Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Cabinet Meeting 12th December 2012

Cllr Mike Bird kindly allowed me to address the Cabinet Meeting this evening where the draft budget proposals were discussed.

The following is more or less what I said to them:


"Thank you for allowing me to speak to you this evening.

I’m here to represent the Save Walsall’s Green Spaces and Countryside Services campaign, which I started and also Walsall Network of Parks and Green Spaces.

I’m passionate about Walsall’s Green Spaces, hence the campaign, which isn’t just about opposing proposed cuts but also to celebrate the wonderful asset Walsall’s green spaces are. The campaign has grown from nothing to an active Facebook Group of 188 members, a blog and an e-petition on the Council’s web site signed by 175 people.

Following the successful implementation of the first GS strategy by Walsall Council, the GS team and their expertise have received wide recognition and Walsall is seen as a case study in best practice.

We fully understand that government policy is such, that savings have to be found but what we don’t understand are proposals that appear to have been formulated without fully understanding the role of both park and countryside rangers and how reducing such posts could lead to the decline of some GS.

We do have ideas as to how financial savings would be better sought from other areas and also for raising money in order to off set some of the savings that need to be made and I’ll give you a  list of ideas that have been debated. We don’t have the expertise available as to how the ideas could be implemented but you do.

Looking at the budget proposals and the recent merger of green spaces with street pride ,it is evident that recommendations made by the Future of GS Strategy Working Group and agreed by the Community Services Scrutiny and Performance Panel, plus the views put forward by the Network of Parks and GS(whose report I have here to give to you), have been ignored. Street Pride, seen by many as the takeover partner in the recent merger, are making decisions about the structure and function of GS  without taking into account the expertise and experience of the GS team in anti social behaviour, optimum working patterns, visitor numbers, GS maintenance and specialist events.

To try and understand I would like explain what these front line staff of Countryside and Park Rangers do. Countryside Rangers are usually an expert in fields such as animals, botany or forestry for example.  They bring with them a wealth of experience which has seen Walsall Council receive plaudits and praise from around the UK for the imaginative and important work that they do. The CS Rangers patrol and inspect GS sites (at the moment about 6 each), they arrange for any problems to be dealt with straight away. They liaise with many people including Friends and User Groups, local natural history groups, other council departments, trusts, Natural England, landowners and farmers. They prepare and apply work programmes and arrange habitat management. They arrange and attend events on GS sites and then they have all the admin work too. This is just a snapshot of some of their work but importantly they undertake a  great deal of extra work, especially the liaison with Friends and User Groups, outside of normal working hours and the voluntary improvement and maintenance work that the groups do could be curtailed. With fewer of them, they are going to be spread thinly and be unable to carry out all of the duties needed  for each site. Without CS Rangers, Friends and User groups are rudderless and could unwittingly cause damage.

Turning to park rangers, many people just see the more visible work that they do maintaining parks, gardens, and equipment. They start work at 7.15 am making sure that their parks are fit for public use and in summer remain until 9.30 pm ensuring that their parks stay safe plus they provide full weekend cover. What most don’t appreciate is the enormous amount of work done by them in the last few years in reducing anti-social behaviour. They approach disaffected youths, ask why they feel it is OK to drink alcohol, smoke cannabis, smash glass on play areas and vandalise play equipment. They organise kick abouts, building up relationships, gaining trust, forming bonds and being an open ear. Gradually through this, anti-social behaviour has been reduced, meaning that parks are a more attractive place for users, thereby increasing the use of them.

Which brings me to an important point. Walsall’s GS are the most frequently used cultural and leisure facility in the borough. The borough has a problem with the health of its residents and with obesity in particular. If GS are less attractive to users  you lose in improving the health and wellbeing of the residents.

It is all very well to say that there will be an increased presence in GS under the proposals by using environmental operatives instead of park rangers but this fails to take into account two important points. Firstly the EO’s will not be assigned to one particular GS but will work throughout the borough.There is little opportunity therefore for the building and nurturing of relationships with the disaffected. Secondly EOs summer working hours of 7.30 to 5.30 five days a week, no weekend cover and  winter to 3.30 on four days a week, no weekend cover, do not reflect the reality of park use. CCTV although useful, cannot build and nurture the relationships that has led to a  decrease in anti-social behaviour.

It is no use maintaining a presence, visible or otherwise unless the presence is informed, educated, fully trained,experienced.

The insurance and personal safety implications of possibly using residents to open and close GS needs to be examined thoroughly. The ubiquitous advert states that where there’s blame, there’s a claim. An unfortunate incident could cost the council far more in the long term plus there is always the chance that the goodwill of residents and friends and user groups could be lost if they are utilised in such a way and then taken or perceived to be taken advantage of.

