Monday, 25 February 2013

A Response (of kind) from Walsall Council

This is quite a long blog and heavy going in parts but please stick with it. It contains really important information about the future of our Green Spaces and Countryside Services.

You will remember that back on 12 December 2012, Cllr Mike Bird kindly allowed me to address the cabinet meeting. A full report of what I said can be found here.

I tabled two documents at the meeting; one from Walsall Network of Parks and Green Spaces, who represent the Friends and User Groups of Walsall's Green Spaces. This document was originally sent directly to the council and no response had been received at that time. The second was a list of ideas that had been put forward on the Facebook Group.

Please read. I'm not going to comment in full just yet but I believe there are some undertones in the email response to these two documents that do not bode well for the future of our Green Spaces and Countryside Services. Just read between the lines....

What must be remembered is that at the time of the meeting we were looking at cuts of £400K. That has been reduced to definite cuts of £300K. Some posts have been saved although confirmation of which posts those are is still awaited. It should also be noted that I have still not yet received a response from Cabinet about the contents of my presentation. The council response is in blue and italics.


"Dear Ms Mason

I refer to the points raised in the two separate papers you left with the Council at the Cabinet meeting held on 12th December 2012. This email provides a detailed response to both of these. I shall deal first with the paper headed ‘summary of Walsall network of parks and green spaces report to Jamie Morris and Mark Holden’."

So that there is no ambiguity I reproduce below the paper referred to:


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

•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."

Back to the email and the response to this considered and well thought out paper prepared by the Network:

As you will be aware, Walsall Council, along with many others, has to make significant budget savings across all service areas including green spaces. To help inform this process, it has undertaken a major budget consultation process. The response was taken into account by Cabinet and Council in the preparation of its budget for 2013/14.

As you are aware, the management and maintenance of green spaces has been integrated into a broader Service area with responsibility for green spaces and associated activities across the whole of the borough.  The expanded service area will facilitate delivery of a more co-ordinated service, provide access to additional resources and offer greater flexibility to respond to operational requirements.

To this end, the expanded Service is currently being restructured as a result of which there will be a reduction in posts across the whole service area. Some roles will be changed to minimise impact and maximise service delivery. It is recognised that the green spaces and countryside service is important to Walsall’s future, as the recent Green Space Strategy highlights, and we recognise the importance of maintaining expertise and knowledge in these specialist areas. The importance of securing external finance is similarly recognised. Both of these have been important considerations in the restructuring process.

We will continue to work closely with community groups and every effort will continue to be made to ensure all green spaces remain well maintained, and are improved and developed within the available budget.

The expanded service area has access to more than 300 employees and associated equipment to support events. In order to deliver the level of savings required, it has been necessary to review and integrate roles and responsibilities and remove duplication so as to maximise efficiency.  The Senior Rangers, Senior Countryside Rangers and Neighbourhood Rangers will continue to liaise closely with Friends Groups and other third party organisations, supporting events and carrying out enforcement and educational activities. 

The Urban Forestry Service is an important part of Walsall’s future and its merger with Countryside Services has created a flexible and efficient section with responsibility for all trees within the borough including trees on highways, in parks and in woodlands.  This service is being supported by operational employees carrying out maintenance works and helping to deliver a sustainable woodland management programme.

Each park and green space site is both important and distinctive and the revised arrangements will maximise the presence of employees on each site. In turn, this will generate greater ownership and responsibility amongst the workforce and allow individuals to become more accountable and familiar with the respective Friends Groups.

The opening and closing of green space sites will remain unchanged in the short term but the activities will be carried out in a different way.  However, it is considered that a review of these arrangements is necessary as many parks currently have access when gates have been locked.

Working hours across the whole area are being reviewed in order to maximise available resources and site presence at times when they are most needed.

We welcome ideas from all groups with regards to savings options and priorities. Once the restructure is completed, my intention is to share and clarify roles, responsibilities and working relationships, together with appropriate budgets and aspirations for the future across the whole service area, with Friends Groups and others as appropriate. "

The email then turns to the paper tabled on ideas for savings and raising finances. I have put the idea first followed by the response.

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.

1        The management and back office support for the combined Service have both been taken into account in the preparation of the proposed structure. Indeed, the former Street Pride Service has already seen a reduction in the number of Service Managers within the last 12 months or so. As such, I do not believe there to be further opportunities to reduce the employee costs any further for the time being at least. Expertise and experience within green spaces activities will be retained with the Green Space Improvements & Events Officer and the Countryside and Urban Forestry Manager, supported by experienced operational colleagues as required.

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.

2        One of the actions within the current Green Space Strategy is to explore methods of raising additional income to reinvest into the service.  The implementation of car parking charges was considered for Barr Beacon last July. The assumption was that 125,000 car visits per year could be anticipated. However, the introduction of a charge was not supported by the Trust Management Group and so the proposal was not progressed.  Nevertheless, we will look to review car parking charges across all green space sites, including the Arboretum, as part of a future review of income.

