CHRIS PECKHAM, our environment correspondent, on the latest shocking admission of failure at Croydon Town Hall
Croydon Council is about to shut-up the park keeper’s hut in more than 120 of the borough’s open spaces, as it seems primed to axe all professional staff from its once proud and prestigious parks department.
According to sources who work with the department on a daily basis, virtually all of the staff who used to handle our parks have either decided to move on because they’ve had enough or they are being made redundant anyway.
“Our parks risk being turned into unmaintained wastelands or a collection of privately run cafes and sports clubs,” is the grim view of one insider.
There is no longer a dedicated parks department at Croydon Council. Instead of almost two dozen employees, half the roles have been axed, the others re-defined and merged into something called “Parks, Leisure/Active Lifestyles and Live Well”, generating an acronym that looks like Palace’s playing record last season: PLALLW.
Austerity cuts have been hitting all council services hard for the past seven years, but it seems likely that the abandonment of the borough’s parks service in Croydon will mark a real running up of the white flag on what used to be a dependable Town Hall function.
“We’ve been cut to the bone across all departments,” one Katharine Street source said today. “But still the government keeps cutting our funding. When you have increasing demands on things like Adult Social Care or child support services and homelessness, something like parks becomes an easy, almost obvious, thing to cut. They describe it as a ‘nice to have’ and a ‘less-than-essential’.
“But what goes next? Libraries? Roads maintenance? Old people’s homes?”
Croydon has 127 parks and open spaces. A recent “masterplan” identified just six of them for some form of on-going funding and management arrangements, with the rest left to fend for themselves, surviving off hand-outs from a few modest grants and the goodwill and time of a few volunteers.
Meanwhile, a misfiring contract with IdVerde – who have taken over Quadron – for parks maintenance rumbles on, with many residents dissatisfied with the standard of work being performed in their parks and with the contractors unable to make the deal viable for their business.
Prior to the 2014 election, the then Conservative-led council awarded the landscape management contract to Quadron, for no other reason than it was the cheapest price offered. It was soon clear that, for the price they bid, Quadron was unable to fulfill all the duties within the tender. There were allegations, never denied, that the contractor was failing to pay its staff the London Living Wage (by 2015, a requirement laid down by the now Labour-run council for all new contractors), while the standard of the work being done was well below what was expected by residents.
“No matter how many penalty clauses have been invoked by the council and despite the takeover of the contractor by a larger landscaping firm, the complaints about poor work continue to roll in,” our source said. There are so few staff remaining in the council’s parks department that handling complaints about contractor performance now takes up a large portion of their time.
In March 2016, the council’s cabinet approved a report “Ambitious for parks and green spaces in Croydon – working with our communities”. The title contains a massive clue as to the intention to hand over the parks to volunteers. The paper, which was approved by, if not authored by, Timothy Godfrey, Labour’s cabinet member responsible for parks, laid out the grim future of a parks service with no budgets, thanks to austerity cuts.
Having agreed this strategy, only then did the council consult the public.
The “Croydon Talks Parks” consultation last autumn was run without trying too hard to publicise it to the users of parks, outside a handful of pre-selected core locations.
In all, from a borough with a population of 350,000, just 1,500 residents (according to the council) responded. To date, nearly a year on, the council has failed to publish any report arising from this consultation.
Since then, the council has paid consultants (the council always finds money for consultants) to draw up what it calls a “masterplan”, but which is in fact a complete retreat from the council managing all but six of Croydon’s parks.
Throughout the “consultation” period and the masterplanning “process”, there had been fears expressed within the skeleton staff remaining within the parks department that the council was going to withdraw all professional staff and ask volunteers to look after the parks.
Promises from Labour’s 2014 local election manifesto that every park will have a “named park keeper” (and no, not all of them were to be called “Percy”) have long been forgotten.
Instead, now the council leadership is actively out recruiting volunteers for the borough’s parks and green spaces, to undertake the tasks which, previously, had been done by paid, trained and properly equipped parks staff, many of whom were probably members of trades unions.
Park friends groups already put in many hours of work to help maintain or improve our parks, but as a member of a friends group for one of the parks excluded from the council’s “Big 6” selected parks said, “Volunteers are the icing on the cake, they are not the cake.”
Only in the past week there was a meeting called for residents in the north of the borough, supported by Alison Butler, the council deputy leader. The meeting was overtly to recruit volunteers to manage and maintain Thornton Heath Rec, an open space which has become notorious lately as the scene of youth knife crime.
“Email firstname.lastname@example.org [sic] if you wanna join the parks team,” the ever-so-hip and sometime suspended Councillor Jamie Audsley has posted on social media.
“We’re also looking for a ‘Parks Team Leader’ in the action team who can work with current park leaders and other councillors to sustain this work going forward,” said the councillor for Bensham Manor ward.
From what Audsley goes on to describe, he’s actually seeking a highly qualified local authority professional – probably not dissimilar to several who have been made redundant, including by this supposedly Labour-run council.
“We need someone with good project management skills who is prepared to support preparation of meetings, follow-up with actions and hold all in the parks team to account,” Audsley writes.
And what might someone expect in return for their expertise and time?
Audsley again: “Remuneration = good coffee, fun and rapid political education in fast-paced environment. Faster paced after you’re on board.” Whoop-de-bloody-whoop.
“Time required 1-2 hours a week max if you’re organised!” Audsley adds, unconvincingly.
Thing is, what Audsley and Butler are doing for Thornton Heath Rec may soon be forced on parks and open spaces elsewhere in the borough. Not so much a privatisation of Croydon’s parks, but an abandonment of the parks.
Percy the park keeper, RIP.
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