, anyone can pitch up to a public park and enjoy a game of softball.

This is what happens every summer at Hyde Park, managed by a body called the “Royal Parks” – described as “an executive agency of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport”. One part of Hyde Park is especially suitable for people who just want to pitch up and play any game, away from joggers, dog-walkers and picnickers who may be hit by stray balls or otherwise interrupted. It is called the “Old Football Pitches” and is just by the Albert Memorial. 

And ten years ago, some charity workers came together to play softball on the Old Football Pitches. Quite soon it became popular and a league was formed, the London Charity Softball League. This was organised by the charity workers themselves.

Out of this some very good things happened. This was not part of a grand plan, and it was not the result of any “communications strategy”. Ideas were swapped and thoughts exchanged. Charities gained insights and information about good practices from other charities without spending their donations on consultancy advice, and suitable people were hired without donations going to employment agencies. Significant savings were thereby achieved. It became an efficient and cost-free example of spontaneous civic association to which no sensible person on the left or the right could object. Anyone supporting or benefitting from the charities involved benefitted from this, and it has not cost those involved a penny. And all this was possible only because of the free access to a public space. It was, in its way, a quiet testament to what people freely coming together can do for the public good.

But the league is now likely to come to a sudden end. Tonight’s two matches – the end-of-league trophy and plate finals – will probably be the last played in this annual competition. A wonderful and cost-free public good may now be extinguished, and other similar public goods will be prevented from spontaneously emerging.

This is because of a sudden Royal Parks “change of policy”. Instead of the charity workers having free access to the Old Football Pitches, they will have to pay a total of an estimated £6,000 each summer, and if the charges are not paid then the police will be called. These charges are supposedly for the “management” of the space, but nothing has actually been done to improve the Old Football Pitches. The only change is that there are now charges when there were no charges before. The change of policy was not announced on the Royal Parks website and nor was there was a press release. There was even no consultation with the groups which had used the Old Football Pitches for years for free.

The enforcement of these charges have been given to a private company, who happened to manage the adjacent tennis courts. There was no procurement exercise for this new management role for the company; a simple expedient of varying an existing contract was adopted. The Royal Parks have refused to disclose this contract because of “commercial sensitivities” – which is odd because the Royal Parks also say this is not a commercial issue at all and is only to do with the management of a public park. The company is to keep a percentage of what they collect and will give the rest to the Royal Parks. This percentage, or the envisaged amounts involved, will also not be disclosed by the Royal Parks as it is “commercially sensitive”. But the fact is that the Royal Parks want it both ways: they want to say it is a commercial matter when it comes to not disclosing information, but to maintain it is not a commercial matter at all when they want us to nod along with their assurances that no one is making money out if it.

This is part of a trend. Hyde Park, like many other public spaces, is now shifting into becoming a “venue” and usage is becoming a revenue stream. What are public goods are being turned slowly into private goods: you will get what you pay for. The deputy chief executive of the Royal Parks even assured the charity softball players at a recent meeting that one often only appreciates something if it is paid for. (When I asked for clarification on this, I was told the press officer's "recollection was that the Deputy CEO was pointing to a specific body of research that indicates sports bookings are more likely to be kept when a small fee is taken in return for the space".)

There may be a case for charges to be made for usage of the Old Football Pitches; but the stark reality is that had those charges been in place eight years ago, the London Charity Softball League would not have come into existence, and all the cost-free benefits which have since flowed from this would never have happened. That is how public goods work: the benefits cannot be foreseen or quantified with certainty and fitted into neat business plans.

In the circumstances, the imposition of charges for usage of the Old Football Pitches has been a practical mess. The company has produced inconstant maps for the players as to what parts are still free to play on. An “administration fee” was announced out of nowhere, and then reduced. The rates to be charged were similarly declared, and then “discounted”. It all smacked of being made-up as it went along. And as the summer went on, fewer people played on the pitches. If the intention was to have the “efficient management” of the Old Football Pitches, the result was that they were emptier than before.

The legal position is similarly confused. The Royal Parks agency says it has the legal power to charge for usage when it has not charged before. This is a power incidental it seems to the powers granted under section 22 of the Crown Lands Act 1851. Whilst it is true that the Royal Parks can charge for football and tennis pitches, it is not obvious that this also applies to when people just turn up and play a sport, even if there is a league organised between them. I also asked the Royal Parks which power was relied upon by the company when it threatened in July to summon the police against the charity workers playing in a public park. I was told that this was under regulation 13(a) of the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations 1997, which provides that no person using a royal park "shall in contravention of a notice exhibited by order of the Secretary of State, or after having been required by a constable not to do so, play any game or engage in any form of sport or exercise". But was there such a notice issued by the Secretary of State, I asked. Nobody at this executive agency of the DCMS could tell me.

In any case, the law is not on the side of public spaces. As Professor Antonia Layard explained to me, there is actually no legal category of "public space" in English law, just different types of private ownership. There may be some illusion of "public space" but all land is the property of someone, and that person invariably has rights they can enforce against the public using that land, whether that be the crown, a local council, or a private landlord.

Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter to you what happens to the London Charity Softball League. There are other places for them to play, even elsewhere in Hyde Park among the picknickers, dog-walkers and the joggers, even though those areas will be not be as suitable. But these small instances do mount up, and in aggregate the loss is expensive to our civic society. 

What is happening at Hyde Park is a micro-example: just one ill-thought through and badly executed sudden “change of policy” which will be enforced by threats of coercion regardless of the practical consequences, even when those consequences are pointed out, just because it will supposedly bring in more money.

