Raiders of the lost park: The never-ending quest to reclaim Springfield
Post Investigation: A community’s decade-long fight to get its park back
Dear readers — this is a spicy one.
For much of the past decade, a war has been raging over Springfield Park in Knotty Ash. It all began in 2013, when the council agreed a land swap deal in which a chunk of the park would be handed to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital to build a new site, on the proviso they would return a park of the same size when they were done. That still hasn’t happened.
Since then, big development deals have been done, endless arguments have played out on Twitter, costs have ballooned, councillors have been accused of hijacking a community group and tensions have reached boiling point.
We’ve been attempting to unpick the twisting, tangled story of Springfield Park and the endless feuding it has caused over the past decade. At its heart it’s really quite simple: residents just want their park back.
Your Post briefing
Thomas Cashman has been found guilty of the murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel. Yesterday, a jury at Manchester Crown Court unanimously agreed that Cashman — described as a “ruthless” drug dealer — was the man who burst into the Korbel family home on August 22 last year firing shots at the fleeing Joseph Nee. One of these struck Olivia, who had been getting ready for bed. As the guilty verdict was read out, Cashman — who had described himself as “a dad, not a killer” — was seen crying in the dock and his family shouted and swore as they left the court. In a twist after Cashman’s verdict it was revealed that Paul Russell, the boyfriend of the prosecution’s star witness (who Cashman was sleeping with behind Russell’s back) had pleaded guilty to assisting an offender back in October. Cashman had fled the scene of the crime through back gardens and made his way to the home of the witness, who cannot be named. She then called her boyfriend, Russell, who drove Cashman away and helped dispose of his clothing. Olivia’s mother, Cheryl Korbel, clutched a teddy bear while leaving court and said she was “ecstatic”. Both Cashman and Russell will be sentenced on Monday.
In the wake of the guilty verdict, police have issued a warning about the number of deadly weapons on the streets. Gangs in Merseyside are said to be using battlefield submachine guns capable of firing 850 rounds a minute, with fears these practices will soon disseminate into other areas. Serena Kennedy, the Merseyside police chief constable, said her force had seized five guns in the style of Czech-manufactured Skorpion machine pistols, which are said to be increasingly prominent. DCS Mark Kameen, the lead investigator on Olivia’s case, described them as “battlefield military weaponry”.
In other news, it’s been kicking off on Twitter for metro mayor Steve Rotheram. Rotheram’s been beefing with former Labour councillor Maria Toolan, who questioned his record of delivery, leading to back-and-forths between the pair. “What did you ‘allocate’ to Kensington Fields as a Councillor?” he asked at one point. “Happy to debate my record against yours at any time,” at another. Clearly Rotheram got a little carried away though, because when an innocent tweeter asked him for an update on the repairs to Peter Lloyd Leisure Centre in Tuebrook, Rotherham shot back with a yawning emoji. Confused, the tweeter — Mrs Martin — responded: “Sorry, not sure what you mean?” Rotheram suddenly realised this wasn’t an online troll, but merely a resident genuinely wondering about the centre. “I thought it must have been a parody account. Sorry,” he wrote, before promising to put Mrs Martin in contact with the correct person.
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By Jack Walton
Ten years have passed since former mayor Joe Anderson stood in Knotty Ash’s Springfield Park with a spade, posing for the cameras. March 26th 2013: a day of possibility. £240 million had been granted to build the new Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, a state-of-the-art facility in an area with historically poor health outcomes. What wasn’t to like?
The deal Anderson had struck the previous year included a land exchange. The hospital would be built on the council’s park land on the condition that the hospital trust replaced the lost land with a new park of the same size (9.4 hectares) in return. It seemed like everyone was a winner.
Little did anyone know at the time, the deal would set in motion a decade-long fiasco that still shows no signs of concluding. In that time, the projected costs of the project have more than ballooned from £3m to £6.2m. Residents are still waiting to get their park back.
For those in the area, the words “Springfield Park” are a guaranteed way to raise blood pressure. Having spoken to numerous residents, local campaigners and analysed the posts of an amateur sleuth Twitter account (which asked the million dollar question: “Who killed Community Engagement in #SpringfieldPark?”) dedicated to this issue, it’s evident how much this all means to the neighbourhood. Donna Winrow, secretary of the Friends of Springfield Park, a group who have worked tirelessly for this cause, tells me that when she was younger her and her brothers “practically lived” there. Back then it was a fine place, with tennis courts, football pitches and “beautiful rose gardens”.
