Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Twentieth Report


57. Despite the acknowledged potential of urban parks, public confidence in them has taken a severe knock over recent years. Figures compiled to show the condition of parks and gardens under local authority control in the UK which were quoted to us by the Landscape Heritage Trust and derived from Heritage Lottery Fund figures, indicated that as many as 25 per cent of them were in 'poor' condition and only 12 per cent in 'good' condition.[75] While these figures seem to apply to a wide variety of urban open spaces as well as those which can be strictly defined as 'parks', as we noted above, they probably nevertheless give a fair indication of the extent of the problem.

58. Past models of municipal benevolence, embodied in high quality parks with excellent standards of horticultural display and bustling armies of gardeners and park keepers, have been eroded by the intensely competitive demands on leisure service budgets. There is no doubt that, for many local authorities, park management has been assigned to the wilderness as local government has got to grips with the quite fundamental organisational changes of the last decade. Though they may be remembered as places of childhood delight, many parks have now deteriorated and become unsightly, even dangerous, places. As Handsworth Park Association put it, "parks have lost rank as a public good".[76]

59. As a consequence, the park ideal has been severely fractured. Increasingly, private gardens in towns are oases of lovingly tended mini-landscapes. In contrast, street and communal landscaped areas often have the air of being looked after as cheaply as possible, and too many urban parks are shunned, neglected and vandalised. "It is extraordinary," said Mr Turner, "that with the greatest concentration of garden lovers in the world, London does not have a single park in which one can see the level of garden skill which has become common in gardens open to the public".[77] Even some country parks are beginning to show their age. Nothing can be a more stark picture of private affluence and public squalor.

60. Most adults brought up before the second war have fond memories of their local park. The reminiscences of Miss Hargreaves, a resident of Manchester, are typical. Recalling the heyday of Errwood Park, she wrote:

"You yourself may not remember this park in its better days, but as a youngster, I and my friends ... spent nearly all the school holidays there ...

The baths were opened on those glorious sunny days we seemed to have always then, and it also had changing cabins around the baths. The park had a lovely bandstand, and circular tiered levels around it for seating whenever a band was playing. This was also a central meeting point for all the local churches, 'Whit walks' where everyone gathered and hymns were played and sung.

There was a café in the park... Beyond this, there were 16 tennis courts, where as a teenager I played tennis three or four times a week...Two bowling greens lay behind the tennis courts where some sunny evenings we would sit and watch 'older' people bowling....

Evenings, weekends and school holidays the park would be busy, and parents used to take the young children to paddle or play there. It was like a great picnic. Everyone was safe...".[78]

61. But happy memories can be easily destroyed by returning to those parks today to see them vandalised shadows of their former selves. The Urban Parks Forum told the inquiry that the deterioration of public parks has been visible during the time-span of just one generation. Many children are not able to gain the same benefits from their local park as their parents or even their older siblings did: "Too many 'parks' have been reduced to little more than grass, trees and tarmac in the quest for cheaper maintenance. The damage thus inflicted is quickly and clearly visible; but what is now also clear is the profoundly demoralising effect this has on park users and the surrounding community and its economic and social life".[79] Once put off, people are reluctant to go back. Similar points were made, among others, by the Friends of Dunloran Park, the Friends of Barnford Park, the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management, and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.[80]

62. Typical patterns of decline were noted by a range of witnesses. These included the following (but were by no means confined to them):

  • "The bowling green is derelict; so, too, are the putting greens; the tennis courts are used as a carpark; ... the Keeper's pavilion is demolished; much of the apparatus in the children's play area has been removed ...; there are no flower beds except at the entrance round the old Keeper's house ...; the garden for the visually impaired is derelict; there is no cricket pitch maintained. The greenhouses are demolished. Some of the original trees ... survive, although they have been subject to vandalism. Some of the pathwork is in a state of disrepair".[81]
  • "Lakes are closed ... or left half empty ... flower beds left unplanted ... and furniture left untouched after vandalism ... a lack of basic maintenance signals to vandals that this is an area abandoned by those in control and thus territory for them".[82]
  • "I live in the centre of one of the most densely populated boroughs overlooking a park serving a neighbourhood where most people have little or no garden. I don't use this park, it is very dirty, feels unsafe, has groups of marauding teenagers and a minimal amount of maintenance, just a bit of gang mowing".[83]

