One might expect that the leader of the opposition would have more to do than involve himself in a local council dispute over park gates. But to the shock of some locals, Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, has personally pushed for the erection of nine-foot tall aluminium barriers across Primrose Hill in north London.
Effectively, this means locking off London’s only permanently open royal park from the public on weekend evenings and maintaining its exclusivity for wealthy residents.
“It’s just incredible, though, isn’t it,” says local resident Amy McKeown, who set up a “keep the hill open” campaign two weeks ago. Stomping up the park on a gusty afternoon, on Saturday, she points to the small, socially distant groups of friends enjoying its famous view over London. “There they are,” says McKeown, “drinking Fanta and coconut water, perfectly quiet and peaceful.”
Temporary barriers of the sort seen at festivals were installed on Friday to stop a rise in crime and antisocial behaviour, following complaints to Starmer’s office that lockdown restrictions had resulted in a rowdy, violent, drug-taking and drug-dealing crowd coming to the park.
McKeown and more than 500 signatories are furious with Starmer’s intervention, which they consider to be undemocratic – and unexpectedly in line with the agenda of Conservative councillors who have been leafleting the area campaigning for gates.
“Closing and gating Primrose Hill is a nuclear and disproportionate solution for a temporary problem that could be managed by more effective policing,” says McKeown.
Catherine Usiskin, who has lived alongside the park for more than 40 years, is aghast. “It’s just so dispiriting that without full consultation, a minority of people have managed to effect a pretty radical change. To suddenly walk out and see a locked gate in front of me was shocking last night.” Usiskin, 70, suffers from chronic arthritis and eases it by walking her dogs through the park at night, happily chatting away to the parkgoers she bumps into.
“I’ve heard these young people described as hordes of so-called scum, drug addicts, criminals and so on, and a lot of the insults have had a racist tinge to them. And a class one. As if these kids are less than them,” she said. “But this is a public park, not a private estate for the block of 300 flats or the houses that back on to the park. Where else can people go for free to relax with friends? It could not be a healthier place.”
Starmer’s office wrote to the campaign explaining that the office had received “firsthand accounts of very loud noise disturbance, fights and attacks on residents”. It confirmed that “Keir met virtually with parks’ management last week and urged them to do more to ensure the disturbance ended”. The note added that “Primrose Hill is a fantastic place which is immensely valued in the constituency, it is not available for large, noisy groups to gather late at night.”
Another resident James Bloomfield, a former barrister like Starmer, was “extremely disappointed” and somewhat baffled. “This has been sprung on us: there was no due process. I have no doubt that some people feel aggrieved that there has been an uptick in crime and noise, but the solution to that isn’t to shut the whole park down.”
The group plans to keep up the pressure and force the park’s management to reconsider.