These days though, anger outweighs nostalgia on the emotional scales. One man I speak to on a visit to the park, who doesn’t wish to be named and who speaks in a gruff, conspiratorial whisper, tells me between drags of a cigarette that the local council operate “like the mafia”, and proceeds to unspool a frankly unbelievable and unpublishable thread of evidence.
In such tellings, there’s perhaps a tendency for the world to be portrayed in a kind of Manichaean contrast. Fighters for truth and justice versus shady, underhand schemers. And yet, for a story about a park it is at least remarkably complicated. Development deals, land swap agreements, multiple construction firms, multi-million pound loans and so on. We’ve tried to keep it as simple as we can.
Keith Jones, a local resident and deputy chair of the Friends of Springfield Park group, was 67 when he first became involved in all of this. Now, he’s 80. “Honestly,” he tells me. “I feel like I haven’t got the fight left in me.” Why? “The lies. The lies and the deceitfulness.”
It wasn’t always so febrile. For the first few years after Anderson’s land exchange deal everything went swimmingly. Everyone agreed a new children’s hospital — which was opened officially by the Queen in 2016 — was an excellent addition to the area, allowing the old, tatty one to be demolished.
But late that year, the park issue blew up. A plan was announced for Alder Hey to separately build 400 new homes on the land of the old hospital site, the one being demolished. This proposed site — roughly 2.4 hectares in size — sits at the north east corner of the park next to Alder Road. The development wouldn’t have eaten into the 9.4 hectares the trust had pledged to return for the park. Still, campaigners were angered and pointed out that there was no mention of such development in Alder Hey’s original plans.
Everything went downhill from there.
Quite who was, and indeed is, entitled to that 2.4 hectare plot sits at the heart of this entire feud. The plot thickened when residents found out that a year prior, in 2015, the council had loaned the trust £3 million to build a new research institute. It appeared that the housing development, for which profits would be split 50/50 between Alder Hey and the council (we’ve seen the documents showing this agreement), was merely a means of repaying the loan, a deal which benefited all parties except for the community itself. They saw it — and still do — as a massive betrayal.
They argued Alder Hey were not only reneging on the original deal, but also spoiling what could be lovely green space. Determined to prevent the scheme, Keith Jones sprung into action and launched a petition. Those in the local community remember him going round in the “freezing cold” from house to house to collect signatures, and he ultimately amassed thousands. The petition was delivered by hand to Joe Anderson at the Cunard building.
Keith’s hard yards out in the cold clearly did the job. Very soon Anderson was in the press laying into the proposed scheme, vowing to “hold the hospital to account” over plans which were “best for the hospital and not for the residents”. He put the kibosh on proceedings. To Keith, it was a job well done. To Alder Hey, it left them in a sticky spot, still needing to repay the council £3 million but without a housing development to enable it.
The question that looms largest is exactly when the council agreed this development deal with Alder Hey. Some campaigners believe the trust deliberately withheld information from the public whilst attempting to build public support for the land swap deal as far back as 2012 because they knew how unpopular it would be. We’ve seen no evidence to be certain that such a deal did occur, but whenever the agreement was made it clearly undermined whatever goodwill Alder Hey had built up. It would never recover.
Something else was causing anger too. Or rather, someone. Through all of this, Tony Concepcion, a councillor for the neighbouring Yew Tree ward, had been sitting on Liverpool Council’s planning committee.
Concepcion’s role throughout the affair has been deemed controversial. He was the chair of Friends of Springfield Park and many felt there was a conflict of interest. After all, this was the same councillor who had voted to build a RedRow housing scheme on 13 acres of Calderstones Park, though that plan was scrapped (but not before Concepcion could accuse protestors of being a “screaming howling mob”).
By 2019 trust had all been broken down between all parties in the Springfield debacle. Community meetings became spiky. Twitter even more so. The park was already a year past its original completion date and the council needed their £3m back. Alder Hey decided then to dispose of the old hospital land, handing it to a development firm called Step Places, who planned a new “Springfield Gardens” scheme of apartments. This was, to campaigners, a decision motivated by the repayment of the loan. Alder Hey denied this, saying that NHS policy at the time required trusts to sell off unused land. Either way, it was sealed that the 2.4 hectare plot wouldn’t be going to the community. “We just could not believe that they allowed this to happen,” Keith says.
Things took another turn in that year when Concepcion was defenestrated from his role as chair of the Friends of Springfield Park group. Members of the group felt he had failed to properly challenge Alder Hey. Others, meanwhile, took it even further. During the course of my reporting on this story I’ve heard Concepcion described variously as a “stooge”, a “puppet”, “Tony Conniving” and — perhaps most imaginatively — “Tony Deception”.
