Interview: Shaun Kiddell, head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden

Mounting pressures on space in the urban environment mean that every piece of green needs to give maximum benefit.

Whether that is in addressing people's need for places to relax or get active, or as a way of meeting demand for food growing or climate change challenges, green spaces have many of the answers. It is a philosophy that the London Borough of Camden's recently appointed head of parks and open spaces Shaun Kiddell takes seriously.

He is a stickler for high standards and even goes so far as to carry out "mystery shopping" in his own parks to ensure they are up to scratch.

"I've got a big issue with the fact that we've got this attitude in this country that if something is public sector then people expect it to be second rate," explains Kiddell. "I am very keen to erode that. I do 'mystery shopper' visits and I am passionate about presentation."

Growing up on the Surrey-Hampshire border, Kiddell had a fairly rural upbringing, the benefits of which he believes can be delivered in the capital through its green spaces. "I've always been a bit of a country boy at heart," he laughs. "I found out late in life that most of my family had been involved in market gardening as well and I was completely bowled over by this revelation."

Kiddell's great-grandmother's brother was even, at one stage, tasked with the job of looking after the Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace, which was planted by Capability Brown in around 1768.

At weekends Kiddell escapes to the sanctuary of his exotic garden in Brighton - but he is determined that Camden's residents have a chance to share in the delight of being able to relax in beautiful surroundings.

As well as working closely with Friends of parks groups in the borough, Kiddell is involved with Camden's drive to green its estates.

"Camden is a real success story," he says. "There's real high-level commitment to parks. They are always right up there in residents' surveys and there's a good backing from political circles."

The council is set to renew its grounds maintenance contract shortly and will be asking for the elimination of pesticide use. Connaught will take over Glendale's grounds maintenance contract at Camden from April 2010 for a lower amount.

An analysis of green spaces on estates is being carried out as part of the borough's Greening Our Estates housing initiative that will identify which spaces need investment. In addition, food growing is already happening on some estates. "We are always looking at the possibility of increasing sites and that's where the big housing initiative comes in," Kiddell explains.

As a Green Flag Awards judge and GreenSpace trustee, Kiddell's commitment to improving parks and open spaces spills over from his career into his extra-curricular activities. "To me it is about putting something back into an industry that has given me so much," he explains. "But it is reflected in many of the parks staff you meet; it's not just a job, it's a way of life.

"People like that bring considerable expertise with them and often work way beyond the call of duty. We want to tap into that."

As with every parks department, funding is an omnipresent issue. Combine that with a need to maintain exceptional standards in a borough that extends as far south as "tourist central" Covent Garden, the pressures of vandalism, dog damage, the horticultural skills gaps and environmental demands, and the green space manager's job is highly demanding.

"Funding is an issue," agrees Kiddell. "But it is also an opportunity for parks managers to be creative and look at how they are delivering their service and being imaginative about increasing income. It is a fine balance between commercialisation of parks and tapping into very obvious income streams. It could be anything from concessions to low-key events and there is evidence of very good practice in that field."

Training future industry leaders is a critical task that needs to be tackled, Kiddell says. He believes that role models need to be identified so they will be able to promote the sector to young people who may never have seen people working in parks.

"If you come into a park now, the chances are it will be empty of gardeners," he explains. "But some of the best gardeners coming through now are the career changers. They give up high-powered jobs and come to work somewhere they can really make a difference. That is what we need to be encouraging to ensure we bring people into the industry."

And despite working in a highly developed urban area, Kiddell thinks that simplicity is the most important part of improving green spaces.

"We should have a national initiative to de-clutter our parks and bring them back to their more natural state," he says. It is an approach he is spearheading in Camden and the chances are that his campaign will be infectious.

He adds: "Protecting and improving green space - that is what my life is all about."

 

CV

1983-1985 City & Guilds Phase II amenity horticulture, Merrist Wood College, and RHS Wisley certificate

1985-1986 Tresco Scholarship

1986-1990 Horticultural adviser, Notcutts Garden Centres, Waterers Nurseries, Mattocks Roses

1990-1992 Plant buyer and horticultural adviser, Clifton Nurseries

1992-2002 Horticulture and parks posts, London Borough of Croydon

1997-2000 Postgraduate diploma in conservation of historic parks and gardens

2002-2004 Technical officer, Royal Parks

2004-2009 Parks and green space manager, London Borough of Lambeth

May 2009 Head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden


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