63. As these sorts of comments indicate, alongside parks with good standards of care there are many neglected ones. The memo from Sheffield City Council Leisure Service: Parks, Woodlands & Countryside noted "a lowering of expectations" which has led to "a spiral of decline where graffiti and anti-social behaviour have become the dominant aspect" and which have led to "the genuine user" avoiding them.[84]

64. The principal problems with neglected parks include those noted above, plus: arson; overgrown shrubberies; litter; dog fouling; the closure or abandonment of public facilities such as cafés, refreshment booths, or covered shelters; lack of special provision for disadvantaged groups (for example, the physically disabled) either to the park or to facilities such as toilets; unimaginative or uninspired children's play equipment; broken, vandalised, poorly sited, or removed seating. They also include the lack of "an explicit security presence" and "the abandonment of traditional horticultural regimes and historic layouts in favour of simplified but characterless mown areas".[85] And "the brutalisation of maintenance regimes" due to compulsory competitive tendering.[86]

Factors in Decline

  Cultural Changes

65. In the last 30 years or so there have been attitudinal shifts which have encouraged the decline of the municipal park. One is a changed perception of nature, landscape, and how they are best appreciated; another aspect of change is that modern ideas about what recreation consists of are different from the Victorian, or even the 1960s, concept.

The Wild vs Tame Landscape

66. In the last decade or two, there has been a preference for the 'natural' in all things (natural products, natural materials, and so on). From at least 1986, when Chris Baines did a TV series The Wild Side of Town,[87] this has expressed itself in the move towards country parks and a call for urban parks to be more 'natural' places, sanctuaries for wildlife and flowers.

67. In some cases this has led, not only to a turning away from formal parks, but to an attempt to create wildlife sanctuaries within the urban park. In fact, some local authorities seized on the idea, believing that it would save money. However, the creation of 'wild' places within the 'tame' municipal park should be approached with caution. In the first place, it needs careful planning to ensure that the spirit of the park is not changed; that existing users are happy with the scheme; that it does not encourage vandalism; and that the park still feels safe and is well cared for. Secondly, the Council must survey the park to see what wildlife is already there and decide what can and cannot be encouraged. Thirdly, a policy for managing a wildlife habitat should be developed. This needs to be subtle and will require skilled work; it may also be more expensive than a traditional park.

68. However, the fundamental conflict between lots of people and lots of wildlife means that in many cases such ideas do not work. Rather than restoring the popularity of the park by responding to new ideas, it may contribute to its decline. Urban parks work best when the integrity of the original vision is maintained, and they offer, in Mr Worpole's words, the prospect of "a beautiful, ornamental, horticultural experience".[88]

Child- vs Adult-Centredness

69. The Victorian Park was essentially adult-focused but today the hidden assumption is that parks and other recreational facilities should be child-focused or at least child-inclusive. They should therefore provide child-friendly educational opportunities and entertainment.

70. The Victorian park always had an undertone of self improvement; it was a place to learn about botany, zoology and geology. Many parks had carefully-labelled specially-planted trees and plants, peacocks, or grand collections of wildfowls. The glass-houses often featured an extensive range of Mediterranean and tropical plants, each carefully labelled. Most had at least a lump of rock, a supposed meteorite or erratic, while some displayed "rock formations" created out of Pulhamite, a patent artificial rock used to mimic Portland Stone or, mixed with grit, to create an effect similar to the millstone grit of the Pennines.[89] On our visits we were often told that parks were still important educational tools.

71. However, they do not necessarily offer the sort of child-centred educational experience that parents and teachers expect today. We saw groups of schoolchildren in only one of the parks we visited.[90] At Heaton Park and Wythenshaw Park, Manchester, there are well-stocked 'farms' which we were told were popular with children and school parties.

