The LI’s public servant
By Ruth Slavid
Merrick Denton-Thompson, who will take over as LI president in July, will be a very different president from his two predecessors – but an equally dynamic one.
Could Merrick-Denton Thompson be the Lord Kitchener of the landscape profession? Just over a century after the moustached soldier (and no, Merrick doesn’t have a moustache) appeared on the infamous recruiting poster for World War One, Merrick, with far less moral ambiguity, is set to tell the government that it really needs landscape professionals – and to tell those professionals that their profession needs them.
Merrick will take over as president in July and brings to the task a long history in public service and the public sector. He is a man of strong principles with the determination to get results. When in the August 2012 issue of the journal we asked Sue Illman, then president, if LI members should be activists, she wrote, 'I was inspired years ago by the stance that Merrick Denton-Thompson, then chief landscape architect for Hampshire County Council, took over the proposals that would destroy Twyford Down to create a new bypass around Winchester. Not many risk their career to start a High Court action against the Department of Transport in opposition to their employer. Did it effect change? No, in that the proposals went ahead, but yes, in that the whole affair was a public-relations disaster for the government, and it learned that it should never try and force a controversial decision against such vociferous opposition again.'
It was his position from within the establishment that gave Merrick the strength to do this. On his application for fellowship, the achievements he listed (and substantiated) included
• Persuaded the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit in 1985 to establish a new programme to integrate farming and conservation.
• Changed Government policy on school grounds in 1990.
• Member of the DEFRA Agri-Environment Review Group that set up the Entry Level and Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Programme.
He had a long career in Hampshire County Council, retiring in 2006 when he also joined the board of Natural England. The diminishing role of landscape professionals within the public sector is one of the areas that he intends to address during his presidency – not from the point of view of protecting jobs but because he believes that the country is suffering as the expertise of landscape professionals is marginalised.
‘We have haemorrhaged influence with the public sector,’ he says. ‘We are seen as a luxury and nice to have.’ His proposal is that the profession should re-establish its importance by showing the local authorities the way that it can help them with their problems.
‘We have to accept that the issues facing local government have changed,’ he said. ‘There are new statutory obligations; local authorities are being forced to stop any discretionary activities. We should be more focused on utility and function as a profession rather than design – although we must do everything beautifully.’
Although unitary authorities are losing their role in education, they are taking much more responsibility for children and young people. ‘We can and do provide place making for children and young people that has measurable benefits for experiential learning, for health and wellbeing,’ Merrick said. Similarly, the landscape profession can ‘deliver benefits for old people, can empower communities to transform their own landscapes and help with the resilience to climate change.’ And it can help local authorities in their development of resilience to climate change. ‘We deal with micro climates all the time,’ Merrick said. ‘We understand physics, we can equip every local authority to undertake analysis.’
The difficulty, he said, is that ‘We sit uneasily in any of the particular departments in local government.
We want to be getting government to support us in developing the intelligent client function – and for that we need a head of landscape in chief executive’s office empowering the private sector to deliver the services that our society needs.’ The path to achieving this he sees as ‘top down bottom up’. Every LI member should try to connect with unitary authority members to show them what can be done. But Merrick’s plan would also require direction from central government – and his record shows how persuasive he can be.
His argument for the involvement of every LI member highlights another of his concerns for his presidency. There is, he says, ‘a governance weakness. The institute is still in transition. Having got support and changed its constitution, we are in a process of refining our administration. We have to align the advisory council with the board so that there is a single golden thread running through from every member to the decisions made by the board.’
It is essential, he says, that members own the institute’s decisions – and take responsibility for carrying them out. ‘There is a perception,’ he says, ‘that the LI as a charity has to provide the public goods required of us as a charity. I think that is wrong. I think the institute is about empowering the members to deliver the public goods. The secretariat has to support and empower the membership to deliver. If the focus of the secretariat is on providing goods, then the support to the membership becomes secondary.’
Both these issues – of the role of the public sector and the governance of the institute – are additional to what Merrick had believed would be his primary focus and is his passion – the rural landscape. He believes that there is a crisis, with the forces shaping the countryside not doing so in the best possible way. We need, he believes, to have an approach to food growing that is environmentally sustainable and is done through multi-functional landscapes. But he says, while the profession is measurably influential in the transformation of towns and cities, it has little measurable influence on the countryside. ‘The biggest transformation of our countryside is delivered not through design but through regulation, policy, cross compliance of investment and incentive investment by the public sector. If we aspire to be the single most important profession in the transformation of landscapes in our towns and countryside we are failing absolutely to achieve that.’
Again, he says, the problem is the emphasis that the institute still has only design and on ‘landscape architecture’ whereas in the countryside ‘the biggest transformation is through landscape planning and policy and not design.
If we want to be recognised for the breadth that we offer, from policy development to landscape management, we have to recognise that we have given birth to these, they are professions in their own right.’
This is not just a theoretical concern for Merrick, since he is firmly rooted in the countryside, living in the heart of the South Downs National Park in a place he describes as ‘right out in the sticks’. His wife and daughters ride horses that they keep on the land, and he has seven elderly Manx Loaghtan sheep which are particular good at browsing the docks, hogweed etc. that are undesirable in a paddock. He has also planted 1,000 ash trees which he is coppicing on a 15-year rotation to provide heating for his home. So he is personally as well as professionally concerned about ash dieback.
Merrick will have to give up several involvements that he enjoys (as well as a lot of free time) to become LI President. For example, his role as a design panel member for the South Downs National Park will go, although he will continue as founding trustee of the Learning Through Landscapes Trust. He is heavily involved with his family, with four adult children whose work ranges from a worm farmer to a photographer to a CMLI with Terra Firma. So why did he agree to be President? Simple really. ‘I have had the most exciting fulfilling professional life and I want to put something back.’
CV Merrick Denton-Thompson, OBE
Primary Education: Falkland Islands and Tanzania
Secondary Education: Malvern College
1968–1972 Gloucestershire College of Art and Design – Diploma in Landscape Design
1972–1978 Landscape architect, Portsmouth City Council
1978–1992 County Landscape Architect, Hampshire County Council
1992–2002 Assistant County Planning Officer and Head of Countryside, Hampshire County Council
2002–2006 Assistant Director of Environment, including Rural Affairs, Hampshire County Council.
2006–2008 Board Member of Natural England