Mountsfield Park Improvements – Update after 9th July Lewisham Council ‘Way Forward’ Open Meeting

FOMP – IMPROVEMENTS TO MOUNTSFIELD PARK: POSITION PAPER

20 JULY 2014

  1. Both FOMP and the Council agree on the improvements that are needed to the north east corner of Mountsfield Park, in particular that improving the children’s play area and creating a viable and more attractive café are critical.  However, with issues developing over the finances and details of the project, FOMP and the Council have different views on how best to proceed.  FOMP do not want to lose the café, and do not feel that the Council has sufficiently explored options to deliver the café within existing funding.

Summary of what FOMP want
  • The Council to pause on the redevelopment work – with the exception of the work specifically required to deliver the community garden.
  • The Council to work in partnership with FOMP to revisit the original plans to find ways to save money, in order to fund a café in this stage of the redevelopment.
  • The Council to be sufficiently transparent about the redevelopment project finances to enable FOMP to properly consider alternative fundraising options.  This means being clear about the shortfall in funding.
  • Lewisham Council – at a political level – to publicly commit that the money currently allocated to the redevelopment of Mountsfield Park (£525k in total) will be protected.

Current situation

  1. £525k is available for the redevelopment of Mountsfield Park around the playground and café area.  This includes £35k from the Mayor of London Pocket Park Scheme set aside for the community garden and £35k from the redevelopment budget as conditional match-funding.
  1. Following public consultation, plans were agreed to:
  • overhaul and improve the existing children’s play area;
  • create a new café building, making use of the existing container units;
  • create a new community garden; and,
  • improve the landscaping between these areas.

The plans intended a ‘virtuous circle’ whereby the improved café and children’s play facilities support one another.

  1. Following a tendering process undertaken by the Council, FOMP have been informed that the agreed plans are no longer deliverable for two reasons:
  • The tender for the café received no bidders.  The Council’s view is that the container-based approach requires specialist skills to deliver and none of the specialist contractors approached decided to bid; and,
  • The tender for the other works has received bids significantly over the available budget.  The LA’s view is that this reflects rising costs in the building sector overall, a factor outside the LA’s control.

The LA’s position

  1. At a public meeting held on 9 July 2014, the LA suggested a way forward, which included:
  • removing the café from the redevelopment plans at this stage;
  • retendering the improvements to the existing children’s playground and associated general works;
  • proceeding with the community garden (£70k), and spending additional money demolishing the existing (unusable) toilets and related wall (circa £20k); and,
  • exploring whether any remaining funds could be used for minor improvements to the current café area (including, for example, providing some portable toilets, picnic benches, etc.).
  1. The Council believe this approach is best because:
  • it delivers a significant part of the original plans;
  • work can begin quickly with the project delivered by Christmas;
  • the costs of substantially altering plans and beginning at the design phase would be prohibitive, and risk losing the money from the Rushey Green Renewal Fund and Section 106 (as it is non-ringfenced); and,
  • with the improved playground and community garden in place, footfall will increase and the café becomes a more attractive option for a potential proprietor.

FOMP concerns and suggestions

  1. FOMP concerns fall into three areas: financial, design, and process.
  1. Covering all three is an overarching belief that the café is a critical and transformational component of the redevelopment; without it, Mountsfield Park will continue to be neglected by those local residents who travel further afield to other parks that have benefited from investment in the recent past.

Financial concerns

  1. There is a frustrating lack of financial transparency behind the proposed redevelopment.  At the public meeting held on 9 July 2014, the LA provided the original indicative breakdown of building costs:
Park Area Indicative costs
Community Garden – includes demolition of WC block and general clearance £90,000
Play Area £100,000
Hub/Café Area – includes utility work and café foundations £58,715
Cafe Building £135,000
Contingency £40,000
Total £423,715

10.Removing the café element of the redevelopment suggests that building costs would largely be split between the community garden and the play area. Given that the community garden is effectively a fixed cost (£90k if, for the moment, we include the demolition of the toilet block and general clearance), that leaves approximately £335k from the original building costs to be spent on the play area, which would suggest a more than threefold increase in cost from the original estimate.

11. The Council refused to be drawn on the potential spend on the play area at the public meeting on 9 July 2014, but did confirm their intention to stick to the original specifications for improving the play area.  FOMP are concerned that such a significant increase for no extra improvements is simply bad value for money.

FOMP would expect to see an improvement on the original proposals for the play area for such a significant increase in cost.

12. FOMP have made a number of attempts to suggest simpler, more cost effective design changes and proposed using the original consultant, Groundwork for the works who we believe would be cheaper, but the LA has made clear that it is bound by the terms of its framework arrangements.  The purpose of such frameworks is to ensure that the LA is able to access consultants who are of demonstrable high quality and able to offer value for money delivery of projects.  FOMP are concerned that, in this case, the framework approach has failed as the costs have increased by so much, in such a short space of time, and the LA was unable to attract a single bidder for the café element of the redevelopment.

