WALTER CRONXITE reports on how the council is laying the groundwork for a privatisation-by-stealth of some of the borough’s open spaces
If any more proof were required that Croydon’s worthless consultations are used to justify the council going ahead and doing pretty much anything that crosses the addled minds of the six-figure-salaried executives who inhabit Fisher’s Folly, then take a look at what’s going on with the borough’s precious green spaces.
Because using a survey which engaged barely 1 person in every 500 Croydon residents, the Labour-run council has gone ahead and created an elite “premier league” of the borough’s parks largely, it is suspected, based mainly on political patronage and favours.
“Croydon Talks Parks!”, complete with exclamation mark (“We think our parks and green spaces offer exciting things to do!”), is probably the council’s most puerile and patronising survey yet.
It was launched in September with the intention, according to the council propaganda department, “to bring the council’s ambitious plans for securing and improving the borough’s green spaces a step closer”. So the survey really might have been more accurately entitled “Croydon Talks Bullshit” (no exclamation mark required).
The consultation was really an excuse for the latest egregious cost-cutting exercise, with the barely hidden agenda of a recruitment exercise for unpaid volunteers to play an increasing role in the running of our public open spaces.
“We are determined to maintain standards and bring about real improvements despite the financial challenges we are faced with right now,” was the spin put on the exercise by Timothy Godfrey, the councillor with cabinet responsibility for our parks at a time when the only “park” receiving any real council investment is Boxpark. “That’s why we’re looking for sustainable ways to fund investment alongside opportunities for getting local people more involved.”
Note that: “sustainable ways to fund investment“, meaning the council doesn’t have any cash and needs to run our parks on the cheap, and “opportunities for getting local people more involved“, which means more volunteering to paper over the cracks due to lack of paid staff.
Councillor Godfrey might have made a start on his crusade of “getting local people more involved” by ensuring that his parks survey was completed by as many people as possible.
So was the survey available in the boroughs’ parks for park-users to fill in? No.
Was the survey promoted in all the boroughs’ parks? No.
Were the park survey forms distributed through the borough’s libraries? Nope.
Was the council really trying to find out what its residents think about their parks? What do you think?
In the end, what was supposed to be “a multi-channel big conversation” about the state of our parks received around 1,000 responses, in a borough with a population of 350,000. Which means that the council is justifying its decisions based on the opinions one-fifth of 1per cent of the borough’s residents.
By any measure, that’s hardly a significant sample, especially on such an important issue.
Because in Croydon, more than one-third of the borough’s area is green space, and the parks service is responsible for maintaining almost 2,500 acres of parkland, playgrounds and sports fields in 127 different parks and green spaces. Plus 17 allotment sites (including two private sites).
The report arising from the survey was due to be published by the end of the year. A “masterplan” was smuggled out two days before Christmas.
Much of it, in any case, had been well-rehearsed in a report to cabinet last March.
Worryingly, that council report gave “delegated authority” to the executive director of place, who at the time was Jo Negrini, and to Timothy Godfrey. They were to, as the report stated, “use the feedback from the engagement to shape and implement a Parks and Green Spaces Delivery Plan”. Which in more direct language means that once the survey was completed, they could pretty much do what Negrini decided.
That report (which you can see in full here) relates that despite an annual budget of £1.83million for parks and open spaces, “… the current model of service delivery does not fit with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.” Or in plain English: we need to cut a huge chunk out of our spend on parks.
Elsewhere in the report, it stated that among Negrini and Godfrey’s goals are:
“Community stewardship – developing a partnership with local communities where groups and volunteers are supported and encouraged to take an equal role in and responsibility for the improvement and direct management of parks and green spaces – from raising funds, to volunteering, right through to full management via Community Asset Transfer”. Translation: preparing the groundwork for the privatisation by stealth of our public parks.
“A sustainable service delivery model – a way of maintaining the boroughs parks and green spaces that ensures resources and investment are allocated in a way that supports and enhances wider outcomes with mixed financial models of service delivery in place.” Translation: we gotta cut our budgets, and need to maintain our parks on the cheap.
Of course, all of this has been foisted on the council because of six years of failed austerity by the Conservative government which has under-funded our local authority. Nonetheless, our Labour-run council, rather than resisting the Tory out-sourcing agenda, is now implementing it.
When the council announced the outcome of its pre-determined parks survey, or what the council calls its “parks masterplan”, it revealed that the borough’s parks service will be focused on “six destination parks”, which they said were “based on political, strategic or geographical criteria”.
