Sunday 15 May 2011

Valuing our Parks

BOSF annual conference is fantastic, and even though our little patch behind Kings Heath Community Centre is only just able to be called an 'open space', and our group a tiny bunch of parents with children under 5, we've got a lot from the five years we have been members of BOSF.  I was particularly interested to hear how young people were using Parks in light of the new charges levied.

Friends of Parks have been around for a few years, and have been an extremely successful initiative in engaging local people to use and care for their local parks.  The concept of our parks, parks belonging to us, is being re-assessed locally and nationally.  What changes should we expect - is Wandsworth Council leading the way by charging for use of playgrounds?

This year, at least, Councillor Mullaney (responsible for Parks in Brum) made it to BOSF annual conference, but seemed to have prepared his speech for the wrong audience.  Vandalism, joy-riding, graffiti and prostitution do happen in our parks, but BOSF priorities (and rest of discussion on the day) are in the use of parks for all, not the abuse by a minority.

It is interesting (and I think worrying) Mullaney says our golf courses will be privatised as they are a cost burden.  He suggested this will mean more money for parks.  How easy would it be for our parks to similarly be considered a cost burden? Mullaney makes clear he is still willing to negotiate with any private business or voluntary body that may provide cost savings for park up-keep.

I don't think Parks are in danger of being sold off completely.  What is more in question is how much consideration is given to supporting all park users, or valuing the skills of what's left of our park service staff.

Robin Bryan, Customer Liaison & Constituency Manager, alienated his audience.  Same as last year, he presented results from the flawed survey BOSF had helped Park Services complete, presented as 'fact' to tell his audience what we think, and that we are actually blissfully happy with the ever improving Parks Service.  But even in this topsy-turvy world of 'consultancy' and 'listening' there were some interesting statistics.

30% cuts in staff costs, but he says no effect on service provision?

Huge drop in schools using parks since introducing charges for schools, but he says service provision same as before?

Are these efficiency savings, or a reduction in provision to some of the most in need?  We need to monitor, question and challenge changes in our parks provision.

More than ever our Parks needs its Friends, and we need BOSF.

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  1. martin mullaney15 May 2011 at 22:15

    Marcus, I explained at the conference that our municipal golf courses lose the Council between £600,000 and £750,000 per year.

    I then explained that we have private companies who are willing to run the golf courses as municipal golf courses (ie turn-up-and-pay, and cheap to use) and pay us for the honour.

    Does that sound a bad deal? It will save the Parks Service at a minimum £600,000 per year and actually bring.

  2. martin mullaney15 May 2011 at 22:20

    With regards to the 30% savings, we have in fact improved the parks service. We have cleared out archaic working practices, bizarre spending of money (ie on closing and opening of gates that don't exist) and clearer lines of responsibility.

    This new structure was introduced in July 2010 and we have seen an 8% increase in customer satisfaction with our parks.

  3. Hi Martin Mullaney,

    Thanks for response. You are in a much better position to judge statistics and whether privatising council services is cost effective, and whether 30% staff cost cuts can be achieved with no change to service.

    My concern, and I believe a concern held by many, is that:

    Selling off council services and huge cuts are undermining the confidence and ability of our existing council employees to provide the best possible service.

    Is increasing charges for services like parks, museums and libraries for schools advisable?

  4. martin mullaney17 May 2011 at 17:42


    I feel that if we are going to continue with this debate, then we need to clarify if we accept that the country is in financial crisis and therefore that the government needs to reduce expenditure.

    Judging by your comments, I fear that you don't accept the financial crisis and the need to reduce public expenditure - please accept my apologies if I am wrong. However, I just want to save time on a debate, if we disagree on the fundamentals of current public funding policy.

  5. Martin,

    I recognise financial constraints, and also priorities and responsibilities.

    Cutting service provision and charging schools for services like those offered by parks, museums and libraries will cost us dearly. Charging schools is particularly counter-productive.

    Schools will either use their LEA funding to pay costs (council paying the council? No saving there), or increasingly schools will ask parents to pay, including the poorest and most vulnerable families in Birmingham.

    Alternatively, as your figures suggest, some schools will choose to stop working with park, museum or library services, leading to less use and more abuse, further costs and further disadvantaging the poorest in our city.

