From 1997-2002 Duncan worked at Somerset House Trust, where he led managed the restoration of the public spaces and open the site to the public. Successes included the courtyard, fountains and ice rink, the Admiralty restaurant, Terrace café and sculpture exhibitions. Before that he worked at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as head of the Libraries Division for three years, and at the Treasury, where he specialised in defence and industry.
Duncan is a chartered accountant and his first post-qualification job was as a financial controller at English Heritage. Before his accountancy career he worked as a professional archaeologist and has a post-graduate degree in European Archaeology from Oxford University.
In 2014, under Duncan’s leadership, Alexandra Park and Palace won the first stage of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to start major restoration work, initially of the Victorian theatre and BBC studios.
In early 2015, we heard that the Heritage Lottery Fund had approved the bid for £18.8 million pounds to restore and re-invigorate the East Wing of the Palace. This will create a working Theatre, an area showcasing Television past and present and much more.
Friends of Alexandra Park: What were some of the key reasons you decided to accept what is a position with such obvious challenges?
Well, you have answered that in the question, really: ‘with such obvious challenges’. That’s why I took the position. I thought they were challenges that I would really like to be able to address, particularly given the projects I’ve been involved with throughout my career.
FoAP: What was your brief when you took on the job?
There were one or two internal things that had to be done, such as bringing together the trading company and the Trust. However, the major element of my brief was to get what has been called the regeneration programme going to restore the historic spaces. That includes attracting investment to the Palace to return it to its former glory.
FoAP: Is this physically a much bigger project than either Greenwich or Somerset House?
I haven’t actually measured it against Greenwich but it must be comparable if you add the four Royal Courts together. And, of course, the buildings in Greenwich are Grade I listed, by Christopher Wren, and are probably the finest examples of English Baroque architecture in the country, at least on a formal scale.
But in some ways the challenge was less steep because we had already tenanted them to the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music, who paid for quite a lot of the upkeep themselves. As an ex-Ministry of Defence establishment it certainly needed transforming into what people expect of a heritage attraction in the 21st century, which is what I feel we accomplished in Greenwich.
In some ways Somerset House was the same sort of thing, but further back in the evolutionary scale in that, when I arrived, it was still the Lord Chancellor’s Department of the Inland Revenue. So we did things like removing the car park and turning it into a public space but, again, we had tenants who paid for quite a lot of the upkeep and repair.
The difference here is that it is all the responsibility of Haringey Council. That means it is up to us to generate income from commercial events to pay for the upkeep. And I think we are making good progress.
FoAP: So many of us who live in the area have often wondered why something can’t be done about this iconic area up on the hill.
Well, there are a lot of reasons for that. Some are good and some bad. But with an organisation like the Heritage Lottery Fund on board there is a real prospect that we can make a step change which may trigger other things, such as commercial interest in a possible hotel and so on. Establishing that forward momentum is absolutely critical. But at the same time we must not lose our focus on running a beautiful park well and holding quality events in the Great and West Halls.
FoAP: This is such a diverse community. Is that something you need to take into account?
Our mission is firstly to make sure we meet the expectations of our stakeholders, which are quite high. But more than that, we want to reach parts of the borough which perhaps would traditionally have seen less in it for them. And that’s why one of the things I’m most keen on is our new learning programme: working with local schools from all parts of the borough to get them up here to see what we’ve got and explain it to them in an imaginative and engaging way.
FoAP: What do you see when you look at the site as a former archaeologist?
Well, one of the fascinating things about the Park is that you can see the bones of the past landscape in it, like the oak trees marking the field boundaries from 150 years ago.
If you take the Palace, some parts relate to the original building that burned down in 1873, and others from when it was rebuilt from 1873 to 1875 and in the first half of the twentieth century, such as the theatre and TV studios. These are also fragile elements of the history of the Palace, which you have to make sure that you conserve carefully so they can form part of the future. Like the wonderful machinery under the stage which dates back to the era before fly towers, so all the stage sets came from underneath instead of dropping down.
There is also an amazing archive on paper about what happened in the theatre, and film. For instance, as well as the BBC films broadcast in the early days, there was a film studio here around the time of the First World War, Pathé Films, and some of the titles they made still exist. Making all that available to help explain about our history is an important part of the whole picture.
FoAP: It must have felt very satisfying to win the first stage of the Heritage Lottery Fund bid to restore the TV studios and theatre?
The success of the first round of the bid was obviously a great moment. We’ve still got to get through stage two but it’s said that stage one is normally the most difficult. Winning that is a tangible indication that we’ve got forward momentum and I am looking forward to the day when visitors come into the revamped BBC studios and the curtain comes up on the theatre.
FoAP: You have talked about your desire to see the Palace and the Park viewed and managed as a whole. How do you see that being realised?
