Will Greenwich Council’s new policies damage our parks and green spaces

Although it seems a lifetime ago, during this year’s budget process, the Cabinet of Royal Borough of Greenwich Council suggested substantial changes to the way our Parks and Open Spaces will be managed.

One of the advantages of being a Councillor of long-standing (18 years) is that I know quite a few retired Council Officers, some of whom have kindly taken the time to comment on the impact that they think some of the proposed changes will have on our parks and green spaces.  Given how valuable our Borough’s wonderful green spaces have been over the course of the lockdown I thought it might be worth sharing the views of these retired Officers on the impact the proposed changes will have – they are experts and their insight seems to deserve a wider audience.

My experts used the ‘Royal Greenwich Parks and Open Spaces Strategy’ which was published in 2017 as a starting point for their comments, comparing the aims expressed in the document with the likely outcomes of the cuts proposed this year.  Please bear in mind that I do not agree with all of the opinions expressed, but it seems to me that this sort of expert feedback should be in the public domain for residents and others to consider.

Overview:  Based on the information available to me, it appears that the intention is to reduce the revenue budget by ‘dumbing down’ the grounds maintenance and reducing the amount of resources directed at site cleanliness and security.

Proposal 1:  Not locking park gates and park car parks overnight

Parks left open overnight (previously locked at night) became ‘no-go’ areas, with significant damage to features within the sites. Reduction in park keeper numbers led to sites becoming more and more littered, again leading to further damage – the ‘broken window’ theory in practice. Parks became less and less attractive, with flower and shrub beds removed and grassed over to reduce maintenance costs.

Proposal 2:  Reduce grass cutting frequency in Parks, except a small number of high profile sites: Green Flag sites and sport pitches. Current cuts 18 to 6 per year, reduce average frequency per year

Spencer in Eltham Park South (one of the Green Flag Award winning parks)

The proposed reduction in grass cutting frequency will lead to currently reasonably well maintained turf becoming rough meadow (subject to weather conditions, of course), failing to meet the objectives of “well managed, maintained in good condition and safe to use”, “good quality parks that meet the needs of the local community”, “spaces for active recreation” and “attractive to visitors”. It is believed that the current grass cutting machinery is appropriate for cutting the sward that results from a dozen or more cuts a year. It will fail to cope with the rough meadow of a six-cuts-a-year regime. The current machinery will be redundant and ought to be sold (albeit at a loss) and different, new machinery purchased, or specialist contractors engaged, at higher cost, illustrated by the “environmental wildflower areas” developed over the last 10 years or so. We consider that with only a couple of cuts a year, the wilder areas cost more per unit area per annum to maintain than the standard gang-mown regime of 15 or so cuts a year!

Proposal 3:  Remove Dog Waste Bins from Parks

Eliminating dog faeces bin collection will lead to the obvious. Is this consistent with the RBG policy of parks in good condition, attractive to visitors? Other authorities have done away with dedicated dog faeces bins and ask dog walkers to dispose of their faeces bags in the general waste bins, from which it will be collected with the litter.

Employment:  Will these proposals lead to a reduction in the number of staff?  If so which staff?

What is missing from the information given to me is the intention with regard to staffing. It seems that the likely intention is to reduce both the size of the gardener cohort and that of the park keepers/rangers/security staff, as there is little point in reducing the standard of park maintenance (grounds maintenance and cleanliness and security) whilst maintaining current staffing levels.

Rather than the blunt unthinking culling of staff, regard should be given to the reason why costs are so high without the corresponding demonstrable benefits. The biblical saying “what thou sow thou shall reap” seems appropriate and flows from the Council’s adoption of the ‘single status’ policy. The adoption of this example of dogma was achieved without problems at the time because ‘everyone is a winner’. The elimination of the gardeners’ bonus scheme and its related financial contribution to their salaries was achieved by the introduction of the IVA component to make it up to historic levels, now threatened with withdrawal. The Council-wide review of job descriptions and salary scale point associated at the time of the introduction of single status led to a ‘rounding up’, with nobody losing and many winning, in terms of staff salaries.

Further questionable savings were made a couple of years back when staff were invited to apply for voluntary redundancy. This led to the loss of several capable, knowledgeable long-serving members of staff leaving. It is debatable whether those remaining have the necessary knowledge or capability of effective management under the circumstances.

In the Parks and Open Spaces Department, the principal areas of work are:

  1. management
  2. grounds maintenance
  3. park keeping, security and park rangers.

The recent loss of managers with appropriate experience (mentioned above) has left a void and the loss of a voice to highlight the (sometimes unintended) consequences of the proposals under consideration.

The issue with gardeners is mainly linked to the salary scale structure and the local government annual increment arrangement, which has led to most staff being near top of scale. The lack of turnover suggests that the post is very well paid, alternatives elsewhere, in horticulture or elsewhere, being unattractive.