72. The 'city farm' concept is important in this respect. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens[91] told us that city farms cater for over 3 million visitors per year. There are currently 64 city farms and at least 450 community gardens. Community gardens cater for 300,000 people on a regular basis. Together with city farms, they aim to provide, among other things: "a non-institutionalised focus for community development work, facilities for physical activities, life long learning".[92] The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens argue that public parks could be better used for things such as formal and informal training of the unemployed and those with special needs; educational work, from pre-school to adult; and local community arts programmes.[93]

Relaxation vs Recreation, Entertainment, and Sport

73. The great Victorian parks were designed for rest, contemplation, relaxation, and gentle exercise—strolling about, admiring the vistas and horticultural displays, enjoying for an hour or two the pleasures of the wealthy and leisured classes. However, owing to changing social and employment patterns, it is now probably true, as Mr Turner observed, that in their spare time "most people ... want exercise not rest".[94]

74. Only a few of the early parks were built with sport and entertainment in mind, though facilities such as tennis courts, bowling greens, paddling pools and children's play equipment have since been added to many of them. In response to the pressure to provide exercise facilities leisure facilities have been improved in most local authority areas, but not necessarily in the park. Most of them have been housed under one roof in purpose-built (indoor) leisure-centres which now provide the most up-to-date facilities for swimming, racket sports, and fitness training.

75. Few such centres meet their full cost; several witnesses believed that the parks budget was reduced because of the cost of maintaining the leisure centres.[95] Among the important advantages that indoor leisure centres have over parks is that they are not weather-dependent and the public see them as 'safe' compared to the 'dangerous' municipal park.

76. The consequence of these cultural shifts is, as Mr Worpole said, that "when the ecologist and the environmentalists come along and the sports lobby come along, the parks profession ... cannot clearly say what is the key purpose of the urban park".[96] The lack of reliable information about park-extent and park-usage, which we noted earlier, is an exacerbating factor. Advocacy for parks is an uphill struggle in the increasingly stiff competition for resources, especially as the provision and maintenance of urban parks are not statutory services for local authorities. Whereas other recreational facilities, for example indoor leisure centres, are able to demonstrate that they are needed and affordable—that they attract x users and y income—there are no comparable figures which can show that parks are worth maintaining.

77. We believe that municipal parks should retain their integrity and historic character. However, if they are to have an exciting future larger parks should seek to regain their function as places for entertainment and formal and informal games. City farms and wildlife areas also have an important role to play in our towns, especially in the educational sphere. They need to be looked after and developed alongside municipal parks.


78. Almost all of those submitting written evidence, and most of the oral witnesses too, believed that between 1970 and today local authority expenditure on parks had been cut.[97] We made energetic attempts to discover whether this was actually the case, but did not have much success in obtaining authoritative figures. Expenditure on parks varies from authority to authority, as Newham Leisure services pointed out: "Expenditure needs will obviously vary between authorities with various factors influencing this, i.e., current condition; ability to invest; investment record; efficiency and effectiveness of resource/asset management; local economy; demographics; location, etc".[98]

79. Changing departmental responsibilities within local authorities exacerbate the problem of obtaining accurate figures for parks expenditure.[99] In 1970 an authority would have had a Parks Department or Parks and Ground Maintenance Department. Their functions were later taken into the remit of 'Parks and Recreation' Departments, then into 'Leisure Services', and sometimes today 'Education and Leisure Services'.

80. It would have been helpful to be able to turn to the Audit Commission or the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) for accurate figures to show expenditure on parks over a 20 or 30 year period. The figures that are available, however, are at best unreliable, at worst a sad reflection on professional standards.

81. The Government suggest that a total of £638m in the equivalent of today's prices[100] was spent on parks in the year 1990/91, and this had now fallen to £538m. These figures, of course, can mask considerable local variation. There is regular evidence that local councils made a percentage cut in parks budgets in order to minimise rate increases, to reach poll tax levels, or to avoid community charge capping. However, some of these cuts were quietly restored in following years.

82. Manchester City Council gave us figures which indicated that their budget in 1974 was £1,817,911 (the equivalent of £12,560,000 in today's prices) and was now £7,528,730. In oral evidence, Stockport MBC told us that: "since 1988 grounds maintenance in parks has lost £1million out of its budget. As a proportion that is about a quarter".[101] In January 1995 Horticultural Week carried a report by Bill Swann which estimated that £80m less per year had been spent on parks since compulsory competitive tendering had been introduced.[102]

83. Much of the evidence points, not to direct cuts, but rather to resources having to be spread very thin. In most local authority areas, the last 30 years has seen a significant increase in the amount of land having to be maintained without additional resources. The creation of landscaped spaces in housing developments and grass verges along roadsides and by-passes, the tidying up of waste ground, the planting of flowers and shrubs to mellow traffic-calming schemes and so on, are excellent developments but they have caused strain on already stretched budgets.

