To the Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, the Cabinet and Councillors of the London Borough of Lewisham
9th February 2015
Dear Sir Steve and Councillors,
This letter is an urgent petition to you from the Lewisham Parks Forum, which was set up in January 2014 to represent all the Friends and User Groups so far established in Lewisham’s 46 parks and other green spaces. Our existence was well-known from the start to Lewisham’s Parks Regeneration and Green Scene officers – and to the Council parks contractor, Glendale – yet it was not until we were invited to a meeting on 25 October 2014 that we were consulted by the Council on the drastic cuts in parks expenditure, which have put our members into a state of crisis.
Some of the cuts are damaging to public safety and day-to-day maintenance, while others are notional fantasy as they depend on unknown and unexplained training and capacity building required to enable our membership to take over park management functions (if they want to) ; but worst of all has been the Council’s willful and farcical flouting of its own standards and policies with regard to public consultation.
When we met Councillor Rachel Onikosi, Cabinet Member for the Public Realm, and Council officers (but no sign of Glendale, a branch of Parkwood Holdings Plc, the company that manages parks and other green spaces on behalf of Lewisham Council ) at the Town Hall on 10 December 2014 and again on 17 January 2015, we were impressed by her clarity, frankness and friendliness, but not by the deplorable situation she revealed (all of which began before she was even a councillor, let alone a member of the Cabinet) :
(i) cuts of £ 280,000 were agreed this time last year – initiated before Christmas, proposed by Glendale and agreed by the Council in February 2014 – so the October so-called ‘consultation’ (the Lewisham officers gave it the grandiose title of ‘Parks Summit’) turned out to be merely a lame explanation of a fait accompli, nine months after the event. The prime cut of this batch, a net sum of £115,000, resulted from a 50 per cent reduction in park keepers in the borough’s 12 largest parks. This was originally intended to remove keepers totally from six parks, but it is now to be shared around so that each of the twelve parks retains half a park keeper. Each park is to be ‘twinned’ with one nearby, except for Blackheath and Chinbrook Meadows, which are left out on a limb. There will also be an 80% reduction in Lewisham’s parks’ static gardeners. None of these cuts have yet been implemented, but a dire warning of the future was provided when the Manor House Gardens keeper was on annual leave last year, with the Friends of the park recording the result :
– drug dealing in the toilets
– loitering by known tagged offenders
– used and unused condoms on the children’s slide
– broken bottles and fast food debris
– bins not emptied
A petition signed by over 2,000 users of Manor House Gardens is being handed to you separately by Councillor Jim Mallory – which can be taken by you as a smple of opinion indicative of concerns generally in the other eleven large parks in the borough.
You will note that the gross saving by cutting the park keepers is £180,000, but £65,000 expenditure has to be re-introduced to fund the use of the ‘mobile team’ in these 12 large parks. This in turn will have a knock-on effect on the other 34 smaller parks (some, such as Blythe Hill Fields, being quite large), which have been served by the mobile team, with work of varying quality, since the first big cut in park keepers was made in the early 1980s.
(ii) The second tranche of cuts, totalling £340,000, was revealed to us at the meeting in December and comes up for decision to yourself and the Council on 11 February, i.e. this week. It comes in two parts : first, a reduction of £188,000 in Green Scene management and support costs, with some staff going part-time and at least one redundancy ; secondly, a further reduction of £153,000 in staff costs and overheads, primarily at Glendale, by ‘increasing community engagement and involvement in managing and maintaining parks and open spaces’.
Politically as well as contractually, this idea of a major transfer of management responsibilities from the Council to the community is, to put it mildly, a walk on the wild side. It has been sprung on us completely unexpectedly, with a few warm words of encouragement but absolutely no indication as to how Council officers expect, in practical terms, how to bring it about. It is true that great deal of useful voluntary work is carried out by our group members’ individual members, and it is certainly possible that some savings could be made by transferring responsibility for, say, some flower beds and herbaceous borders in some parks to some keen groups of local gardeners. But grassroots organization (to coin a phrase) will vary very greatly from park to park, and there is likely to be lot more keenness on carrying out one-off improvements (of which there are many good examples) than on shouldering the hard grind of weekly maintenance. Parks are not the same species as libraries : the work is not sedentary and it has to continue outdoors (not indoors) in all weathers, thus excluding many of the elderly and infirm who have the time available. How, for example, will insurance be arranged?
But there is an even bigger issue of stamina in relation to the administration of continuous unpaid responsibility for management. Several of the delegates to the Forum have personal experience of organizing co-operatives and self-help groups and they can advise that, however idealistic the aims, there has to be a massive paid input into recruitment and training (capacity building). There has been no indication how the Council is going to fund this, particularly given the reductions in support staff, or whether it proposes to fund consultancies from the voluntary sector (which would be possible).
Clearly it will not be possible to achieve transfers of management in the short-term : a two-year lead-in period is likely to be needed. As a Forum we have already indicated our willingness to take part in joint sub-groups with the Council ; the meetings with Cllr Onikosi were useful in whittling these down to three in number : the details of the Glendale contract, the feasibility of fund-raising, and the practicalities of devolving management. There has, however, been no indication yet of any follow-up in setting out a programme of meetings for these sub-groups and indicating the level of participation from officers (or from the elephant in the room, Glendale). The two-year lead-in period is ticking away…..
We look forward to your response.
Lewisham Parks Forum