There does not appear to have been a major management restructuring exercise carried out since the merger and this needs re-examining. If financial efficiencies are required it makes sense to look at backroom jobs and if the structure of the organisation is efficient from the top to the bottom. Traditional management structures tend to be triangular in nature but from what we can see the triangular structure of street pride under the proposals you are considering are inverted. We therefore urge you to look at where savings can really be made, in management and backroom posts, rather than by reducing front line staff.

We ask you to question how posts have been reallocated during this proposal exercise, has it been done in a way that will benefit the users? What criteria has been used? Who has made these decisions and are they the best qualified and experienced in the field to do so? Have the views of different groups been considered properly? Have recommendations made by your own steering groups been adhered to and accounted for? Moreover, have the views and remarks of your Chief Executive Paul Sheehan in the most recent corporate plan been adhered too?  And I quote:
“ Whilst change is both inevitable and desirable what remains constant is the fact that we exist as an organisation only to service you, the residents of Walsall. All that we do should be for your benefit - to support you in living healthy lifestyles, to give increased access to better jobs and to make your neighbourhoods better places to live.”"

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The following is the document tabled on ideas for savings and raising finances:


1. Re-examination of management structures and back office jobs post Street Pride and Green Space merger, taking the opportunity to look seriously at the merger of senior management positions. Ensuring that the expertise of certain renowned sections of Green Spaces is maintained and utilised to its full extent.

2. Introduction of a car parking fee at some sites.

Not all sites are appropriate but Barr Beacon with in excess of 150K visitors per annum is and the Arboretum also. The fee would not be intended to be excessive, say £1 for all day parking, therefore not prohibitive and cheaper than similar sites in neighbouring counties and  borough’s . Possibility of a season ticket for borough residents?
All monies collected after costs to be ring fenced for Green Spaces.

3. New holistic and single strategy approach for grounds maintenance (as proposed and adopted in the new GS Strategy 2012-2017)

 Mowing frequency; designated areas where frequency of mowing is reduced.
 Wildflower meadows within formal parks as well as nature reserves.
 Shrub and hedge development.
 Less formal and civic planting.

The advantage of reducing costs in this area is that biodiversity and additional habitats would be created.

4.  Charging of professional users of Green Spaces

Many professional keep fit, military fitness, fat burner type bootcamp now use green spaces on a regular basis plus dog training/obedience classes. There should be a charge for doing this or alternatively a ban on any such use unless approved and licensed by (at a cost) or run by Council leisure based organised activities.

5. Development of Open Air Events

There seems to be a great desire for more open air events to be held in Walsall, not just at the large green spaces such as Barr Beacon, Aldridge Airport or the Arboretum where more musical concerts, boot sales and fairs could be run but at smaller spaces such as King George V.
Playing Fields, Willenhall Park and Holland Park where more local events such as small music events, craft events and sales could be held. Suggestions of similar type events held successfully in nearby places are the music events at Cannock Chase which attract big name acts.
It is not necessary for the Council itself to run such events. Outside promoters and organisers could be used, thereby taking on the financial risk but with some portion of any profits going back to the council. Having said that experienced staff are required (such as those currently in post) who have experience in the organisation of events and can advise accordingly.
The Bandstand Marathon was an enormous success with no risk involved for the council. Similar events run along similar lines could be held.
The council could also look at actively publicising the sorts of open spaces we have available for large open air events by large organisations such as horse eventing type shows and making a realistic charge for the use of the land and facilities.

6. Closure of Top Hangar at Aldridge Airport and transferring the staff to other facilities within the borough.

As well as making building and maintenance savings, the building could then be let or changed into the sort of facility that events or green type industries would find useful to rent for long or short periods or for letting by new small businesses that need workshop space at low rents. Further research would be needed but this building could be very useful in getting new businesses of a workshop nature off the ground within the borough.

7. Development of Green Wood Skills Courses

There has been a revival in recent years of interest in traditional green wood type crafts and there is a shortage of available courses (suitably and prominently publicised!) in the local area apart from at Chasewater where this type of activity has become very popular. Foraging courses would also be popular if local free events are anything to go by and for the charges being made by private individuals offering such courses in the area. Again retention of appropriate staff would be paramount.

8. Renting of pitches

Some green spaces are ideal for renting pitches for food and refreshments etc from mobile facilites.

9. Charging for toilets

Making a small charge for using public facilities in green spaces where they are available.

10. Promotion of Green Spaces for educational purposes

Many schools in Walsall feel the need to organise trips outside of the borough for the practical application of curriculum subjects for field studies. Walsall has a wealth of resources (such as wildlife, plant and insect habitat biodiversity, geological, old industrial, geographical )that are available on the doorstep that are suitable for many subjects. Charges could be made to schools for walks and explorations that are led by the appropriately qualified member of staff on an hourly basis. This would still be cheaper for the schools than travelling outside the borough.

