CROYDON COMMENTARY: The borough’s parks will soon only receive funding if they manage to make money, through running private events and clubs. PERCY (not their real name*), someone with close links to the council’s parks department, offers this insider’s point of view
Just prior to the 2014 council elections, the then Conservative-run council awarded the landscape management contract for the borough’s parks to the lowest bidder they could find. Unsurprisingly, the contractor turned out to be far better at cutting corners than they were at cutting grass.
This hasn’t stopped Croydon’s Conservative politicians blaming the now Labour-run council for the poor quality of service. But then that’s what passes for “politics” at Croydon Town Hall.
The fact remains that impact of this on-the-cheap contract for the borough’s parks has been demoralising, both for park users and what remained of the council staff working on our parks.
Wildflower areas have been mown down “by accident” and grass verges have been left un-mown for so long that they look like wildflower meadows.
Contractor vehicles have left wheel ruts across lawns when finally they arrive to empty the bins.
The question remains whether the contractor’s brutalist approach to shrubbery is an attempt to reflect Croydon’s architecture or is just the result of handing a hedgetrimmer to an untrained minimum-wage labourer and then shouting at them that they are not cutting fast enough.
But, no matter how many penalty clauses have been invoked and despite the takeover of the contractor by a larger landscaping firm, the complaints about poor work continue to roll in. The fundamental issue that neither the council or the contractor seemed to have dealt with is that you only get what you pay for.
There are notable exceptions among the parks staff. There are some staff who do a really good job. But these are usually people who have worked on their sites for many years and who understand both the site and the community that uses it.
In 2014, Labour’s council election manifesto promised that every park in Croydon would have “a named park keeper” like these dedicated public servants. But that ambition remains unfulfilled.
At the moment we appear to be stuck with the private contractor and so far there is no news of when the service will improve, when the council will get rid of them, or what any new contract will do to make the situation any better.
Last year the council ran its “Croydon Talks Parks” consultation. Usually, Croydon consultations have only been run for two reasons. Either the council’s officials don’t know what to do and are hoping somebody will give them some good ideas, or they have already decided what to do and are simply paying lip-service to consultation, trying to scrape together some evidence to justify their plan.
“Croydon Talks Parks” fell under the latter heading. The consultation took place nearly a year ago and nothing has been heard since. So either there were no ideas that the council were willing to use, or everyone hated what the council were planning.
To confuse matters further, the council has now brought in a team of consultants to draw up “masterplans” for six of Croydon’s parks.
These masterplans seem to be based on the idea that parks can be maintained without the council having to spend any money – apart from whatever fees the consultants are charging, of course.
From the evidence so far, the consultants seem to be suggesting that all of the problems can be solved by creating more concrete paths, building a café on every site, and introducing a collection of unnamed “activities” or private members’ clubs. They are also looking at staging events which would charge commercial entrance fees in what have for a century or more been public open spaces.
These are hardly original ideas or ones that sound very practical. Croydon has 127 parks: do we want or need another 127 cafés?
These masterplans also seem to be based on the idea that our parks will only get money if they make money.
In this case won’t they stop being public play areas and just become private theme parks?
Throughout the consultation period and the masterplanning process, there has been strong suggestions that the council was going to withdraw all paid staff and ask volunteers to look after the parks.
The council already seems to be trying to take credit for improvements to South Norwood Lake when it was the Lakes Play Action Group who raised all the money to get the work done. Many friends groups put in hours of work to make our parks nicer places, but as one person put it “volunteers are the icing on the cake, they are not the cake”. Overall, there seems little enthusiasm for volunteers to take on the work for which they pay their Council Tax.
Worryingly, the council now doesn’t even have a parks department. Virtually all of the staff who used to deal with parks have either decided to move on because they’ve had enough or been made redundant anyway. So if there is no parks department, or anyone working in the council who even understands parks, how are they going to manage our parks?
Recently, the council announced that they were “making real progress with our plans to transform the way that Croydon’s parks are used and maintained”.
It’s just a pity that they never told us that their “plans” were to abandon our parks so they turn into either unmaintained wastelands or a collection of privately run cafés and sports clubs.
*Croydon Commentaries are usually opinion pieces written by named authors. On this occasion, Inside Croydon has agreed to withhold our contributor’s identity to avoid causing them any difficulties with their employers and colleagues
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