29 September 2017, by Sarah Cosgrove



The south London regional park is a 900ha network of public open spaces running across four boroughs and National Trust land. It comprises more than 40 green spaces and 12 nature reserves, linked by around 15 miles of the River Wandle and the riverside Wandle Trail.

London boroughs Wandsworth, Merton, Sutton and Croydon, and other key riparian owners (property owners with a watercourse within or adjacent to any boundary of their property) established the trust in 2012 as a limited company and it became a charity in 2013.

Since 2014 it has attracted £1.6m in investment with a core team of just two — tireless chief executive Sue Morgan, who is only contracted to work two days a week, and one full-time staff member — supported by a board comprised of councillors, stakeholder representatives from Natural England, the Environment Agency, the National Trust, the Greater London Authority (GLA), Mitcham Common Conservators and the Wandle Trust.

The Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust has an interest in this large swathe of land and delivers services on it but owns none of the land itself, unlike other parks trusts. Similarly, because it was not given any land to look after, neither was it handed an endowment to pay for it.

Nevertheless, the bold vision of the trust is to, as Morgan puts it, become “a strategic subregional partnership” and the announcement last month that it has secured a grant of nearly £95,000 — from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and match funding of £71,000 from Clarion Housing, Wandle Housing, the GLA, the Architecture Heritage Fund, Awards for All and idverde — is enabling the trust’s small team to jump into the next phase of its development.

The HLF money comes from its Resilient Heritage fund, the same pot of money that provided £237,500 for Newcastle’s parks transformation team, led by another charismatic visionary, Tony Durcan, to develop its parks trust model in February.

“It’s a fundamental bit of funding to us,” says Morgan. “It will help to really pool resources and investment of green infrastructure on a subregional level. We are trying to deliver a new regional park for Londoners, but what we are exploring is a new model of subregional partnership and management. I would say we could be better described as an innovative hybrid.”

What will the money pay for?

  • One full-time project officer for 12 months.
  • Comprehensive five-year business plan, including setting up a social enterprise.
  • Plan to develop the trust as an organisation with two boards. Recruit and train new trustees and board members.
  • Delivery plan for the regional park.
  • Generate income for the trust, through an asset transfer.
  • Share learning locally and across London.

What the trust is trying to do is be a strategic body that can take an overarching view of the land and its populations of all species to deliver services and also to consider how its public open spaces can deliver as green infrastructure for the Wandle Valley and London as a whole.

It is a bird’s eye view also adopted by London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is currently consulting on his draft environment strategy, which pledges to make the capital the world’s first national park city with the cleanest air of any major city and sets targets of making more than 50 per cent of London green with 10 per cent more tree canopy by 2050.

“If we’re going to embrace the mayor’s vision we’ve got to work out how to pool resources. There’s quite a lot of money out there but it’s not being pooled strategically,” says Morgan. This strategic approach makes a lot of sense. The river “doesn’t understand boundaries”, she adds.

Neither does wildlife or, especially in London, people. Vast swathes of the capital’s population commute to different parts of London for work, university, college or school every day, traversing several boroughs to reach their destination. The same thing happens during leisure time. It makes sense for leisure activities to be organised on a subregional level.

“Being able to work across boundaries — it’s a first for London and a first nationally,” says Morgan. “We don’t actually own the land assets so what we need to do is cultivate a partnership rather than working in opposition or in competition with each other.”

Alternative options

Instead of living off the returns from an endowment investment portfolio, Wandle must explore other options. These could include community shares, which Morgan says, would be “more equitable”, or being more creative with existing funding.

“There’s lots of money coming into local authorities they get to control,” she says. “A lot of the time these local authority officers are sitting in isolated silos and they are not aware of the whole of the third sector. It’s about getting people to swim in the same direction for a common goal.”

But to be the effective strategic subregional partnership envisioned, the trust first has to first get fit internally. Currently it has one somewhat unwieldy board, with 14 members, including two councillors from each borough. What it really needs, says Morgan, is an advisory trust board and a nimble delivery board, in charge of getting things done.

One thing the trust hopes to do is build an asset base. Sutton Council has got the ball rolling by offering the trust a 99-year lease of a Victorian estate lodge house in Sutton. The trust plans to refurbish it and make into an income-raising co-working space with a special enterprise hub for bicycles. This will lend bikes to visitors or residents who cannot afford them or do not have space to store them, and be able to offer advice and tools for repairs.

The trust’s Get Active Wandle programme encourages cycling and promotes its 14-mile trail. Morgan wants at least four of these hubs across the regional park, housed in shipping containers. Wandle has already saved 45 bikes from landfill and upcycled them after engaging social enterprise Urge Cycles, which has worked with volunteers. Allied to this is “a disruptive space” around the hubs run by the Wandle Rangers volunteers with perhaps a garden area to attract attention.

“It’s kind of like first baby steps in terms of getting people to think about being more active. We can provide people with opportunities,” says Morgan.

If enough bikes are donated or upcycled, some could even go out on permanent loan, which could potentially transform someone’s life for the better. For all her talk of working strategically, Morgan also considers the individual.

This is just one small example of what can be achieved in the park, with the right creative ideas. Now it has the funding, the trust will tender for consultant expertise in the next four weeks. Morgan wants the team in place by the trust AGM on 13 December.

“We have lots of aspirations to own assets. I haven’t got the answer to everything. This is why we’re getting consultants in to explore how this is going to work,” says Morgan. “So far it’s been three years’ hard slog working out what’s possible.”

Critical investment

Chairman Nic Durston says the “critical investment” will allow the trust to deal with some of the issues that have held it back and carry on the Wandle Valley’s history of innovation to develop “a subregional partnership that drives a vision for the park but doesn’t see itself as being best placed to deliver everything”.

He says the support of such a wide range of funders

“puts the trust on a much better footing”, adding: “London has a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We’re really pleased that the GLA is involved. There is a very real opportunity to have pan-London learning.”

“What’s clear is that there’s a recognition that the trust having an asset base is going to be really helpful in terms of the trust’s ongoing viability”.

He points out that it was never possible long-term to rely on core funding, which is going to become more difficult to obtain in the future.

“What the business plan has to achieve is how to take forward a subregional plan for a major piece of green infrastructure in London at a time when London is going to go through massive population growth.”

The trust is looking for “innovative suggestions” of how to make growth and investment in green infrastructure work for a huge range of stakeholders.

“The business plan is a very ambitious piece of work and we are looking for a really skilled set of consultants who can also work on the very practical delivery plan. The consultant team that we assemble we believe will be working on one of the most innovative projects anywhere. We really hope we get consultants of the highest calibre that really seize the opportunity.”