11. Spend a Penny

Not in the traditional sense but in an honesty box type sense. This is not an idea for charging residents to use their green spaces but to ask that each time they do use one they consider spending a penny as a donation towards the upkeep of the green space they are using. Anti-vandal type boxes could be installed for the purpose. It’s an idea that is similar to the voluntary donations that are requested at museums etc and very few people miss a penny.

12. Not using agency staff and using internal resources only for consultation. The use of agency staff and external consultants is expensive. Overtime and time off in lieu for existing staff is cheaper.

13. Revisiting and renegotiating PPP contracts that were negotiated prior to the credit crunch and recession.


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And finally this is the report prepared by the Walsall Network of Parks and Greenspaces:


"CONTEXT:

Representatives of the various Friends Groups met to discuss the priorities requested by Mark Holden(Head of Street Pride) at the last formal Network Meeting (30th September 2012).

Members were aware of the budgetary constraints in the present economic climate but considered that this made balanced, equable restructuring vital.

Whilst recognising that each Green Space presented individual requirements and concerns it was clear that certain issues were common to all. Please see below the key issues identified.

•The continued need to maintain the vital role played by the Greenspace Service in supporting
and developing individual sites was considered of paramount importance.
Some groups felt that without the expertise and knowledge of Greenspace personnel
they would find it difficult to continue. Concern was also expressed that the way in which
restructuring appears to be proceeding would impact upon staff morale and potentially lead
to the departure of skilled ‘green’ professionals which would prove a real loss to the Borough.
The groups wished to place on record their appreciation for the input which they had receive
in the past. It was also pointed out that without the input of GIS the substantial funding grants
obtained by Friends Groups might well be lost. In addition, their specialist knowledge, in relation
to the achievement of Green Flag awards was invaluable. Representatives expressed the hope
that the gaining and retaining of Green Flag status for as many sites as possible would remain
Council policy.

•The retention of the Ranger Service, as a key part of Greenspaces, was considered to be of
major importance for monitoring, enforcement and education input to a sense of visitor
security -a fact highlighted in the public response to surveys commissioned for the Green
Space Strategy Review. In addition several members stated that key public events held in their
green space were only made possible by the presence of Rangers and Greenspace officers,
who in the past had played important roles in staging and supporting events - often in their
own time. Consequently it was considered to be imperative that the Ranger Service remains
under the direct control of the Greenspace Service. Any suggestion that the roles of Gardeners
and Rangers could be combined would undermined the important function that each section
entailed e.g working as trained horticulturists and, in the case of Rangers, fulfilling the tasks
above. Certainly each section could and should work cooperatively but essentially their roles are
different.

•The Urban Forestry Unit is considered a vital service provider, not only supporting the volunteer
tree warden network that does so much to maintain areas of woodland but offering advice
and expertise in sites across the borough. Their status nationally and internationally raises the
profile of Walsall.

•Individual maintenance plans developed in consultation with the specific Friends Group that,
within the constraints of the available budget, meet the horticultural and environmental aims
of green space users and conform to the recommendations of the new Green Space Strategy - a document which needs to be shared more widely with all Friends Groups.

•Some continuity in staff deployment is needed to enable staff to respond to the needs of each
site. It was felt that this would also develop greater commitment and involvement with the
areas concerned.

• Members recognised that Walsall was fortunate in having very diverse Green Space with
varying requirements consequently the issue of official opening and closing policies produced
differing opinions. Issues such as Health, Safety and Criminal damage at times when the site was unsupervised were considered important. It was also considered vital that any sites with car-parking facilities should be locked at specific times to reduce anti-social behaviour. There was a general agreement that any staffing policy should respond to times of greatest use so that parks especially had a visible Ranger presence at the busiest times e.g. weekends, public and school holidays and throughout key events. All public consultation exercises have highlighted this as an area of major concern.

• As a result of the close working relationship between Friends Groups and officers of GIS
members felt that they had a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities within the service.
It was generally felt that this was not the case with regard to Street Pride despite the fact that
they had assumed responsibility for Grounds Maintenance in 2009.
Greater clarity of roles and responsibilities in this service was requested together with
information on budget breakdowns and maintenance schedules for individual sites. The view
was also expressed that future maintenance schedules should reflect the aims of the Green
Space Strategy especially with regard to environmental objectives.

The Green Space Strategy Review presents an ambitious and inspiring blue-print for the future of Walsall’s Greenspaces which, regardless of budget constraints, is not only achievable but offers an exciting way forward - something too valuable to be lost."

Linda Mason




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