CROYDON IN CRISIS: The borough’s parks and open spaces have been a lifeline for many during lockdown, but they are now under a new threat as a result of council financial cuts, as ELLA HOPKINS reports
The Conservation Volunteers in Croydon, which has been running for more than 30 years, has seen record numbers of people flock to the borough’s parks, open spaces and woodlands during lockdown to help with projects since the start of the pandemic last year.
But Croydon’s bankrupt council’s funding freeze is making TCV’s vital work on biodiversity and public access tougher by the day. Even before spending cuts bite in the coming year, as a consequence of the £66million covid-shaped hole in the council’s current budget, TCV say that they never received 40 per cent of the funding they were supposed to get from Croydon Council in 2020.
The council is already implementing plans to cut staffing in its parks service by half. Now, by removing relatively modest grants to voluntary groups, there is a real risk that the borough’s public spaces will suffer decline and neglect.
“We’d already had a cut in funding from Croydon Council this financial year,” says Peter Underwood, who manges TCV in Croydon.
“That makes it trickier for us to keep going because there’s limited sources of funding we can go to. The fact that we got told in November that we weren’t getting any more funding from the council means that there’s a huge hole in my budget. It’s likely that The Conservation Volunteers in Croydon will make a loss for the first time since I started running it in 2014.
“In previous years we’ve tried to go out with work groups virtually every week of the year. I’m usually outdoors on one of the community spaces round here, three or four days a week. This year, though, we’ve had to cancel weeks because we’re not funded for them. That has the knock-on effect on Croydon’s parks and woodlands. If we’re not going out at all, we don’t get any income in.
“For this year, that puts us in a very bad position. That’s why we’re waiting to find out the situation will be next year – it’s crucial to us.
“It’s important that the council does their role in terms of looking after the parks and green spaces. One volunteer told me that the volunteers are the icing on the cake, not the cake.
“The council need to be doing the core work of emptying the bins and mowing the grass and then volunteers can do extra stuff,” Underwood says.
And the demands on Underwood’s organisation are greater than ever – with more people volunteering, looking for outlets in lockdown for exercise and to spend time in the great outdoors, coupled with growing public interest in environmental and ecology issues.
“During the first lockdown, we initially volunteered in groups of six so we could test out working practices and risk assessments to ensure we are working safely,” Underwood says. “The person limit has now been removed and following the first lockdown we’ve had lots of volunteers coming forward. Lots of people are newly appreciating their green spaces.
“The bulk of our work is on sites owned by Croydon Council, helping to improve their biodiversity. We work regularly on Happy Valley in Coulsdon and South Norwood Country Park. We were on Addington Hills between Christmas and New Year.
“Croydon is one of the greenest boroughs in London. But it has always had low usage. It’s great that during the pandemic so many people have discovered that we have these fantastic parks and woodlands and community gardens that a lot of people didn’t know about before.
“As people are appreciating their green spaces more, they are also willing to defend them and make sure they are looked after.
“We’re not only doing the work in green spaces, but providing a community service. It’s an opportunity for people to get involved and give something back to their local community. People come together as a group.
“While we’re a conservation organisation, our activities are as much about socialisation and getting out – getting some fresh air, exercise and being able to chat to people, especially this year where they’re staying indoors so much.
“Many of our volunteers are retired or live alone so for them coming out and volunteering was the only time they could come out and chat to somebody during the Christmas break.”
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