Public parks are suffering effects of decades of malign neglect

CROYDON COMMENTARY: The loss of the council’s professional gardeners, as reported earlier this week, is the latest stage in a long process that has eroded a once-proud civic service, says LEWIS WHITE

Blooming marvellous: colourful displays of bedding plants, like this in Haling Grove, are a thing of the past in cash-strapped Croydon

Council parks departments used to have area senior officers who not only had their own gangs of manual workers, council gardeners, park keepers and grass cutters, plus their managers (parks officers), but also had the creative responsibility for planting trees and shrubs, and bedding plants.

Most boroughs had one or more nurseries, which raised bedding plants and plants for municipal floral displays. Croydon and others used to have open days where the public could come in and look at the splendid plants and floral effects.

Councils were then told to send their work out to tender, which generally forced councils to separate out the “doers” from the “designers/planners/policy devisers”.

The manual workers and their supervisors often became “in-house contractors”, with the creative aspects taken away. A small number of people would then become what was called “the client-side”.

These teams were tasked with drawing up the specifications which, along with thousands of maps showing every park, every verge and every tree and every shrub (an exercise alone which cost hundreds of thousands), were then sent out to both the in-house contractor and external companies. It was called CCT – Compulsory Competitive Tendering. Winner takes all.

Rapid decline: even as recently as 2014, Croydon Council was celebrating its parks staff’s award-winning work in Wandle Park

The impact on the parks departments was immense. It reduced or removed the ability of people to move within the organisation, getting additional skills through training. It de-skilled the departments as “client-side people” lost the experience of manual work. Budget cuts year on year since the 1990s has all but completed the process.

My own manual staff started off, fresh from the Job Centre, and became assistant gardeners. After a year, subject to good work, they would get day release to horticultural college to study and get gardener staus. Then a few years after, Craftsman Gardener. The pay diffrential was not large but, at least, there was career progression. A gardener could rise to become a parks officer – supervisor – even a parks superintendent.

I have known some fantastic parks people over the years. I have never met Alan Titchmarsh, but he is an exemplar of the success and creativity that was nurtured in such parks departments.

I myself lost my manual workers and went on the the “client” side. That was OK for me, but others who were transferred to the “in-house contractor side” lost their creative work and ended up just supervising staff – no longer planning the bedding schemes, and losing the sense of pride in the parks they were once totally responsible for, often becoming de-motivated, demoralised and depressed.

The joy of the job – which offset the less joyful bits, and the relatively modest pay  – dwindled. Sadly, some were so deeply affected that they lost health and their mental health, with sometimes tragic results.

I was very lucky to have enjoyed several years of working in and with the parks teams of one London council (not Croydon) before the trauma of CCT. After CCT, it was never the same. Constant stress for the “contractor side” with the ever-present threat of job loss.

The demise of parks departments as we used to know them is now final. Budgets are now so low, some councils can’t even afford to cut the grass that was laid a few years ago over the once-colourful ornamental flower beds.

And that gets us back to Croydon.

Read more: Council gardeners are now an endangered species in Croydon
Read more: Ashburton’s sorry tale of park life in a council with no cash

  • Inside Croydon reader Lewis White, pictured right, is a former local government official and landscape gardener who, now retired, lives in Coulsdon

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1 Response to Public parks are suffering effects of decades of malign neglect

  1. Chris says:

    Anyone ever heard of or seen Bourne Park in leafy Kenley? Of course you haven’t, even its sign has been completely enveloped by a bush for years now. Doesn’t bode well for the others.

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