As for the park keepers and similar posts, two factors are significant. In the latter part of the last century, it was decided that Park Keepers would be deemed to be Council Officers. This, and the lumping together of a wide range of tasks in the job description, for what is essentially a ‘minimum wage’ post, has led to a job evaluation weighting resulting in most of the work being done by keepers being over-rewarded. The bulk of the work is litter picking, mainly by mobile staff on unmanned sites.  Again, the lack of turnover suggests that alternative employment is financially unattractive. Some sites are manned, where staff members are tasked with both maintaining site cleanliness, offering a measure of security, as well as a welcoming ‘meet and greet’ facility.

The Rangers offer an informative, educational facility and are largely responsible for the organisation and management of parks events, such as Family Fun Days. If events are to be held (to encourage use of the open spaces) then there needs to be a facility to do this.

Too much focus on Green Flag sites?

The previous cycle of decline in the parks was reversed when external funding was secured to turn around significant sites such as Well Hall Pleasaunce. There were further improvements with the 2012 Olympics, and the creation of a target of 12 Green Flag parks for 2012 (which was achieved).  The current Parks and Open Spaces Strategy envisages an ongoing commitment for the retention of Green Flag status for the existing sites, but this has significant cost implications. There are over 80 other open spaces around the Borough which have suffered historically as resources are diverted to support the intended Green Flag sites, the majority of which are situated in the Eltham & Kidbrooke Committee area. To be clear, the majority of the best sites are in the part of the Borough which already benefits from having sufficient green space available for residents to meet the Council’s target for space/1,000 head of population, whilst the remainder is deficient currently and will be more deficient in 2028 on current estimates. Can this be right?

Some concluding comments

It must be remembered that all capital assets – roads, schools, offices, parks, etc – require a revenue budget, both to pay for wages, machinery and consumables, as well as to pay for necessary repairs. It is all to easy to grab headlines with yet another attractive proposal (i.e. another capital asset) without making appropriate budget provision for ongoing revenue support. The “Parks & Open Spaces Strategy 2017” anticipates the acquisition of further open spaces (presumably from developers with new developments), presumably by 2028, to address the perceived shortfall. What revenue budget provision is being made?

Greenwich residents value their open spaces very highly; survey after survey supports this and is given as reason for moving to or staying in the Borough.

In summary, whilst recognising that all authorities are still suffering significant financial constraints, it must be asked how the service cuts/reduction in standards which have been proposed enable the Council to satisfy the policies put forward in its Green Space policy, and how will the residents of the Royal Borough regard further neglect of the majority of the open spaces provided by RBG, especially if there is ongoing adherence to the headline grabbing “12 Green Flag parks” and consequent haemorrhaging of resources from the remaining sites.

* * * * *

Appendix A:  Green Flag park sites within RBG.

  • Avery Hill Park
  • Blackheath
  • Charlton Park
  • Eaglesfield Park
  • East Greenwich Pleasaunce
  • Eltham Park North and Shepherdleas Woods
  • Eltham Park South
  • Fairy Hill Park
  • Horn Park
  • Maryon Park
  • Sutcliffe Park
  • The Tarn
  • Well Hall Pleasaunce

 

Appendix B:  Relevant sections of the Parks and Open Spaces Strategy include:

Page 1:  Introduction

“This ten year Parks and Open Spaces Strategy presents the Royal Borough’s Vision for the future of its parks and open green spaces. This vision is:

“To work in partnership with the local community to provide and sustain a network of safe, attractive, diverse and flexible parks and open spaces which meets the needs of our growing and changing population.”

The Strategy is centred on the following seven themes:

  • Park and open spaces management: Ensuring our parks and open spaces are well managed, maintained in good condition and are safe to use;
  • Community engagement: Ensuring we actively engage and work in partnership with local residents to provide good quality parks that meet the needs of the local community;
  • Nature and biodiversity: Ensuring that areas and habitats are provided for wildlife and that they are protected from inappropriate development;
  • Environmental management: Maximise resource efficiency by increasing recycling opportunities, establish better use of essential energy sources and controlling the use of pesticides and chemicals;
  • Recreation, health and wellbeing: Ensuring that parks provide spaces for active recreation and quiet reflection and contribute to the health and well-being of the local community;
  • Regeneration and local economy: Ensuring our parks are well designed, attractive to visitors and encourage enterprise and employment of local people; and
  • Culture and heritage: Ensuring our parks are places for culture and that their heritage is preserved and celebrated.”

On page 8:  Quality of parks and open spaces 

The Royal Borough wants to create parks and open spaces that people want to visit.  We aim to do this by creating spaces, which through their appearance, range of facilities, standards of maintenance, and ease of access, make people feel they are cared for and safe.

The Green Flag Award scheme is a nationally recognised standard for a good quality park, which is recognised and endorsed by central government. The Royal Borough is committed to maintaining twelve parks to Green Flag or other similar quality standard and to work in partnership with community groups to secure quality awards including Community Green Flag Awards.

Park Management plans are important to ensure that future maintenance is carried out to a high standard in large and priority parks. The Green Flag award criteria upon which parks can be judged, will be used to assist in the management of all parks to help ensure they are maintained to a good standard.