Well, I think one of the challenges we haven’t yet managed to address very satisfactorily is the day- to-day life of the Palace. We’ve got a lot of day-to-day life in the Park, but bringing that to the Palace in areas such as the terrace is a really interesting part of the challenge. Of course, the Palace arrived slightly later than the Park, which originally held all sorts of weird and wonderful attractions in the 19th century that you would now think of as belonging inside the Palace. So the difference between the Palace and the Park wasn’t perhaps quite as stark as it is today. But landscapes and places evolve, and there is a fantastic opportunity to engage people with both the inside and outside space.
FoAP: How do you manage the tension between the Park as a place of relaxation for people, with its wealth of biodiversity, and its use for major commercial events?
It simply has to be managed. The future of the Park as a free public park which requires a degree of financial assistance from the borough to keep it going — because public parks aren’t commercial enterprises — is going to be much more secure if we can encourage a wide community to appreciate it. Events, like the recent fireworks display, have to be run carefully so as not to threaten the essential character of the Park. I am more than convinced of the need to respect the environment.
What I’m saying is there is no future for the Park as just a publicly-subsidised free place for everyone to drop into if we don’t engage with those wider communities. This will be not just through big events which raise money towards its upkeep, but also through other ways of reaching out such as learning and volunteering programmes.
FoAP: How do you strengthen that community involvement?
I think it’s really important to bring people with you. I get some really interesting ideas, many from people who know the place better than I do because they’ve been involved here for much longer. For example, there are people with a lot of knowledge about the theatre and television studios or about the Park’s environment and I make sure that they know they are being heard.
But I’m also interested in engaging with the community in as broad a sense as possible so that we get a wide spectrum of views. Sometimes the people who shout loudest aren’t necessarily representative of the majority of people. So you have to go out and seek opinions, which is what we did with our consultation in 2012. I think people liked us being open with them and we need to do more of that as our ideas develop.
I can also bring a fresh pair of eyes, which can sometimes enable you to find solutions to problems that have previously seemed totally intractable.
FoAP: Can you give us a picture of your typical day —if there is such a thing?
Unsurprisingly, I spend a lot of my time in meetings. I might meet a number of stakeholders to discuss governance. Recently I met the Astronomical Society of Haringey to discuss their previous project to build an observatory on the northwest tower which some 30 years ago unfortunately came to an end when the half-built observatory blew off in a gale. We haven’t got the resources to start again with that project, but, it’s one of those things that you learn from. Who knows? Maybe there’s a role for it in the future as part of our master plan. But let’s not start any hares running!
Obviously I have quite a lot to do with the Council in terms of procuring a design team for the Heritage Lottery Fund project.
By way of contrast I sometimes take my dog, Daisy, a Glen of Imaal terrier, for a walk at the end of the day which takes me around quite a lot of the park. It’s a good way of seeing at first- hand what is going on!
FoAP: What makes your job difficult and what would make it easier to achieve your vision?
Well, matching the resources available to the scale of the challenge is the biggest task. We’ve got to make sure we are delivering against a long-term plan so that even though we won’t be able to do everything all at once at least we are on an upward path. There’s definitely no shortage of things to do but it’s about making sense of them, making the place more financially self-sufficient while getting in investment amounting to tens of millions of pounds.
We have to keep trying to get the balance between the short and longer term right. Because no sooner have you agreed that you will have a steady-state investment plan over five years then you have to divert resources into fixing an urgent problem. But you mustn’t get blown off course.
FoAP: Do you have any favourite parts of the Park?
Well, the thing I like about the Park is its rich variety in such a small area. That’s one of the great things about Britain: how much the landscape changes from one area of the country to another in a very short distance. The Park is almost a kind of compressed version of that, with areas such as the Grove, the south slopes and the old cricket ground and then woodland, acid grassland, the Rose Garden and the lake. They’re all very different in character and it’s the overall diversity that I like.
FoAP: What about the natural life of the Park?
I’m a keen if very occasional birdwatcher. My uncle was chairman of the RSPB so I really had no choice but to be interested! He used to take me bird watching in Yorkshire and I remember going about 20 miles over moorland to see a peregrine’s nest so you can imagine my excitement to see a peregrine appear at the Palace last spring. There are also some wonderful sightings of green woodpeckers foraging for ants on the golf course and on the acid grassland. And my father was a keen entomologist so I always watch out for interesting species of butterflies.
FoAP: Finally, what is your vision of the Park in five-10 years’ time? What does it look like?
I see the Palace with a lot of people in and around it all the time, having a day out or just relaxing, so that it works more as the Park does at the moment, although in a slightly less weather-dependent way. There is a much stronger feeling that the Palace and the Park are part of the same whole. Meanwhile, there has been a lot of progress in bringing more of the derelict areas of the building back into use with plans to do yet more. We are still running world-class events and there is a world class hotel here for visitors. And we have a working theatre and a top visitor attraction in the BBC studios.
Yes, it’s ambitious. But without that vision how else will we get anywhere?