Over the past few weeks, there have been scenes in British parks and open spaces that are reminiscent of a totalitarian state. People have been moved on, fined or even arrested for sitting on benches or for lying on the grass. Councils have locked the gates of city parks, and blocked off car parks at parks, beaches and nature reserves.
This Manifesto Club photo album documents the effect of these measures on daily life. There are police officers shouting through megaphones at people sitting on benches. Elderly people are being harassed in coastal towns while sitting on a bench or driving a mobility scooter. Park gates are locked and benches are tied up with safety tape. The Yorkshire Moors is plastered with police notices telling people to ‘please refrain from visiting this location’, and signs on canal footpaths tell you to ‘limit your use of canal towpaths’.
Such measures have perverse effects. As Weybourne Chester Bingley points out below, people are being pushed away from wide open spaces such as the North York Moors, where social distancing is much easier than on the narrow pavements of his home estate. Penny Bunn describes how the closure of her Hunstanton seafront car park has forced her to walk through built-up areas, rather than drive straight to the vast open sands.
Car park closures limit access to isolated spots which cannot be reached on foot, such as the trails on the Isle of Wight frequented by Christopher Magier. Car parks are also necessary to allow access to parks for disabled or elderly people who cannot walk long distances, as well as those with autism, as Martin Hewitt describes in relation to Haringey Parks in London.
Some of the measures highlighted in this album run directly counter to government or police guidance. Defra guidance states that footpaths should remain open, and guidance by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) says that it is permissible to drive to a site for exercise. The communities secretary has called for parks to remain open, and this pressure resulted in 340 parks being recently reopened.
So some officials are clearly overstepping their authority. Indeed, photos by Sharon Smith below show that Conwy Council has ‘closed’ carparks that in fact are merely natural inclines on the side of the road.
(Only in Wales has a new law allowed the legal closure of hundreds of miles of footpath. A letter by outdoor associations in Wales complains that the ‘ad-hoc, inconsistent and sometimes wholesale, closure of open spaces and footpaths’ has been ‘on a scale which seems draconian’ and prevents local people from taking exercise on their doorstep. It points out that ‘This could force people to use fewer, more confined places, for their daily exercise, thereby increasing the risk of virus transmission.’)
However, this is not just about over-enforcement. There are fundamental problems with the coronavirus regulations and police guidance. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 give ‘exercise’ as one of the reasonable excuses for leaving your home. The NPCC interpreted this to mean that a person may drive for exercise, but only if the exercise is considerably longer than the journey; and that they may sit down briefly for lunch or for a rest, but not for any sustained length of time. Therefore, concludes the NPCC, ‘inactivity’ is not permitted.
Yet this interpretation cannot be justified. The Regulations do not in fact give an exhaustive list of ‘reasonable excuses’ for leaving your home: exercise is given as an example of one kind of reasonable excuse, but there could be many others. The need for recreation – including for fresh air, a change of scene, and mental release – is no less reasonable than the need to go for a run. Elderly people may want to sit on a bench, disabled people to be pushed in a wheelchair, or young children to sit under a tree and play with sticks.
Mental health suffers as much as physical health from confinement, and is equally important to a person’s basic wellbeing. The lack of any legal definition of ‘reasonable excuse’ means that its definition has been left to the whim of officialdom.
The accounts in this album point to the essential pettiness and lack of trust involved in the policing of public spaces. At this time of national stress and difficulty, we see the resources of the state geared towards preventing people from sitting down on benches and walking in open countryside. While the economy is in nose-dive, public finances are being spent on making people’s lives harder, in a way that does no good for public health and could even be doing bad. As David Lee says below, officials refuse to let us use our common sense.
If a person is on their own or with members of their household, it is of no health consequence how they choose to spend their daily recreation. No harm is being done by a person sitting on their own on the grass, or walking on a deserted footpath. It is therefore no business of officialdom, and should not be the subject of enforcement or policing.
- See the Manifesto Club petition for the reopening of parks and green spaces.
