John Barry made an enormous positive difference to landscapes and people’s lives around St Helens.

John Barry
Obituary: John Barry

My father, John Barry, who died in September,  initially trained as an architect and enjoyed a career that spanned over 15 years designing houses and public buildings within London and the new towns of Harlow and Redditch, writes Carolyn Cox.  He then trained as a landscape architect and is best remembered for the large-scale landscape projects that he implemented for Merseyside County Council.

He joined the Environmental Quality Division at the County Council as a team leader in the mid-1970s and was an endearing and most amiable colleague.  He was, most certainly, a man with a strategic vision. Crucially he had a great passion for his disciplines of architecture and landscape architecture, which he used to inspire radical change to Merseyside’s coastal and inner-city landscapes with projects on a grand scale, never daunted by the sheer enormity of the task; rather driven by a dedication to their environmental and social benefits.

It was a time when Merseyside was struggling with swelling ranks of the unemployed as the port crumbled and Liverpool earned a reputation for strike action; all of this was widely reported. The image of the place could not have been worse at that time; morale amongst many of those who lived there was constantly undermined by a pervading sense of hopelessness.

John embraced the challenge these circumstances created, confident in his professional skills and a deeply-held passion for their remedy. It was fortuitous at the time that the Government had established the Manpower Services Commission (MSC), an intervention intended to take people from the dole to the workplace, with short-term contracts to work on worthy projects; those to do with environmental improvement being a priority.

One of the major projects John worked on was the transformation of the abandoned, derelict and vandalised St Helen’s Canal in Sankey Valley. It had a workforce of several hundred variously motivated MSC-funded individuals who had chosen to take advantage of the work on offer. Some used the opportunity wisely; others were intent on wasting it and causing as much disruption as possible. This only led John to become yet more determined that his vision for a renewed waterway, (the backbone for a linear park with abundant wildlife value), would be realized, come what may.

The team John had set up to achieve these things prevailed in the end; the results now, and for many years hitherto, have stood testimony to John’s forward thinking and a steadfast belief in achievement against all the odds.

Coastal schemes figured prominently in John’s masterplan for the improvement of Merseyside’s landscapes, with significant dune restoration and visitor-management proposals being set up on the Formby coastline. These too used the MSC formula and were effective in checking and reversing the early stages of serious coastal erosion caused by damage to the natural dune system.

Today, they are an outstanding legacy of John’s work on Merseyside. At all times of the year they are host to thousands of visitors who have for many years, enjoyed a durable and well-managed landscape, with rich and varied outdoor experiences derived from the dunes themselves, the pine woods and the red squirrel reserve, not to mention the significant but well-integrated access facilities, a comprehensive footpath network and several informal open spaces.

No tribute to John would be complete if reference was not made to projects he inspired within Wirral’s social-housing areas.  Here he had the notion that there were multiple benefits to be drawn from residents creating new gardens, open spaces and play areas around housing on the verge of failure. To take unemployed people from those homes and place them onto work programmes with the objective of improving their own environment, was an idealistic approach, yet, in reality, that ideal was delivered in large part and brought a sense of optimism and pride to householders from the most unpromising of circumstances.

John was always keen to help graduates, and year-out students of landscape architecture were offered the opportunity to start their careers in a forward-looking and industrious design office. There are many long-standing practitioners who owe the beginnings of their careers to John’s foresight and his willingness to have others share in his passion for beneficial change in places where it was so justifiably directed.

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