Saturday, 26 January 2013

Battle lost but digging in for the long war ahead

This blog is written by Linda Mason. It is intended to offer an overall analysis of what this weeks announcements mean for Walsall's Green Spaces and is therefore by necessity a little long!

Beacon Way earlier this week

We now know the final proposals for the staffing of Green Spaces. This document was released this week by Walsall Council and combined with the announcement made at the full council meeting held on 7 January by Cllr Harris, we know what posts are going and what posts will be downgraded.

When the Express and Star called me in the week to ask for my views, the reporter was surprised that I wasn't pleased by what he referred to as a victory. Posts had been saved after all. Although I am pleased that two Senior Park Ranger's posts have been saved I am devastated that two Senior Countryside Rangers are to lose their jobs and seven Park Rangers are to see their jobs downgraded to that of Environmental Operatives.

Reading through the document it was interesting to read the cherry picked comments included and notice by their absence, the numerous comments that were copied and pasted from the Save Walsall's Green Spaces and Countryside Services Facebook page. Interesting because it is clear that many people (and I include Councillors in that description) really have no idea of the roles our Green Spaces staff play in ensuring that Walsall enjoys such a good reputation both locally and nationally and that we, as Walsall residents take for granted in having such diverse and well maintained green spaces on our doorsteps.

One comment read "the public who use the parks and nature reserves should help more." Walsall already has a very active set of user and friends groups who give up their time voluntarily to help maintain green spaces. What the commentator doesn't realise is that without expert staff supporting them, friends and user groups can only go so far. Think of all the residents who use our green spaces; dog walkers, children, the elderly amongst others. Some dog walkers can't even clear up their own dogs mess let alone be enticed to pick up a trowel and do a spot of weeding whilst exercising their pet. Are we to see legions of under five's tooling up with lawn mowers, scythes and chainsaws in order to keep their parks looking decent? Ten parks are to see outdoor gyms being built in the near future. Maybe whilst you're there doing a workout you could turn a hand to playground equipment maintenance and perhaps a little graffiti removal too?

Then there are the ignorant comments that just take your breath away suggesting that grass surfaces should be replaced by hard surfaces without any thought to the effect upon the environment by such action. Take away the insects home from underneath that grass and there is a knock on effect to the biodiversity of that area. Then there is localised flooding. We have all read that one of the reasons localities now flood more often is because too many lawns have been dug up to be replaced by two/three car drives. Clearly there is an awful lot of work to be done in educating people about their local environments.

The detailed and well considered  responses that I know were sent to the council as part of the budget consultation exercise are not there but rather than those being looked over for benign or uneducated comments to be included in the document I do wonder whether someone pressed a delete button. At figure 2, page 104, a figure is given of 172 responses in respect of the Councils proposals for Ground Maintenance and Green Spaces of which 78 were via the online form. Now I know that I copied and pasted comments from the Facebook page and I also sent links to various blogs where the subject was discussed and just for good measure copied and pasted the whole blog. It took me hours! I didn't keep a close count but can easily think of thirty odd responses just counting on my fingers and toes. I'm not one for conspiracy theories but taking into account how much our Campaign upset certain Senior Officers and Councillors I do allow myself a little ponder, particularly as no mention is made within the document of the detailed report made by the Walsall Network of Parks and Green Spaces, which made some extremely pertinent points as to how Green Space Strategy has been let down continuously since the take over by Street Pride and was prepared by experienced people who have worked tirelessly for many years to ensure that the best is made of Walsall's Green Spaces.

The document mentions that the council will shortly be examining the proposed Green Space Strategy for the next five years. When councillors read the proposed new strategy I urge them to delve a little deeper than the document they will be holding and to read all the recommendations made by the Future of Green Spaces Strategy Working Group and agreed by the Community Services Scrutiny Performance Panel because a lot has been lost along the way and the original agreed recommendations have been changed and watered down before being put to Cabinet, let alone all the councillors. Taking into account it is senior officers who prepare these documents I know where my finger points. Councillors can only form a view from what is placed before them by those who are employed as public servants to act in the interests of local residents. Unfortunately and in my opinion, little fiefdoms are being built by some so called public servants and scant regard is being paid to what the people actually want.