1. HUNSTANTON BEACH, NORFOLK
Police in Hunstanton have been cruising the sea front like sharks, looking for people to harass. In my life, I’ve never seen so many police cars in the one place. In a resort that’s tailored to cater for elderly and retired people, one gentleman reportedly got fined £60 for sitting on a bench – alone – looking out at the sea. I saw an elderly couple in electric scooters, who had clearly just been shopping, being harassed by another officer. Now the car park is closed I have to push my arthritic dog to the beach in a special dog buggy, rather than drive and do the shopping on the way home as we are accustomed to. The closure of the car park reduces access to this vast open beach for local people and puts us at more risk because it pushes us on to the pavements. (PENNY BUNN)
2. NEWLANDS CORNER, SURREY
Newlands Corner is situated on the ancient North Downs Way. This is often walked recreationally, is never crowded, and I never remember anything which would contravene social distancing even before the current problem. It is however too beautiful there to be considered just exercise, it’s fuel for the soul. Surrey County Council lost no time in shutting the car park, and did so against government advice that parks and other public areas should remain open, and did not rectify its mistake despite the government several times making it very clear parks were to remain open. The government has also made it clear that driving to the place one wishes to take one’s exercise is permitted, within reason. Many of Surrey County Council car parks are closed, and for apparently spurious reason, in anticipation of crowds, not because of any report of crowds. (PAUL BEARDSELL)
3. YORKSHIRE WOLDS AT KILBURN
I travelled about fifteen miles each way for a walk I’ve done hundreds of times before on the Yorkshire Wolds at Kilburn. Part of this stretch happens now to have been designated ‘a beauty spot’. It had deliberately intimidatory police signs all over the place warning walkers that they must adhere to ‘guidance’ and would be better off going home otherwise they’d be fined. What difference does it make if it’s a beauty spot or a dump if people walk there and keep their distance? Even on a sunny summer day hardly anyone visits this place anyway. This whole ridiculous affair has been a bungled and missed opportunity to get people out into the countryside where they would be just as safe as if they were at home. They try to make you feel as though you’re doing something seriously wrong and anti-social when you’re not and nothing could be further from your mind. The science of the policy seems sound enough but the implementation of it is arbitrary and crass. It refuses to allow people to use their common sense. Personally, I’m in the most vulnerable age category so I’m not likely to put myself at even a minor risk. (DAVID LEE)
4. HARINGEY PARKS, LONDON
Haringey Council has locked down car parks at Finsbury and Markfield Parks to ensure only the public who walk to parks can access them. (The car park at Alexandra Park is likewise shut although this is not run by the council.) This of course treats people with and without disabilities unequally. I have raised the matter with several councillors to ensure that people with disabilities who can only access parks with cars can do so. This would apply to people with physical and learning disabilities and with autism who rely on support workers to drive them to parks for exercise. The Equalities Act would require the council to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. (MARTIN HEWITT)
5. CONWY, WALES
Conwy beach doesn’t even get crowded in holiday times! That beach is always empty. I use it to gallop my horses on. I ride on the Sychnant Pass and now the car parks are blocked off it is hard to get about for the parked cars (which should be in the car parks). It is dangerous as the parked cars now mean visibility of cars being driven is limited. A wild pony was killed near there a few weeks ago, quite likely a parked car meant the people driving couldn’t see. I have complained to the police. The council say the police asked them to do it, but the police did not. It’s pointless anyway and these spaces are public so why should they be blocked off? The car parks on the Sychnant Pass are not maintained car parks, they are just open areas, so I question the legality of the council blocking them off. (SHARON SMITH)
Conwy Council have made the promenades on the sea front tow away zones. Stop and they take your car and the fine is hugely more than the 60 quid fine for breaking coronvirus regulations. (MILES PETERS)
6. CLAPTON SQUARE, HACKNEY, LONDON
A Community Support Officer threatened me when I sat on a bench in Clapton Square on the way home from the shops, in a square where he and I were the only people. He said if I stayed there I would be arrested. (KATE MOORCOCK-ABLEY)
7. MOTTISTONE DOWN, ISLE OF WIGHT
On Isle of Wight I saw two closed carparks that prevent access to Mottistone Down (parking entrance blocked with with bales of hay) and Freshwater footpath for Ventnor (parking entrance blocked with logs of wood). These are access points to the hills in the west part of Isle of Wight, where there is plenty of open space. (CHRISTOPHER MAGIER)
8. NORTH YORK MOORS