FOMP recommends that the Council review its framework arrangements to ensure that are delivering maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

13. FOMP recognise that there are issues of commercial confidentially in relation to sharing the detail of the bids received so far, but the lack of transparency on finances means that there is no clear sense of what the shortfall in funding is.  This makes it impossible for FOMP to have a meaningful conversation with the LA about how best to distribute funding, or to properly consider other fundraising options.

FOMP would like to have a more detailed conversation with the LA about the available finances and how they could be allocated.  If required, the appropriate member(s) of FOMP would sign a confidentiality agreement.

Design

14. FOMP note that redevelopment plans were agreed following a consultation with FOMP and the wider local community.  However, the situation has changed: the LA is clear that the original plans cannot be delivered within the available budget.  The LA solution is to deliver part of the original plans, in the hope that a café can form part of a subsequent stage of work.  FOMP disagree with the approach, and feel that different design decisions could release enough funds from the available budget to cover the costs of a café building.  Some suggestions include:

  • replacing the poured rubber with hard edges play surface with a cheaper Matta or loose sand surface (such as that at Hilly Fields);
  • replacing the tarmac proposed for the café area with a cheaper alternative, such as a grass seeded geogrid design;
  • pursuing a different café option (such as an off the shelf building e.g. modular, or tying the container to the existing toilet block and renovating it rather than knocking it down. All of which could be potentially be delivered more cheaply by the cafe operator); and
  • keeping the community garden spend within the £70k needed to meet the conditions of the Pocket Park grant.

15. There will be other options as well.  FOMP believe that the LA should explore all options to save money on other parts of the redevelopment work in order to ensure that a café is included at this stage.

FOMP would like the Council to revisit the designs and specifications for the project in order to achieve an option that includes the café and is deliverable within the available funds.

16. The Council has raised three concerns with the approach:

  • that reopening the design process means delays and incurring prohibitive costs;
  • that the Pocket Park  funding needs to be spent within this financial year, and any delay to the overall project would make that element unviable; and,
  • that the available funding is non-ringfenced, and therefore if it is not spent, it could be lost.

17. FOMP believe that, regardless of what now happens, we must acknowledge that the design phase of the redevelopment work has failed.  The LA has been unable to secure contractors to deliver the plans as agreed, within the available budget.  Although there will likely be additional design costs incurred by revisiting the plans, these are unavoidable if a café is to be included in this phase of work.

As part of the conversation about finances available to the project, FOMP would like to understand what has been committed thus far in terms of design costs, and what the additional costs would be for further design work.

18. It would be a mistake to lose the Pocket Park funding, but it is equally a mistake to let the timing of what is less than 7 per cent of the overall funding dictate when and how the remainder of the funding is spent.

FOMP would like the community garden to proceed within the £70k budget allocated specifically for it, without this determining the timing for the rest of the redevelopment.

19. The threat to the funding for the redevelopment of Mountsfield Park is a real issue, and FOMP recognises that, in times of austerity, Council’s have to make difficult funding decisions.  However, this decision is essentially a political matter and, if the Mayor and local councilors commit publicly to protecting the funding it will allow Council Officers and FOMP to revisit the designs to seek a way to include the café in this stage of the build.

FOMP asks the Mayor of Lewisham, the Cabinet Member for the Public Realm, and Councilors of wards adjoining Mountsfield Park to make a public pledge to protect the money already allocated to the redevelopment of Mountsfield Park through this project.

Process

20. Officers at the Council have clearly found working with FOMP frustrating.  On a number of occasions, they have suggested that FOMP lacks a unified view and that members question decisions after they have been agreed.

21. FOMP are a diverse group with different experiences and opinions.  But it is unfair to expect a unified view when the information FOMP are given is limited and provided with little time to consider it properly.  It is therefore unsurprising that, once members have had some time to think things through, other questions emerge.

22. There is also an issue over whether agreement has been reached.  For example, no agreement was reached at the meeting on 9 July 2014 – a show of hands to support the LA’s proposed way forward was in fact explicitly refused. Yet the LA minutes of the meeting state that officers divined an agreement from the room.  For the avoidance of doubt, FOMP does not, and has never, agreed with the LA proposals to move forward as they currently stand.

23. FOMP are concerned that the LA is interested in working with FOMP solely to give decisions they have already made the aura of consultative legitimacy, rather than as part of a genuine partnership to deliver the best outcome for Mountsfield Park.

FOMP ask the LA to provide papers for discussion at least a week before meetings so that members can agree common questions and views in advance.  This will benefit FOMP and the LA.

In addition, FOMP would like to reiterate its firm desire to work in partnership with the LA to ensure that redevelopment work meets the needs of current and future users of Mountsfield Park.

Next steps

24. FOMP requests a written response to this paper from the LA, stating which recommendations it agrees with and how it intends to proceed.  As well as revisiting the designs for the redevelopment, FOMP are also committed to pursuing alternative fundraising options to make-up any shortfall in funding.

25. FOMP will, therefore, continue our campaign to demonstrate the strong, local support for a community café in Mountsfield Park alongside improvements to the play area.

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