And so tonight the charity workers will say goodbye to each other at Hyde Park. They will not be able to afford to play next year. The Royal Parks know this, but they refuse to shift their stance. 

Ultimately this is not about softball and charities; it is about all the unknown benefits which will now be lost because of the casual way those with power are restricting the free use of public spaces. As Vanessa Furey, co-ordinator of the campaign against the charges says:

This isn't just about our softball league, it's about all the other small groups who have used this areas for years and have built up a community. If we don't stand up an question this policy, who will? Our league was founded 10 years ago as an chance for people across the charity sector to informally network and look for opportunities to collaborate. In that time it has grown from 9 teams to 68, but without the ability for us all to go to this area in Hyde Park and play for free, it may never have got off the ground. Already this season we've seen fewer and fewer people using the area and a dramatic drop in teams from the league. These charges will not only have an impact on our softball league, but it's a financial barrier which will stop others from creating similar grassroots initiatives.

And it is not just about London. The Open Spaces Society tell us that all over the country spaces which have been or should be freely available for public enjoyment are being closed off, with people excluded unless they are prepared to pay. And it would appear this often done by stealth, without any consultation or advertisment, on an unclear legal basis, and sometimes even against the explicit basis why the land was made open to the public in the first place.

We are already in a country where charity workers can be threatened with the police by a private company for playing softball in a public park; one can only fear what worse micro-examples are to come before it realised there something valuable to us all is becoming lost.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Brexit is the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland

The age-old bid for a unified Ireland is now wearing utilitarian clothes. 

Brexit has presented British politics with something akin to a "reverse West Lothian Question". Instead of worrying why Scots should get a vote on English laws, we now have English voters telling Scotland and Northern Ireland they must leave the European Union, despite the people in both small countries opting to stay. 

Sinn Fein could hardly believe its luck that 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s voters chose to remain in the EU, but are nevertheless being forced out by the weight of English votes for Brexit. Their immediate call for a "border poll" on Irish unity is opportunistic and will, for now, go unheeded. 

What is different, though, is their age-old bid for Irish re-unification now comes wearing neutral, utilitarian colours, responding to a genuine, contemporary issue. Moreover, the threat of Brexit to Northern Ireland has seen the Irish establishment, in the shape of Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and his opposite number, the Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, echo calls for an (eventual) poll on Irish unity.

Brexit is, indisputably, a game-changer. We are now plausibly witnessing the beginning of the end of Northern Ireland. Not least because the economics of leaving the EU are so utterly disastrous for it. 

Back in March, Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment calculated that the risks of Brexit would be much more serious for Northern Ireland than the rest of Britain. Whereas Britain’s economic losses will be measured in the region of 0.1-4 per cent of GDP, for Northern Ireland that increases to up to 5.6 per cent.

In short, if Britain catches a cold by leaving the EU, Northern Ireland will get flu. Even if Theresa May eventually manages to negotiate ongoing single market access, the loss of agricultural subsidies and regeneration cash will be an unmanageable burden for the fragile cross-community executive to deal with.  

Last year, the devolved assembly's enterprise committee commissioned a report that showed the province received £2.4bn from the EU between 2007-13, and that continued funding deals up to 2020 are "central to Northern Ireland[s] economic and innovation strategies".

The report's author, Dr Leslie Budd from the Open University, argued that as well as damaging Northern Ireland's attractiveness as an entry route into the single market, transaction costs for trading into the EU would "rise significantly" and inhibit economic co-operation with the neighbouring Irish Republic. 

This is important because the Northern Ireland Executive plans to harmonise corporation tax rates with it in 2018. It is hoped the move will make the North a leaner competitor to the South in the foreign investment stakes, however it will still fall short if the Republic remains in the single market and Northern Ireland does not. 

Worries about any deterioration in North-South relations and being cut-off from the EU are very real. The Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce have recently signed a ‘formal affiliation’ with Chambers Ireland to bolster all-Ireland business co-operation "in the current period of uncertainty." 

Meanwhile, there has been a rush to apply for Irish passports, so much so, in fact, that it’s said Belfast’s post offices have run out of application forms. Indeed, no less a figure than Democratic Unionist MP, Ian Paisley Junior, suggested his constituents should think of applying for one. A genuine "through the looking glass moment" to hear that from a Paisley.

The obvious effect of Brexit-inspired instability in Northern Ireland is that it will become an even larger burden on the British Exchequer. Already, one in three works in the engorged public sector and its fiscal deficit is so large the Treasury has to pump in £9 billion a year. Will hard-pressed English taxpayers prove willing to continue to bail out a place of which they know and care little?

But this is only half the story. If these are the obvious pressures as a result of Northern Ireland leaving the EU, what, then, are the benefits of joining with the Irish Republic? 

A major US academic study by the University of British Columbia last year modelled various scenarios and concluded that Irish unity could drive out €36bn euros of value during the first eight years, with the benefits disproportionately felt in Northern Ireland. 

So a clear, existential economic problem has emerged and with it a convincing, evidence-based economic solution. The only snag with Northern Ireland, though, is the politics.

The principle of consent, that there can be no change in its constitutional status unless a majority wishes it, is hardwired into the Good Friday Agreement and there is, so far, precious little interest among unionists in joining the Irish Republic.

But as the old saying goes, unionists are not so much loyal to the Crown as the half-crown. Maybe they will look more positively on the idea after suffering the very real economic effects of Brexit for a few years. A decision Eurosceptical unionists voted for in large numbers.

And in a decade’s time, perhaps we will look back and see these past few weeks were the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland.
 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.