KEN LEE, our green spaces correspondent, on an expensive waste of time
After a consultation process that has taken almost two years and cost Council Tax-payers approaching £100,000 in fees to consultants to produce hundreds of pages of (virtual) glossy brochures, Croydon Council has been forced to admit this week that it actually doesn’t have the cash to carry out any of the schemes proposed.
But at least they appear to have dropped the daft suggestion of turning Happy Valley into some sort of new-age camp site. So it’s not all bad.
The masterplans, drawn up for only six of the borough’s 127 parks and open spaces, have been a long time coming. A facile and patronising council “consultation”, which engaged with just 1 in 500 Croydon residents, was conducted in 2016. Inside Croydon described it then as effectively “the groundwork for a privatisation-by-stealth of some of the borough’s open spaces”.
Or as the Labour-run local authority put it in its own press release issued this week, “the council has been exploring different ways to fund and run its parks”.
Croydon Council’s long-cherished and widely admired Parks Department has been consigned to history. Council leader Tony Newman’s 2014 manifesto pledge of a dedicated park keeper in all the borough’s parks hasn’t been mentioned since Newman was last seeking your vote.
All elements of the management and upkeep of the borough’s open spaces were long ago placed in the hands of different outsourcing companies. These contractors have too often proved themselves better at cutting corners than at cutting the grass.
So, perhaps in an attempt to at least be seen to be doing something, the council called in more outsiders, in the form of consultants. The masterplans consist of six documents carefully prepared last year by Tyrens.
The council doesn’t have the staff itself to do this kind of work, so the council lavished public money on hiring a consultancy company to do it instead. Tyrens were selected by council officers, under their delegated authority powers. So no elected councillors were involved in the procurement process.
The council got Tyrens to study a “premier league” of six “destination” parks, to see how it might raise additional funds to pay towards their upkeep, and whatever else the geniuses who work in Fisher’s Folly dream up.
The parks chosen for the pilot were Ashburton Park, Park Hill Recreation Ground, Lloyd Park, South Norwood Lake, Norbury Park and Happy Valley.
Among the schemes that were put forward last year were such brilliant ideas as turning over parts of Happy Valley for a caravan park and “glamping” (we kid you not…). You can imagine how that ill-conceived notion went down in Coulsdon.
The council’s press release this week stated, “Masterplans have been developed for each of the six parks, which incorporate the public’s feedback and include proposals to make the parks more attractive and accessible, particularly for younger people. The plans also detail where there are opportunities to secure funding that either the council can bid for, or can support community groups to do so.
“The proposals listed in the masterplans include ecology and landscaping improvements at Ashburton Park, activation of the water tower and the provision of a community arts and education hub in Park Hill Recreation Ground and improved entrances and signage in Lloyd Park.”
A new sports hub and club house is among recommendations at South Norwood Lake and new pedestrian cycling routes are suggested for Norbury Park, while a disabled accessible route and viewing platform is included in proposals for Happy Valley.
None of it is particularly inspired.
And it is all so much hot air.
None of the proposals in the masterplan are funded, and none will go ahead until they have the cash to do it.
Who says so? The council does.
“Over the coming year the council will be working with partners to secure funding and explore opportunities for collaborative working with key stakeholders. This will enable it to deliver some of the recommendations in the parks masterplans, which will remain as draft proposals until funding is secured.”
This suggests that all the money paid to consultants over the past two years has been a complete waste of money, money which might have been better spent on… well, Croydon’s parks.
The masterplans might now end up gathering dust. Or they might come in handy as evidence to justify the council to accessing some £1.5million in as-yet-unsed Section 106 money – payments made by developers when securing planning permission, to be used for environmental and infrastructure projects. Apparently, that pot of cash sits untouched over fears that there might be a legal challenge from the government. A 70-page pdf document can come in quite useful when justifying putting in new toilets in a park.
Timothy Godfrey, the Labour council’s cabinet member for parks and stuff, issued a statement with the press release, muttering about the 65 per cent cut since 2010 in the grant which Croydon receives from government, a factor which undoubtedly does shape the services which the local authority can, and cannot, deliver.
But with those reduced budgets, it does make the choices taken by the council all the more important. Might the future of our parks be in better shape now if it wasn’t for the millions of pounds frittered away in the past four years on vanity projects, subsidies to private businesses, as well as on pretty puerile consultations?
Read the masterplans for each of the parks, in pdf format, here:
South Norwood Lake and Grounds
And visit the council website for its blurb and copies of the design plans.
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You would have thought that someone in Fisher’s Folly would have realised that Happy Valley is a SSSI site, so any changes would be extremely difficult to implement. That could have saved a few grand in consultants fees coming up with a viewpoint and footpath signage.
I would like to make a comment on the above article. While I am of the view that taxpayers’ expenditure should always be justified, having been part of the team that delivered the above project I would like to point out that the consultants’ work was delivered on a non-profit basis (as a matter of a fact, at a significant loss and gain to the taxpayer) to the brief stipulated by the Council. To criticise consultants that work in the social good, community planning and educational sector at no profit is a displaced reality. £100k of taxpayer money cleanly spent (by the way it was not £100k, it was £75k for 13 months full time work for a team of 6 staff) is hardly the issue you should be questioning here. I would furthermore state that the money went to a consortium of growing SMEs that represent the most active sector of the British economy, who are actually creating jobs, including two local staff members who live in Croydon. The true issue at hand is the allocation of funding in the Council budget. Question why parks have been left with no maintenance funds or why multi-million pound service contracts are awarded to billion pound corporates that fail to deliver a service (or for that matter collect litter in Croydon’s parks, devaluing the asset). If you read the reports in detail there are no vanity projects and the above comment on the SSSI designation is misconstrued. Tyrens, as a trust, would of course welcome comments on empirical evidence. It is an absolute pity that the government continues to cut budgets on open space assets but you can hardly blame the Council either for a forward thinking project that looks studies models to make park operations and maintenance more efficient at a small fee.
You won’t get anyone in Croydon disagreeing with you on the poor value provided by the council’s contractors, in our parks and elsewhere.
However, no matter how you cut it, £100,000, or even £75,000, spent on consultants to deliver unimplementable reports can never be passed off as a “significant gain to the taxpayer”.
And it can’t be much of a “forward-thinking project” if the council had not thought forward far enough to realise that they will not have any budget to pay for any of the proposals contained in the expensively commissioned consultants’ reports.
It seems to me the Council had two main choices – either 1) do nothing to try to improve these parks, or 2) spend a relatively modest amount of money preparing plans and consulting on them.
In my view they were right to choose option 2). This gives them the opportunity to try to raise money to implement some of the schemes. There are various possibilities, such as applying for grants from the Mayor, GLA or other bodies, or ward councillors using part of their budgets. And who knows…we might have a change of Government in the foreseeable future which could lead to an end to the damaging policy of local government funding cuts which has been implemented by the current Government.
There’s a Liam Byrne note floating around in the Town Hall, scribbled on council notepaper shortly after they spent £75,000 on a set of masterplans that they cannot implement.