84. Compulsory Competitive Tendering is also a factor in that it has diverted the efforts of officers from maintenance work itself into writing specifications for maintenance work. Moreover, maintenance tenders lend themselves best to large-scale specific tasks such as grass cutting and weed killing edges but are not suitable for dealing with small items of maintenance and daily gardening care. The Landscape Heritage Trust told us that CIPFA estimates that 77 per cent of expenditure is allocated to grounds maintenance managed under Compulsory Competitive Tendering. The Trust notes that "the majority of this will be for the cutting of grass, mainly for sporting activities".[103]

85. This may be one of the reasons for the large expanses of mowed grass and dearth of flowerbeds which were complained of by many witnesses and which give a park the overall appearance of being unloved. The fact that once the contractors have won the contract, they do not necessarily have any loyalty to a particular park exacerbates this effect.[104] The Institute of Historic Building Conservation also made the point that Compulsory Competitive Tendering dramatically reduced the training of Council officers and employees on any contracted service.[105]

86. Under-funding has cumulative effects, often precipitating a spiral of decline. Lack of funds leads to dereliction, and dereliction causes further expense; lack of funds prevents the further dereliction being promptly and appropriately attended to, and even more dereliction results. Repairs are not carried out quickly and effectively, so later they have to be carried out expensively or inappropriately. The ultimate effect of this too-little too-late maintenance is that repair costs rise well beyond what the already straightened budget can allow.

87. The rot can set in very quickly and be out of control in a very short time. The Institute of Historic Building Conservation noted how evidence of shabbiness and other problems of neglect:

"deters regular users of the parks who perceive them as untidy, unwelcoming, uninteresting or threatening. Declining patronage of parks is likely in turn to stimulate its own spiral of decline in which local authorities see no incentive to invest thus exacerbating the problem".[106]

88. This problem particularly affects statuary, ornamental buildings and water bodies. The Garden History Society told us that the "lack of maintenance of buildings and waterbodies ... leads to acute problems of high-cost repairs which remain entirely beyond the ability of most local authorities to address".[107]

89. A large number of historic parks were set out with grand designs dominated by parades lined with statues, urns, stone basins, and fountains; or they featured ornamental buildings intended to be glimpsed at the end of a long vista. Many, or most, also had functional buildings: cafés, boat houses, green houses, or hot houses, often ornately designed.

90. Features such as these have suffered particularly badly from decay, neglect, vandalism, and inappropriate repair. They were not often built to last. Certainly they were not designed to stand up to years of being fouled by birds; they were not resistant to weathering or lichen, nor a century or more of winter frost and summer sun. The pagodas, palm houses, and other ornamental buildings were designed in an age when labour was cheap, and a great variety of materials was available. It is difficult today to match the materials and sometimes the original design has been lost. Sensitive repair has consequently been rendered difficult and expensive, if not impossible. Moreover, these features have sometimes been deemed irrelevant to the function of a modern park.

91. If historic parks are to be restored successfully, however, these artifacts need to be included in the restoration plans. Techniques are available, and have been successfully used on historic

buildings and statuary in private gardens. The same techniques could be brought to bear on the problem of park ornaments and ornamental buildings if advice and expertise was available.

92. Urgent action is needed to find effective ways of stopping the loss and neglect of park ornaments and ornamental buildings.

Safety Fears

93. In the past, parks were usually seen as safe places. Though a few pickpockets might have been at work during crowded weekends, and there might have been a little crime at night in a park that was not properly secured, no-one would have hesitated about going there during normal hours. The reason was simple. Parks were places where a lot of people congregated, where there were gardeners working and park keepers to keep order. So danger-free were they perceived to be that in most towns and cities the police only went there at the Park Keeper's request or if they were investigating a specific crime. The situation is different now.