We’ve put to Concepcion several pieces of evidence residents cite regarding his supposedly “deceitful” behaviour. One person claims the councillor was caught taking a clause out of the Friends of Springfield Park constitution that stated a serving or ex-councillor couldn’t sit on the committee (as it was deemed a conflict of interest). Others accuse Concepcion of muting people whose opinions he did not wish to hear in Zoom meetings. Some allege that he was using his influence to further the aims of the trust and council to the detriment of the community. The Post contacted Concepcion to put these claims to him, but as he did not respond to our questions, it’s hard to get a full and balanced picture.
After being muscled out, Concepcion set up a rival group: Community of Springfield Park. He put together a team consisting largely of members of West Derby Labour and workers at a youth charity. Some of these seemingly had no previous involvement with the park’s future. Moreover, the presence of Alder Hey’s communications director at the first meeting of Concepcion’s new group did little to assuage fears it was merely a vehicle for the trust.
For his part, Concepcion has accused the official Friends of Springfield Park of being “taken over by a protest group” and has called the anti-Springfield Gardens protestors “nimbys”. He apparently believes that what should have been a group to engage with the trust to deliver the best park possible has become a trojan horse to block a housing development.
In 2021 tensions ramped up further. Enter Capacity UK, a firm contracted for 18 months at great expense to handle consultation for the project, lay on events and establish a Community Interest Company (CIC), hopefully clearing the air in the process. The CIC would take over park management and apply for funding not available to the council. However, much like Concepcion’s group, many locally believe the CIC was little more than a proxy for the trust.
Three of the four branch chairs of the West Derby Constituency Labour Party found their way into the three trustee positions available at this CIC, which did no favours for the rumours about Concepcion’s political manoeuvring. As one local says with a wry smile: “What are the chances?”
Extraordinarily, Mayor Joanne Anderson then intervened in the saga, questioning the “moral judgement” of Alder Hey over the development, adding that she would not “accept any further delay”. Capacity left the picture, having cost Alder Hey £142,000. They issued a statement in May clarifying they're no longer involved, and claiming £1m in unresolved funding bids. Alder Hey told us that Capacity made “real headway in helping deliver a number of activities in the park”, including securing “funding of £147,000 for a new ‘Wheels for All’ cycling Hub”, delivering events and engaging with “all parts of the community”. They told us that Capacity had identified a “range of funders” with interest in investing in the park that could “potentially have brought over £1m of capital investment”. But that’s “potentially”. Not “in reality”.
So where does all of that leave us? Last year the council’s environment committee did produce a report into what went down, but campaigners dismissed it as a “whitewash”. Nowadays, the Friends of Springfield Park and trust disagree over just about everything. Since Phase One of the park was finally returned last year, the following have led to clashes: the lighting in the park, rubble under the football pitches, the failure to return the bowling greens, paths being put where residents don’t want paths, an almighty row over the location of the multi-use games area and on and on. What’s more, Phase One is extensively waterlogged. Donna likens it to a “swamp”. Few would say it has functioned adequately as a park space.
The housing development, Springfield Gardens, is underway. It is despised by many residents, who claim that local infrastructure is already bursting at the seams and will not be able to cope with an influx. Moreover, as part of the new development 30 trees along Alder Road, which runs next to it, will have to be cut down (the developers have said “the biodiversity value of the site will be increased,” by their scheme, “resulting in an overall net-gain”). The Great Foliage Massacre of Alder Road, however, is a matter for another day. Once again, the petitions are out, and once again, Keith is dumbfounded. “That is sacrilege,” he tells me, repeating himself incredulously. “That is sacrilege”.
For their part, Alder Hey have previously apologised for delays in returning the park and say they intend to create a “health campus” in Springfield Park focused on developing the very best health outcomes for children and young people. In a statement to The Post, they said:
“Alder Hey is clear that the park belongs to Liverpool City Council and the local community. The Trust Board Chair emphasised this at the public Trust Board meeting on 23rd February 2023. We are committed to handing over the park to Liverpool Council against our agreed timeline, and to a standard that we hope the whole community will be proud of. We are seeking to deliver a high-quality park for the benefit of the whole community.”
“At the end of the day,” Donna says, “We absolutely love the hospital and would do anything for the staff and patients so they enjoy our park too — that needs to be gotten across.” Her words reflect the innate difficulty of this 10-year struggle. Nobody really wants to wage war on a children’s hospital.
But what should have been cause for celebration has descended into a war during which trust has entirely evaporated between both sides. It’s been quite a journey. To Keith — who has been fighting the good fight for 13 years — there’s an emotional element at play too. More than anything, he misses the old park’s rose garden, which led up to a monument to Admiral Lord Nelson. “You couldn’t explain it in words,” he says. “It was beautiful.”