    The more you can encourage young people (and everyone) to benefit from and use these services responsibly the better for everyone. Working with schools is key to achieving this.

  6. Shame on Wandsworth! Why was the provision of their so called high maintenance and cost activities like zip wires ever installed in the first place if the no charge policy and future funding was not a sustainable option.Why should Londoners(and Wandsworth cannot separate itself from the rest of London) pay for the privilege of encouraging their children to be healthy, active and sociable - for some of London's poorest families parks are one of the few options left for their children where cost is not a barrier to participation - the act of children's play in a free, public democratic space is vital to preserve. Wandsworth is the start of a slippery slope around the country - coming back to the debate in Birmingham I agree with Marcus that cutting the free provision of services for parks, museums and libraries is going to be disastrous for our poorest families and schools in Birmingham - in a financial crisis surely there must be a balance of cuts in services that don't remove the very lifelines that support children's futures.

  7. martin mullaney18 May 2011 at 10:08

    I think we’re getting the facts confused here.

    The education service has always been charged for use of taught sessions at our museums and ranger service. Plus the individual schools have always been charged for use of our swimming pools.

    Up until November 2009, the Education paid a lump sum to Leisure, Sport and Culture, so that the individual schools didn’t have to pay for taught sessions at our museums or ranger service, plus could use our swimming pools at reduced cost.

    In November 2009, the Education department removed that lump sum of money and said that schools would have to pay for these taught sessions at museums and ranger service themselves. Plus the swimming sessions at our swimming pools would no longer be subsidised. At the time, I debated with the Education department the wisdom of this decision, putting over the same concerns that you already raised. I was informed that the schools already received a budget to pay for these sessions.

    I have since asked my officers to keep me informed of the impact of the introduction of charges. The last update I had was in November 2010. This showed the following:

    - There has been negligible reduction in the number of taught sessions at our museums for schools
    - 85 schools expressed an interest in using a taught session from our ranger service. Of those, 36 booked a taught session; 24 did a free-of-charge self guide tour; 25 declined.
    - There has been negligible reduction in the number of booked sessions at our swimming pools for schools

    With regards the introduction of charging for schools to use our libraries, not such charge, or increase in charge has occurred while I’ve been Cabinet member since May 2009.

  8. Hi Martin,

    What prompted my blog was a presentation of statistics from the Parks Rangers services which was a partial picture - even so, showing reductions in schools working with the ranger service.

    I have worked with schools, museums and libraries, and can only give my anecdotal view that schools find it costly and difficult to book visits to museums, and support for continuing work in schools (depth of learning, rather than numbers through the door) has reduced since the (I thought gradual) introduction of charges from Nov 2009.

    I am glad you have raised similar concerns to Education Service regarding these charges. As for Libraries, can you confirm there will be no changes in charges to schools and children, or loss of service provision to children and schools?

  9. martin mullaney18 May 2011 at 21:19

    With regards to libraries, to the best of my knowledge I am not aware of any intention to introduce any charges for schools using libraries or to restrict this provision.

  10. Marcus, with regards to Mr Mullaney's comment above. I am not aware of charges but there has indeed been a reduction of services to schools and other organisations. The service of libraries going into schools and other organisations was stopped some time ago.

    The library are no longer able to offer this type of support to other organisations such as my play and stay group which originally had this service for the past three years. Sadly it stopped in October a couple of months before the library was closed last year and has not been reinstated since the library has been reopened. I believe that some schools are now getting this service again but not all. I would love the service reinstated as the librarians are able to answer questions about books to both parents and children. These types of external services aid in brining communities together and are greatly missed.

  11. Hi Sonia, thans for comment. There are charges for schools for museums and for working with Park rangers in Parks.

    What happens at KH library is typical at the moment - community libraries face staff and budget cuts and decide for themselves how to implement.

    Although no charges for schools in Library at present, further cuts to budget and building of new library opens up discussions about a future operating model and library services.

    I don't know what is being considered, but if changes in museums and parks anything to go by, expect schools and other groups to be charged for services that are free at the moment (like stoprytime with your group, if library service still has capacity).