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.

3        The bringing together of the two former Services has created the opportunity to develop a new holistic ‘clean and green’ service. The intention is that all grounds maintenance activities will be consistent with the recently approved Green Space Strategy.

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.

4        We are always looking to increase income across all areas including the use of green space sites.   We already charge for the Airport and Holland Park for use by dog clubs and for the Arboretum, Airport and Pelsall Common for use by keep-fit organisations. It is part of next year’s business plan to proactively pursue additional uses of green space sites with a view to securing additional income.

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.

5        The management and facilitation of events is planned to be reviewed next year with the potential for additional income to be a priority.  In the meantime, the Council is exploring opportunities to develop a programme of events for the refurbished Arboretum which builds on the success of the Bandstand Marathon. In addition, work has already commenced on the production of a Green Space marketing plan to improve the strategic marketing and promotion of Walsall’s green spaces including their potential for increased use as a venue for events and activities.

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.

6        The Countryside Services and Urban Forestry Services teams are transferring to the existing Council depot in Brownhills.  This transfer is scheduled to be complete by the end of March 2013.  The Top Hanger will continue to be used in the short term with proposals to expand the fledgling timber processing and sales operations underway.  Partnerships with other organisations are also being considered to maximise the use and development of this site.

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.

7        Green wood skills courses are becoming increasingly popular and we are looking to continue to develop these in several ways. We are also looking to expand our forest school programmes of education sessions and training courses, particularly at the Top Hanger and Lodge Wood which has been registered as a ForestSchool site.

8. Renting of pitches

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

8        We are currently reviewing the Green Spaces Pricing Policy which will look at a long term plan to maximise income from the hire and use of green space facilities and reduce the level of council subsidy on such things as sports bookings and use of buildings.

9. Charging for toilets

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

9        The possibility of introducing charging for the use of toilets on green space sites will be included as part of the action within the current Green Space Strategy  to explore methods of raising additional income to reinvest into the service.

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.

10   Promotion of green spaces for educational purposes will continue with the production of a green space marketing plan to improve the strategic marketing and promotion of Walsall’s green spaces. This will include their potential for increased use as a venue for events and activities as referred to in point 5 above.

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.

11   The possibility of introducing some kind of donation system for users of our green spaces could also be considered as part of the Green Space Pricing Policy review. This may be an alternative to introducing charges but would need to be considered in terms of financial viability in respect of costs incurred for collecting the money compared with the amount of money received.

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.

12   The use of agency staff and consultants is continuously under review.  Where it is appropriate to do so and the appropriate skills are available, in-house resources are always used before agency staff or consultants are employed.  However, in some instances, it is financially more appropriate to use agency employees, so it is important that each occasion be considered on its merit.

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

13   The green space service does not currently operate any PPP (Public Private Partnership) type contracts, but all of our contracts are reviewed on a regular basis and re-negotiated wherever necessary and possible.

I trust this response clarifies the Council’s position on the points you made."


As points 12 and 13 were intended as a council wide saving and comment, I have asked for an appropriate response in that respect. It was never intended for the points to relate to Green Spaces only. I will publish the response when I receive it.

I think you will agree that there is plenty of food for thought and lots of discuss. Please feel free to email me at the address shown at the top of this blog or to comment on the Facebook Page. I look forward to hearing from you all!

Linda Mason


  1. Linda

    Despite your admirable campaign, the die is now cast. The following is intended to be helpful.

    1. any attempt to collect money from individual charges such as car parking and toilet use at green spaces will be rebuffed as too expensive to install, safeguard, collect and administer.

    2. charging schools would be counter-productive and negate any idea of encouraging the next generation to appreciate and care for these spaces

    3. major events have an ecological cost. Witness the destruction of the flora and fauna of the Arboretum caused by 50 years of the Illuminations

    I fully endorse your comments on maintenance priotities. These need to be reviewed to achieve a better balance between urban and open space work.

    Perhaps some form of budget delegation, in line with the Councils apparent general committment to local management, could be considered?

    Also, the Green Skills idea is a belter. I can only hope that the Councils much publicised apprenticeship scheme includes this area.

    I doubt it.

    The Realist

  2. Thanks for your input, which is appreciated.
    All I am is a mouthpiece for the campaign. All the suggestions on the financial side were put together from all the posts on the Facebook Group plus emails etc that I received. I didn't see it as my job to delete/amend/invigorate any suggestions. The points you have raised were subject of heated debate on the group. There is no way that a full concensus of opinion could ever be reached on such a subject.
    When I speak from a personal capacity I say so in order that there is no confusion! At the Cabinet meeting I was given permission to speak on behalf of the Network as well as the Fb group. As I published everything, I hope that I was as fair in representing the diverse views and opinions of the group as I could be.