Sue Ireland: A career in parks

After nine years in charge 4452 hectares of open space entrusted to the care of the City of London Corporation (CoL), Sue Ireland is leaving for pastures new. She shares her insights from 38 years in the parks sector with Sarah Cosgrove.

Sue Ireland, leaving the City of London Corporation after 38 years. Image: HW
Sue Ireland, leaving the City of London Corporation after 38 years. Image: HW

"I think jubilación is a more about the next stage of life," says the lifetime public servant, who made a big impact at both the City of London Corporation (CoL) and as director of parks and heritage services at Chelmsford Borough Council, where she has spent 35 of her 38 career years.

Highlights of her CoL custodianship, which involved taking care of 1395ha of woodland and 1470ha of wood pasture, included appointing a superintendent of Epping Forest and making improvements including refurbishing Butler’s Retreat and turning it into a visitor centre, fixing a cracked dam on Hampstead Heath and securing £170,000 for Wanstead Flats through the Metropolitan Police’s 2012 Olympics muster station, all three against serious local opposition. 

After she "got on really well" with police and the community in Chelmsford, Ireland "was surprised at the level of antagonism from the community" in Wanstead, east London, but she is proud of achieving "very substantial sum of money which was invested back". The CoL also had to go to Parliament for a regulatory reform order to give the police temporary permission for their muster station, which contravened the Epping Forest Act.

She is also pleased with the fate of Epping Forest's running club The Orion Harriers, whom she had to evict from Butler’s Retreat.

"It was quite challenging because when we started talking to them they didn’t want to move. They’d been there 100 years, or just under 100 years, as a running club. After talking to them, after a lot of work, we found them a new home, Jubilee Retreat. They restored and added to it and the club has gone from strength to strength. They have become more active, they do lots of work with young people; that’s come from a time when they were just plodding along.

"Although people don’t like change, once you get through that 'not liking', you get to see the changes."

The Hampstead Ponds improvements required "a lot of work, lot of public consultation. You talk to them now, they all recognise what a fantastic success it has been," Ireland says.

"Working in local Government generally people assume you’re doing things for the wrong reasons or you don’t care or you don’t really have the knowledge and experience and what you really have to do is convince people by example that actually you do care but you’re able to take the longer view."

Another "behind the scenes" but "very important" task was getting the ancient CoL land registered with The Land Registry, something which had never happened because the land had predated the system.

Ireland is also proud of introducing the UK’s first invisible fencing system in Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches, where cattle gaze freely but are stopped from leaving a defined area by GPS collars. The grazing is good for ecology but also anybody can go cow spotting on the CoL website and the data created is useful for research.

During her time at CoL, Ireland gave time to a number of voluntary roles. She was a founding member of The Parks Alliance, representing the organisation in Parliament as a witness during the recent Communities and Local Governmnet Committee parks inquiry. She also worked with Parks for London and the Forestry Commission. 

At Chelmsford, where she led parks from 1998 to 2008, she created two new parks, oversaw the restoration of the 232ha Hylands Estate including Hylands House and the Humphry Repton landscape, something which she calls "very special". Also "clearly something very special" was the two-week World Scout Jamboree held on the estate in 2007. Completely volunteer run, it hosted 40,000 scouts from all over the world to celebrate 100 years of scouting, and was studied by London 2012 officials as part of preparation for the London Olympics.

It was a huge challenge to pull off, not least because the V Festival – which had also come to Chelmsford under Ireland’s watch – was due to take place not long after. Ireland only achieved it by persuading "understanding" V Festival promoters, Metropolis Music, to share infrastructure with the jamboree. "With the Scouts we were dealing with all volunteers. That was quite challenging. We had to make sure that the infrastructure worked for both events which it did – it was a very special time."

Ireland exudes a sense of calm, probably one of the reasons for her success, and her mild manner overlays a steely determination displayed early on when she defied her parents’ expectations that she would follow them into science, and chose parks because she wanted to look after big landscapes and the public sector because she wanted to work for the benefit of the public. She was so keen on the City of London role she turned down a firm job offer as soon as she saw it advertised, before she had even applied.

"I think you create your own opportunities in life. If you are passionate about something you should do it. I get frustrated when I talk to a child and they say ‘I’m going to be a chemist or an accountant’ because that’s what their parents do. If you want to do it, you can do it."

She tells the story of her first job, as technical assistant at Ashford Borough Council. On her first day she was given a typewriter and a wooden drawing board. When the park manager asked if she could type she judged that telling the truth would lead to a job as his PA. "I said I don’t type. The typewriter disappeared and never appeared again."

She adds: "Particularly for women there are a range of amazing role models, the Forestry Commission, the RHS – there are a range of people doing some amazing things."

She thinks it is as important to focus on people as nature in any top parks role. "It’s important for people to use these spaces and enjoy these space but we also have to be the voice for nature, because nature doesn’t speak for itself."

"Working with people, taking the time to think and plan properly and think strategically" are important.

"We are very lucky here. We don’t have the challenges that local authorities have. But I have a great team. You can’t do it all yourself. It’s about the people you work with and empowering them and trusting them."

She says tree disease, particularly oak processionary moth, would continue to be a challenge for the land under CoL care. But her successor Colin Buttery’s biggest challenge will be densification - the increasing population of London. "Air quality and sustainable drainage are going to become crucial. Our green spaces are going to become more important."

Despite her excitement about a new life chapter, Ireland, will not forget horticulture. She has bought a house in the country, where she plans to transform her garden, with design by Marian Boswall, and get involved in community life. She is passionate about her role as school governor in Barnet, where she has lived during her CoL years. She doesn’t want its location publicised, but you think, her new town would be a great place to live. After all it is likely to have excellent schools and parks.

Sue Ireland's tips for tomorrow's park managers

Parks managers of the future will need to be good with data, good with finance and even better with people, says Ireland.

The lifelong public servant, says "data and financial management are crucial" to succeeding in a top parks role. "You need to be able to manage money and have a very good understanding of what you are spending your money on. If you don't know how much you're spending, you don't know if you get value for money. There are ways to value landscapes. We, as a sector, need to embrace them."

She says parks managers should look outside of their sector for inspiration. "Be prepared to learn from other sectors. Schools are a good exemplar. You watch how good schoolteachers teach. There's a lot you can learn from that."

But internal networks are also important, says Ireland. Parks professionals should support those out there, such as The Parks Alliance and Parks for London in the capital, she adds. "Get involved. Don't wait to be asked."

Understanding nature and people are equally important, and good people skills, which have helped her to work through some of her biggest challenges towards some of her greatest achievements, will be crucial to the future parks manager, says Ireland. "Working with people, taking the time to think and plan properly and think strategically" are all key skills, she says.

"You can't do it all yourself. It's about the people you work with and empower them and trust in them." She identifies the biggest challenge for her successor, Colin Buttery, as densification - the increasing population of London. "Air quality and sustainable drainage are going to become crucial," she says. "Our green spaces are going to become more important."

CV

1978: Graduated in geography from Aberystwyth, University of Wales

1979: Completed Masters degree in landscape ecology, design and maintenance at Wye College, University of London

1979: Began work as a technical assistant at Ashford Borough Council, promoted to technical officer then public rights of way officer

1982: Started work as a technical officer at Chelmsford Borough Council, promoted through leisure services

1998: Appointed as director of parks and Heritage Services at Chelmsford

2008: Appointed director of open spaces for the City of London Corporation.

February 2017: Enters jubilación (retires).

 


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