94. As the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management told us:

"A declining infrastructure of park buildings, fences, paths, etc, ... equates to institutional neglect ... There is now a perception that public parks are dangerous places to be in at certain times of day or night. Such neglect would not be tolerated in a municipal library or other public building".[108]

95. Many parks were designed so that staff could see what was going on. Since then, however, many of the shrubs (particularly rhododendrons) which were previously kept at waist height, have grown into dark tree-like clumps. Though they may be a mass of colour for 3 weeks in the year, for the rest of the time they are often just dark vaulting sprawling over paths. Secondly, trees planted in the 1960s enthusiasm for foliage broke up the open vistas of Victorian parks, and now create areas that people feel uneasy in. This effect was explained to us when we visited Heaton Park in Manchester.

96. Mr Worpole thought that fears about safety in parks "is part of a wider fear that we can no longer manage safety and well being in public spaces," and asked: "Is the 'keeper-less park', along with the unstaffed railway station, the poorly-lit underground car park, the unsupervised playground, and the deserted town centre at night, going to become another ghost zone of modern Britain?"[109] We find this a very relevant question.

97. Making parks safe, and making them feel safe, must be a priority for local authorities. Plans for park safety should be included in all local authority Crime and Disorder Strategies.[110]


98. Staffing is obviously a central issue, not only for safety matters such as those raised above, but also for the general appearance of a park. As far as safety is concerned, one recurring theme of the evidence was the detrimental effect of 'the keeperless park'. As far as park appearance is concerned, staff career opportunities and status, education and training were all deemed to be vital. In the paragraphs below we shall first discuss the role of park keepers, followed by staff pay, training and related matters, as they were presented and argued in written and oral evidence to the Committee.

The Demise of the Park Keeper

99. Most large Victorian parks were built with accommodation for a Park Superintendent, and/or park keepers. In many authorities up until the late 1960s the Director of Parks often had a tied cottage in the largest park. Increasingly this accommodation has been sold off, demolished, or become the prey of vandals. Most of it was designed in the Victorian age and is unsuitable for 20th-century living without extensive and expensive modernisation. Also tax relief on mortgages has encouraged home ownership but discouraged people from renting properties, especially if the property is tied to the job. So living in the park became a rarity.

100. Meanwhile, the number of park keepers was being drastically reduced. A park that used to have a head park keeper and 4 or 5 park keepers now has only one or two. Citing the Association of Direct Labour Organisations Survey of 1996, Dr Conway noted that: "Safety in parks was in the past secured by the presence of park keepers and superintendents and the swearing in of park police. By 1996 only a third of parks had dedicated park staff, yet 90 per cent of local authorities experienced vandalism".[111] As job opportunities were reduced it became more difficult to recruit young park keepers and local youths began to see the (often elderly) 'Parky' as impotent and laughable.

101. Consequently, some councils decided to try to find other ways of looking after park security. The idea of park rangers was tried in some parks in the belief that the best approach to security was to educate youths into using parks constructively. Unfortunately, in many other parks the park keeper was replaced by a security guard who made the circuit of the park from time to time, with or without a dog. It must be said that this has not been a success. The Institute of Historic Building Conservation cited "the lack of ... comfort derived from the presence of on site personnel" as one of "the principal visible problems in modern urban parks".[112]

102. Mr Worpole told us that the parks in his study could not be made safe by "two men in a rundown vehicle and an alsatian dog driving through everyday at 4 o'clock. The kids went at five to four and came back at five past four and carried on burning".[113] This seems to be the general experience. Rt Hon. Richard Caborn, Minister for Regional Regeneration and Planning, for example, said in his oral evidence: "In my own City of Sheffield, the quality of parks has gone down from when I was a kid, there is no doubt about that; the flower-beds are not there, the cleanliness of it, the policing of it, the park wardens are not there, as they were before, they are not the quality that they were" [our italics].[114]

Salaries, Status, Career Opportunities and Training in Decline

103. A lack both of adequate career structure and of staff training are two of the principal reasons that witnesses consistently put forward to explain why, as the Minister observed, park staff are not, as Mr Newton of Turfsoil Ltd put it, "the quality that they were".[115]

104. The Heritage Lottery Fund agreed that the lack of funds for repair and maintenance is "compounded by a general lack of skills and experience within local authorities themselves. Parks departments, in most areas, had been comprehensively dismantled and park management had been devolved into a set of ground maintenance tasks to be carried out by contractors".[116] The Local Government Association told us that "a reduction in horticultural training and therefore skill levels further hastened the decline".[117]