I have seen a car park closure above Osmotherley (North York Moors), and also police are putting up notices and leafleting cars to tell people to refrain from visiting the location. We live on Teesside so have to drive 20-30 minutes but obviously far more sensible exercising in wide open areas than tramping around the estate with hundreds of others for company! In a 20km walk I only saw three other people. (WEYBOURNE CHESTER BINGLEY)
9. THAMES PATH, GREENWICH
Parts of the embankment along the river have been taped off on grounds that their width is less than two metres. The ‘narrow path’ was 7 metres broad at that point, continues like that for 2 miles, then narrows to around one metre. (GREENWICH RESIDENT)
10. KENNINGTON PARK, LONDON
Surely this wins some kind of most pointless tape prize? (EMMA REVELL)
I was stopped by an official in Kennington Park and told to go home. Apparently “walking isn’t exercise – only jogging and cycling.” I replied that walking alone with a facemask and observing social distancing, I wasn’t posing a greater threat than someone jogging. She insisted I leave. (PAUL BURSTON)
11. CLAPHAM COMMON, LONDON
The benches at Clapham Common have now been tied up in hazard tape. Totally absurd. Sitting on a park bench, metres away from others, does not spread this virus. They have also put fences in front of the park’s rotunda — totally unclear why this space needs to be off bounds. (MATTHEW LESH)
Ridiculous restriction on Clapham Common. (PETER LLOYD)
12. BRADGATE PARK, LEICESTERSHIRE
Bradgate Park is a picturesque walk of about a mile alongside a wide stream, with many acres of hillside. I was told we could walk through, but with the car park closed, there is no chance of parking for several hundred yards due to double yellow lines. The car park is also closed at Hartshill Hayes Country Park, near Nuneaton, North Warwickshire. (GEOFF FRANKLIN)
13. DUCK POND, FAVERSHAM, KENT
The council closed off the duck pond (favourite place of parents with toddlers) during Easter weekend. The only time this site is only a little bit crowded (by Favesham standards) is at the end of the primary school day, which is obviously not happening at the moment. (JENNIE BRISTOW)
14. RIVER LEA, BROXBOURNE
15. GREENLAND PARK, KINGS ROAD, LONDON
I have been in correspondence with Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea Council for several weeks about this closure. The council maintains that the public were not social distancing and therefore it was hazardous. Yet the council is quite happy for the residents from the adjoining flats to picnic and socialise there since its closure to the public. It is a public right of way. (NIGEL INGRAM)
16. GRANTHAM CANAL, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE
A local councillor put up a sign saying that a section of the Grantham Canal towpath in Nottinghamshire had been closed to non-residents. When I pointed out that there was no legal basis for this then the sign was changed. There are also signs along the canal telling you to ‘limit your use’ of the towpath. (LOCAL RESIDENT)
17. MANOR HOUSE GROUNDS, EALING
Manor House Grounds is closed in Ealing. Ealing has also closed the car park at Gunnersbury Park to prevent people/dog walkers from travelling there. Some cemeteries have also been made less accessible, for example Kensal Green (Brent) is open only to funeral attendees now. (BRID HEHIR)
18. NEW FOREST
All the car parks in the New Forest, literally every single one, are closed. It was fair enough when we weren’t supposed to drive out for a long walk, but we’re allowed to do that now. (GEOFF BENNETT)
19. STOKE NEWINGTON COMMON, LONDON
Two people were told over a police loudspeaker to not be seated at the common. You can see them walking away. They’re allowed to walk away, and allowed to walk through the common, and allowed to run and/or pass a ball on the common, but not sit down I guess. It’s very weird having police loudspeakers doing this. (ALAN MILLER)
20. PARKS IN MIDDLESBROUGH
Smith’s Dock Park in Middlesbrough was closed by the mayor just before the lockdown in March, along with Stewart, Albert and Thorntree parks. (LOCAL RESIDENT)
21. VICTORIA PARK, LONDON
If you’ve ever wondered what a petty bureaucrat is, it’s the one that has taped off a log in Victoria Park. (MATT KILCOYNE)
Victoria Park in London was closed, and now has reopened but closes at the ludicrously early time of 4pm at the moment. It doesn’t make any logical sense. The seats have signs saying not to sit down. Local authority wardens make announcements with megaphones. (NEIL DAVENPORT).
22. CRYSTAL PALACE PARK, LONDON
My partner and I took our daughter, 5, out on her bike in Crystal Palace Park. After she had been cycling for around half an hour, we sat down beneath a tree to allow her to rest in the shade and have a drink of water. Two Metropolitan Police officers approached. They told us that we couldn’t sit on the grass and that in order to stay in the park we had to be continually moving. We explained that we were merely taking a short break from exercise and allowing our child to have a drink. The officers were extremely polite, but nonetheless they insisted we move on as soon as possible. (JACK TOZER)
23. RIVER LEA, HACKNEY
Grass around River Lea fenced off by Hackney council, forcing people onto narrower paths. Utterly pointless. (LUKE GITTOS)
24. NORTHALLERTON, YORKSHIRE