Conservationist PETER UNDERWOOD says that we need to support a Parks Charter to help guarantee the future of local open spaces
I love spending time in nature, and we are blessed with a large number and variety of parks and green spaces in Croydon. We all know that our local parks and green spaces are a vital part of our local area. They provide opportunities for relaxation, recreation, and they bring people together. Whether you are out for a run, walking the dog or just enjoying being out in nature, they are important in making us all feel happier and healthier.
But unfortunately we are also getting used to hearing complaints about how poorly managed our parks and green spaces are.
In Croydon, the council spent thousands of pounds to commission masterplans for improving our parks, but then says they have no money to implement any of them. The contractor employed by the council is the subject of constant complaints for their inability to maintain our parks properly and also ruining the look of our parks through literally cutting corners – hacking shrubbery into cubes and leaving deep ruts as they drive their vehicles across once pristine lawns.
Our parks seem to be going into decline and Croydon is not unique in this regard. To be fair to Croydon Council and many other local authorities, the management of green spaces is under attack from a deadly storm of policies outside the councils’ control.
First, there is the ideological drive to privatise all public services.
Councils have been pushed to hand over all work on green spaces to private contractors. Private companies exist to make a profit, not provide a public service, and so every contractor is looking for ways to cut costs. This includes reducing the service to the bare minimum required by the contract and employing fewer people at the lowest wage they can get away with.
The end result is demotivated and overworked staff struggling to keep up with even the basic demands of the task. The council has no power to intervene directly and besides, imposing financial penalties just results in even fewer resources for the contractor to do their job.
A lack of resources is a key factor in the overall management of all council services. Some would argue that the Croydon contractor was on a hiding to nothing from the start, since their bid asked for too little money for them to be able to provide the level of service required. The drive to settle for the cheapest contract possible – a race to the bottom – is partly forced by the massive cuts local authorities have seen to their funding from central government. Councils have also been restricted in what they can raise locally through Council Tax and, faced with competing demands for other services, councils just don’t have massive funds available to invest in our parks.
This leads on to one of the other key issues in this area. The council has no legal requirement to maintain parks, beyond basic health and safety and certain limited requirements attached to a few sites with special status (such as a site of special scientific interest). When faced with further cuts in funding from central government, councils have to consider their legal obligations first and every other service, including parks, will continue to face even greater pressure.
As with many other areas of public life, the cuts to the public sector leave a huge gap in provision which volunteers are trying to fill. We are fortunate to have an army of volunteers in Croydon who donate hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of free labour to looking after our parks, woodlands and green spaces every year.
And that is before you even start considering the value of all of the professional skills they bring in everything from event management, to ecological knowledge, to use of chainsaws and brush cutters. Volunteer groups also raise thousands of pounds in donations every year and bring in even more money through applying for the limited grant funds available to maintain our green spaces as best as they can.
But volunteers are the icing on the cake, they are not the cake. Volunteers cannot make up for all of the work that should be done by paid staff. Due to council cuts, the volunteer groups often feel that they don’t get the support they need. Too often, they also feel that the work they do is underappreciated by both the council and their fellow residents. And their work is sometimes undermined by the actions of the council and the contractor. Volunteers do wonderful work to look after our borough, but they are fighting an uphill battle to stop these spaces from deteriorating, never mind make them even better.
There is growing alarm from the public, from Friends of Parks groups, parks managers, experts and politicians about the serious long-term damage being caused by all of these factors. Unless we do something, our parks and green spaces will go into serious decline and become problem spaces, abandoned by park users and plagued by vandalism – or even being closed and sold off.
So what can we do?
A wide-ranging group of organisations have come together to draw up what they are calling a “Parks Charter”. The charter sets out six key points that will bring a halt to the decline we are seeing:
- Celebrate the central role well-run parks play in our neighbourhoods for all sections of our communities
- Recognise the right of every citizen to have access within walking distance to a good quality public green space
- Endorse a legal duty for all public green space to be managed to a good standard
- Embed effective protection from inappropriate development or use, or loss of any part of our parks
- Ensure adequate long-term resources for ongoing maintenance, management and improvements
- Encourage and enable community involvement and empowerment of local people and park users
The charter calls for action by all politicians – and in particular the Prime Minister and leading ministers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – to adopt the six points of the Parks Charter.
Now I must confess a personal interest in this charter as the groups behind it include my employer (The Conservation Volunteers), my union (Unison), and Friends of the Earth (I am chair of the Croydon branch). I am also a volunteer with the Friends of Littleheath Woods and I am someone who enjoys visiting our parks. So even without my other connection I would still support this charter to support volunteers properly and help value and maintain our parks.
If you agree then please ask your local parks volunteer group to sign up to support the charter here: https://www.parkscharter.org.uk/
Also, please press your local politicians of all parties and at all levels to agree to adopt the charter to secure the future of our green spaces for us, our children, and generations to come.
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