105. Mr Tim Smit, Chair of the Landscape Heritage Trust Steering Group, had devastating criticisms to make of the career status and opportunities in British park management. In his oral evidence, he said:

"In my native country of Holland being a horticulturist or a botanist is a profession like being an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor and generally regarded as superior to the first two. In this country there is a tradition now where the thickest son of the thickest son goes into horticulture. If you go round any horticulture college today there is this terrible aura of despair. There is no management going on, there is no hope. I am not exaggerating, believe me".[118]

Similarly, Dr Stuart Harding, Policy Advisor Historic Landscape at the Heritage Lottery Fund, spoke of "the depth and extent of decline that has happened in this field".[119]

106. In answer to a question about how much a head gardener with the National Trust might expect to earn, Mr Smit told us:

"At a place like Stourhead you could perhaps earn £23,000 but generally it is between £15,000 and £17,000. That is at the height of your profession. It is a disgrace for something which gives so much pleasure to so many people that requires such a range of skills".[120]

107. It is probably the case that many people who were trained in horticulture and management in the last 30 years and who might have gone into municipal parks have taken their skills elsewhere. There has been a substantial growth in private gardens open to the public, and National Trust properties have increasingly made a feature of their gardens. There has also been a massive growth in the number of garden centres and private landscaping businesses. It may well be that managing municipal parks is not as attractive as many of these sorts of jobs.

108. Early retirement and the down-grading of the role of Director of Parks has also caused many able people to be lost to municipal parks. Local authority reorganisation in 1974 meant that some landscape planners moved out of Parks into Architecture and Planning Departments, breaking the links between design and continued execution and maintenance of landscaped areas.

109. Funds and opportunities for staff training have been equally restricted. Mr Smit told us that figures from CIPFA show that on average in UK parks as a whole only 1 per cent is allocated to staff education and training support.[121] We cannot believe that figures for urban parks are any better than those for parks as a whole. Dr Harding told us that

"the problem is that, with the dismantling of parks departments, all the horticultural training has gone, and so that is another aspect, that we have been keen to encourage local authorities to rebuild, to rebuild training within the programme of restoring the park. But it is an awesome task".[122]

110. The tried and trusted methods of taking on 15-year-olds as apprentices has virtually stopped over the last 30 years,[123] though National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) might be an alternative, according to Mr J Newton, representing Turfsoil Ltd, especially if the system was simplified:

"We think they would suit our sector very well. Up until now, actually putting a member of one's company through an NVQ has been a very bureaucratic and expensive procedure. We pioneered NVQs with the British Landscape Training Organisation when it was set up ... After about six months, we had to give them back and say 'we cannot operate the system you are telling us we have to operate'. These were rules laid down from above, very bureaucratic and long winded".[124]

His company had benefited from employees who had gained their qualifications in an earlier era and were now able to pass on those skills to trainees working alongside them.[125]

111. On the horticultural side, it should be noted in passing that some of the more dynamic people running parks whom we met on our site-visits came from leisure backgrounds. They brought very obvious skills to the job, but did not necessarily understand the horticultural or "passive enjoyment" side of parks. This would not matter, of course, were there staff with a horticultural background to act as a balance. But when the whole enterprise is being run on a shoestring, this does not necessarily happen.

112. We met some very competent staff during our site-visits and we heard also from enthusiastic and well-qualified witnesses. There appear, too, to be some very able consultants in the field who might, in an earlier age, have been Directors of Parks in very large authorities. We also note that schemes approved for lottery funding lay down as a condition that there are well-qualified staff to carry out the work. Despite the best efforts of these dedicated people, however, standards will continue to slide unless and until energetic steps are taken to raise the status of the profession, to employ sufficient staff, and to train them properly.

113. If the decline of parks is to be arrested and reversed it is essential that there should be sufficient high quality staff. We believe this is an area the Local Government Association ought to be looking at urgently, and which ultimately ought to be dealt with by a National Agency.

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87   Also published as a BBC book of the same name; see particularly Chapter "New Life in Old Parks" Back

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