At present we have four Senior Countryside Rangers who amongst other things manage our local nature reserves. These are the slightly wilder and less manicured places that we enjoy such as The Dingle, Cuckoo's Nook, Park Lime Pits, Shire Oak Park, Hayhead Wood, Fibbersley, Rough Wood and Bentley Haye, Moorcroft, Barr Beacon, Pelsall North Common. From April there will be just two Senior Countryside Rangers which will mean their site management responsibilities will double. As a member of a local Friends Group I know how much we rely upon the support and guidance of our local SCR. I know that from April we're going to have a hard time with whoever is our nominated SCR being pulled from all directions to do what will be an impossible job. With a workload increase such as this all the very important but non-essential activities that an SCR does will go by the wayside. There will be much less job satisfaction and the experienced and talented set of people who currently work in Countryside services will want to seek out greener pastures, which means Walsall and its residents will lose something very valuable.

It is easy for anti social behaviour to go unnoticed in a LNR, to begin with at least. If SCRs are not able to patrol as regularly as they do now, I am concerned that illegal fly tipping, nasty behaviour and vandalism will not be nipped in the bud as it is currently and that our wonder LNRs will become areas that people (and especially unaccompanied women) will not want to risk a walk or cycle in. Coupled with the cuts to our local policing services the future does not look good.

As far as the parks are concerned we are led to believe that the saved posts will mean that there is full weekend cover and that there will be a presence in them. However when you dig below the surface a little, all is not as it seems. Firstly, without doubt the premier Borough park, the Arboretum is not affected. The staffing levels there will remain as they are now, so at least the Council will have one place in the Borough where all is well and can be displayed as an example of how wonderfully we are provided for. So what about the rest of the parks in the Borough? During the week the main, large parks in the borough will have a presence. Seven environmental operatives working 7.30 am to 5.30 pm five weekdays a week in the summer and 7.30 am to 3.30 pm four weekdays a week in winter, (no weekends) working  in seven parks, leaving one Senior Ranger and two Neighbourhood Rangers to cover everything and everywhere else including weekends. There are two shifts for the Rangers which means that hours of 7.15 am to 9.30 pm  in the summer for example are covered. It is these Rangers that will provide weekend cover, Yes, that's three people covering all the parks of Walsall with the exception of the Arboretum.

The relationships that have been steadfastly worked upon over the last few years by Rangers with the local disaffected youth will sadly be lost. How long before our parks once again succumb to vandalism and anti-social behaviour? Friends groups may be able to help but from my own experience it takes a brave mentality to tackle anti social behaviour when you're alone and without back up.

Elsewhere in the document detail is outlined of the capital improvement programme for Walsall's Green Spaces for the next four years and it is an ambitious programme that covers a great number of our Green Spaces including Blackwood Park, George Rose Park, High Heath Park, Holland Park, King George V Playing Fields, Kings Hill Park, Bentley Green Space, Oak Park and Walsall Wood, Palfrey Park, Pelsall Common, Pleck Park, Reedswood Park, The Croft, Willenhall Memorial Park. If the external funding that is required is achieved then there will be some major improvements made to these green spaces but as we know, you can build huge white elephant buildings that stay empty long after a capital investment has been made because nobody wants them. Are Walsall Council going to spend enormous amounts of money on capital projects only to see them under used and under utilised because there aren't sufficient staff around on a day to day basis to ensure that the investment is protected and nurtured?

There are other things of concern within the document. There is mention of ongoing service redesign to deliver operational efficiencies over the next four years. More cuts to front line staff? Apparently there is no need for a management post restructuring because there was a major management re-organisation in 2009/10 and yet since then Street Pride and Green Spaces have been 'merged' and yet the only management posts that have disappeared have been those that were previously Green Spaces. Why?

I feel for the reasons outlined above that there has been no victory. We have lost a battle but it looks as though we have a long war ahead of us. Walsall's Green Spaces and Countryside services have not yet been saved. We have to continue with this campaign and become a thorn in the flesh of those who do not understand, do not want to understand and of empire builders.

Walsall has a lot be proud of when it comes to its Green Spaces which is why we have to protect them and the staff that look after them. It is said that Green Spaces are not a critical service and yet it links in with so many other services that are, such as health provision, education, inclusion, that it is indeed a critical service. As I said in my own personal blog a few months ago, you don't know what you've got til it's gone......

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