Concerned residents grill Trust members over lottery bid

Regeneration plans for Chiswick House & Grounds meet with scepticism

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The atmosphere at last Friday's public meeting to discuss the regeneration of Chiswick House and Grounds could, at best, be described as sceptical.

The meeting, attended by around 150 people on 13th January 2006, was organised so that Hounslow Council and English Heritage could present proposals for their bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. It also provided the residents with the opportunity to put their questions to members of the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, the committee created to oversee the bid.

The regeneration project, which focuses on the gardens around the Palladian villa, has for some time been the subject of much controversy and suspicion.  Residents and park users have been vocal in their concern that they are not "getting the whole picture". And it was these suspicions that manifested themselves at the meeting when, after lengthy presentations by Howard Simmons, Assistant Chief Executive of London Borough of Hounslow, Adrian Cook, Development Manager of Chiswick House and English Heritage officers, residents called for the Trust to "cut the waffle and provide the whole story."

Regrettably the meeting degenerated to a level of disorder that made it apparent that nothing was going to be resolved or concerns alleviated by this method. A spokesperson for the Trust told “Firm answers can’t be and weren’t given because these plans really are at an outline stage only. There are options available that, while not perfect, will help the community better understand the big picture.”

Whilst the majority of local people consulted are in favour of regenerating the grounds that surround Chiswick House and therefore, in the main, support the stage 1 outline bid, a number of issues were raised at this meeting. 

The most contentious of these was the creation of a new entrance in Park Road (see picture left). Intended for ‘emergency and exceptional use’ e.g. fire engines or large vehicles needing to gain access to the back lawn of Chiswick House, this entrance would mean creating an opening in the wall and installing a new gate. At present, all vehicles enter the grounds via the Duke’s Avenue entrance (off A4) although after consultation with the local fire service, the Trust felt that a new entrance would be the most practical and efficient option. With the number of revenue generating events set to rise and safety an obvious concern, the Trust felt they had two options 1) the suggested new entrance or 2) re-landscaping the historical ‘Haha’ shrubbery. 

The words ‘corporate events’ arose frequently throughout the evening with residents fearing  that the grounds would be regularly overrun with private parties. The number of large events stated in the business plan is 12 (one per month) however, if the grounds are to generate enough revenue for self maintenance, this number could well rise. The Trust believes that an average of three events a month (of which two would be on a small scale) would be closer to the mark and would take place in a number of different areas in the grounds.  A section of land close to the house which is currently unused and which affords ample space for a marquee has been earmarked for the larger events.

Throughout the meeting it remained undisputed that Chiswick House and Grounds, which currently makes an annual loss of £200,000, is in urgent need a financial injection. The upside of events taking place in the grounds would be that all revenue generated from the these will in future be ploughed straight back in again.  Speaking about the future financial viability of Chiswick House and Gardens, a Trust spokesperson told "As with public parks nationally, Chiswick has suffered from 20 years of decline and once restored, we must ensure that it has a sustainable future. Revenue generation is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The end in question is securing the long term future of the house and gardens. But this can only become a reality if the management and improvement is financially sustainable. Events, which include weddings and other charging events such as the opera, will be important sources of income. These will operate alongside free day to day access to the gardens and occasional free community events such as the recent community arts festival."

Dog walkers make up a considerable section of locals who use the grounds on a daily basis and a number have voiced concerns over new restrictions being placed on their dogs.  Seasonal restrictions are being currently being considered, namely dogs on leads around the lawned areas where people picnic and the café area, but the Trust states that these will be enforced at appropriate times. One Trustee said “We are doing our utmost to consider everyone who uses the grounds. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a dog be kept on a lead during the winter months when no one is picnicking on the lawns.  Even in the summer, there are very few who would have a picnic early in the morning and after 6.00pm. Anyway, these are management issues and as such will be discussed and decided at a much later date.”

With regard to the northern section of the historical walled garden, once intended as a tree nursery, mass clearance of this currently neglected and unused piece of land of is planned. This land, adjacent to the existing public car park, is set to become a lawned area with a number of new fruit trees to be planted.  It has been suggested in the bid document to also use this area as an overflow car park for “occasional use at large events.”

A walk around Chiswick House’s grounds reveals the true scale of this project and the work that needs to be undertaken.  Dedicated volunteer groups and individuals have planted, tended, repaired and rejuvenated small sections of the grounds but it is clear that their commendable work needs to be done on a larger scale and under the supervision of a dedicated Head Gardener.  Extensive outbuildings and areas have remained underused and neglected for so long that only a substantial cash injection can rectify the situation. With regard to how that cash injection is spent will no doubt remain the subject of debate for some time to come.

A spokesperson for the Chiswick House Friends (a separate entity to the Trust) believes the public meeting was very successful.  He said "A good deal of public concern was expressed, not about the principle of the bid - on which not a single person spoke against - but about details of the plan. These are the same concerns that we (CHF) share to some extent - about new vehicle access, the cafe, dogs, treatment of the northern part of the kitchen garden - that have been presented in extreme form by some of the critics of the scheme." 

He went on to state "There was a good understanding that we are now engaged in Phase One of the Chiswick Project, which is solely concerned with the Gardens and not with the House. What was significant was not the fact that there are different views, but that the Trust have now really engaged with the local community in a dialogue about this bid. By the end of the meeting there was an atmosphere of willingness to continue discussion and the sharing of creative solutions that had been largely absent before. We think that the Trust has got the message that the local people need to be involved, and that they are now actively doing something about this."

The Heritage Lottery Fund will make their decision on the Trust’s bid on 24th January 2006, details at English Heritage.

January 19, 2006