These parks, the council said, “are located across the borough and range from urban Victorian parks to large areas of recreational grassland, downland grass and wooded slopes”.
The lucky half-dozen parks hand-picked for this special treatment are:
1. Ashburton Park, Ashburton
2. Park Hill Recreation Ground, Croydon
3. Happy Valley, Coulsdon
4. Lloyd Park, Croydon
5. Norbury Park, Norbury
6. South Norwood Lake & Grounds, South Norwood
The council continued: “The purpose of the masterplans is to review each of the six parks with regard to some or all” of the following criteria, which include the privatisation-by-stealth suggested in last March’s report: “an exciting venue for a variety of cultural offers; community engagement and involvement opportunities; opportunities for whole park or targeted facility asset transfer; proposals for development, repair or restoration; a long-term management strategy; a sustainable maintenance plan; support for external funding opportunities.”
Some of the “friends” groups involved with parks on the premier league list greeted the announcement with unbounded joy, probably out of a hefty dollop of self-interest because of a desire by some among them to annex their local park as a private playground or vegetable plot for family and friends.
But to others who did not make the top six, the flaws in the council’s masterplan were all too evident.
Friends of Grangewood Park were understandably feeling left out, and questioning…
On Facebook, they wrote that they want to challenge the decision handed down as if on tablets of stone: “The six destination parks have been chosen to feature in a masterplan decided by a political, strategic or geographical criteria. I personally object to anything being selected on the basis of politics and surely ‘need’ should come in to it some where?”
And the miffed Thornton Heath residents highlighted the political patronage apparent in the selection: “Of the six chosen, three are Labour and three are Conservative, two are in the Fairfield ward while the others are in: Ashburton, East Coulsdon, Norbury and South Norwood wards.
“Ashburton is Councillor Stephen Mann’s ward. He is the deputy leader on parks and it was a Labour manifesto pledge to regenerate the park when Labour won the ward for the first time from the Conservatives in 2014.
“Fairfield is the ward of Councillor Helen Pollard, the Conservative shadow lead on parks and South Norwood Lakes is in the South Norwood ward of the Mayor, Councillor Wayne Trakas-Lawlor.
“In terms of the strategic criteria I am not entirely sure what that covers in this case, except to say that many of the parks selected already have extremely good facilities cafes, sporting areas and toilets.
“It may look like sour grapes on my part but it is more of a lack of understanding of how six parks and open spaces were selected as a priority from the 127 that exist in the borough?
“We had the Croydon Talks Parks consultation, which I thought was meant to evaluate the needs of all parks equally? We haven’t had the results of that survey but now we have a masterplan which focuses on just six parks.
“For me, I feel there was an agenda from the word go and the six priortiy parks selected all had banners on them asking for parks users to take part in the Croydon Talks Parks survey. This was not the case with Grangewood, Trumble Gardens, Thornton Heath Rec or Whitehorse Meadow – there were no banners at all placed anywhere near these parks.
“Surely on this basis the consultation is flawed because it didn’t properly engage with any of the park users in Thornton Heath?
“Similarly I don’t understand the selection criteria. Not only is it unfair and divisive but unequal. For example, I’ve never been able to get any information about what the council spends on individual parks for maintenance and there seems to be no capital expenditure budget.
“My concern is that if these six ‘priority’ parks get all the time and investment as part of this ‘masterplan’ then what will be left for the other 121 parks and open spaces that have already suffered years of under-investment?
“None of this takes in to account the demography, levels of poverty and health issues which I would have thought would be a better indication that geography and politics?”
The thing is, this response has come from one of the more switched-on local groups who have been paying close attention to the council’s work on its parks non-consultation consultation. Few of the friends groups and residents’ associations close to the 121 other open spaces not on the council’s parks list have yet realised the significance of the shift in policy.
Around Grangewood and Thornton Heath’s parks, though, the response, even from Godfrey’s Labour council colleagues, has been to take action. Jamie Audsley, although a councillor for Bensham Manor ward, is behind what is being called a “parks action day” in Thornton Heath on February 11.
It seems unlikely that the action day will not reflect the thoughts as expressed in the Friends of Grangewood Park’s first posting: “It feels like the council is trying to slip this past us all as a positive for the borough, but there appears to be no accountability and there certainly appears to be political motivations behind these decisions that affect us all.”
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