“Written evidence submitted by the Friends of Blythe Hill Fields [PKS 199]
- The Friends of Blythe Hill Fields believe that support for parks should be a statutory part of local authorities’ duties, and they should be resourced accordingly
- We survey our park users regularly, and recently they have collectively expressed that they chiefly use our park for physical exercise and for children’s play
- Wildlife and biodiversity are important to our community, and we know this also through our regular survey
- We, as a voluntary community group, have good relationships with the local council and their contracted park management company, Glendale, and this tri-partite relationship works well for us in general, although we do also feel the effects of limitations on funding
- Limited funding is particularly concerning when it affects the health and safety of park users by limiting maintenance of equipment and trees in our park.
1. Who we are and our reason for submitting evidence
1.1 The Friends of Blythe Hill Fields is a voluntary community group established in 2003 originally as a park user group. Blythe Hill Fields is in Lewisham, and is around 6 hectares of open space, with some trees and blessed with an incredible view of London. We hold quarterly public meetings to which all members of the community are invited, and we have a mailing list of 418 people and an active facebook community of 451. Since 2011 we’ve run an annual festival on the park, which generally turns a profit running into thousands, used to improve the park. Over the years we’ve installed, or facilitated or organised the following:
1.1.1 A series of fox proof bins to improve a litter problem, 2016
1.1.2 A trim-trail, installed with the help of a grant in 2015
1.1.3 Planted 45 trees, with the support of the park management and the charity trees for cities, 2014 – 16
1.1.4 A highly popular playground, paid for largely by a government grant in 2010
1.1.5 Held an annual bat walk, 2014 – 16, attracting around 70 people each time
1.1.6 Planted 600 hedge whips which in time have grown into hedging around the park
1.1.7 Planted bulbs annually, improving the spring appearance of the park
1.2 Our position has always fallen between the community, the council, which owns the land of Blythe Hill Fields and as such are legally responsible for it, and Glendale grounds management, who are contracted by the council to maintain it. We feel we represent the community, which is diverse and in a constant state of change. We do this by surveying and by being open to comment and criticism and widely publicizing our meetings, the minutes of which are always available online. We need to negotiate changes and improvements with Glendale, who are mandated to collaborate with the communities around the parks they manage, and the council, who have a wider legal remit also including wildlife legislation, a local biodiversity strategy and a green space strategy. Often these forces support us, by giving sometimes extra financial support, often logistical and practical support, and also advice and moral support. Sometimes these relationships do not support our ends, but largely they do and we are proud of the way that we manage them.
2. Who uses our park, when and for what purpose
2.1 We have just concluded a survey our local community to hear opinions on the park and its future direction. 292 people responded to online and paper copies, and the results were encouraging. 88.5% of park users found their visits to Blythe Hill Fields to be ‘very good’. The majority come for the playground or for the fitness equipment, although 20% come to observe wildlife. One of the areas of ‘most important change’ has been about wildlife and biodiversity, showing that the voluntary work of the Friends has been noticed and appreciated.
2.2 Popular requests include a fixed-site café and toilets, both of which could contribute towards raising money to support the park.
2.3 Blythe Hill Fields is always open, so people do come at night in the summer, but few come overall as the park is not lit, one reason for which is to allow wildlife to follow the natural course of daylight and night.
3. The contribution of parks to health and well-being
3.1 There is enormous body of evidence suggesting that contact with nature, even in a limited way, has very positive effects on physical and mental health, community cohesion and antisocial behaviour. The RSPB commissioned a study in 2007 which pulled together extensive research showing that crime rates were reduced, mental health better, educational attainment higher and family relationships more stable in areas with even minimal amounts of green. (Source: http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalthinking_tcm9-161856.pdf)
3.2 Large numbers of local users of the park say that they bring their children to the playground almost every day as their homes are too restrictive for small children to spend long periods of time in. The park offers safe space in which to allow them to run around and play games, which is invaluable to their physical health, and hence also their mental health and development. As pointed out in our user survey, recently concluded, the majority of park users come to the playground or to do physical exercise.
3.3 A quote from a regular park user expressed this well for us: “…it provides an essential respite from the busy and traffic-choked streets of London….we walk, cycle and scoot alongside traffic jams with damaging fumes and dangerous cars. Parks allow my son the freedom to run and to play with his friends – to learn to ride a bike and fly a kite. To learn about wildlife and get muddy in an otherwise largely concrete world”.
4. The impact of reductions in Local Authority budgets on parks
4.1 We are aware that the budgets allocated to the contract with Glendale grounds management has been reduced year on year. This has meant fewer litter pickups, which has meant that the problem of litter has fallen to the community to solve. Likewise, tree maintenance has also suffered, leading to potentially dangerous situations where dead trees and trees with dead limbs sway in high winds with no intervention. The council state that they rely on the public to report dangerous trees, which on one occasion we did, but it took over a month for the council to attend to it.
4.2 The relationships that have served us so well as a community have suffered as well. There is a feeling that what the community wants is not necessarily heard or adhered to, and there is a lack of communication, due mainly to a lack of time and capacity by Glendale or the council rather than miscomprehension or lack of will.
4.3 There is a sense that the Friends take the place of the authorities, in terms of raising concerns, making strategy or prioritizing, and this can be seen as a healthy aspect of local democracy. However, despite our best efforts, a small group of motivated individuals cannot genuinely speak for the needs of thousands of park users so the voices of some will necessarily not be considered in the decisions we make. Similarly, the problem with over-reliance on a volunteer group is its fluctuating nature: volunteers cannot be guaranteed to remain constant and deliver essential services effectively.
4.4 To date, the impact of loss of funding on our park is minimal as all stakeholders around our park have worked harder to do more with less, and Blythe Hill Fields does not have many amenities that need intensive maintenance: our best amenity is the view. However, we feel that the status quo is fragile and more cuts without changes in priorities or re-shaping our park’s management would have a detrimental effect, particularly on health and safety, and this is concerning to our local community.
5. What the administrative status of parks should be in the light of declining Local Authority resource for non-statutory service
5.1 We believe that support for parks should become statutory and local authorities, or similar organisations, should be given the resource to support them effectively, given enormous benefits they bring to inner city communities in terms of the unpaid services that they render to many areas of our lives. Examples include:
5.1.1: Reducing dangerous air pollution. Large quantities of nitrogen oxide and tiny particulates can be removed by broadleaved trees species, especially in the summer months. One estimate is that one sixth of London’s considerable air pollution is absorbed by trees. Source: (http://www.urbantreecover.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/LondoniTree.pdf)
5.1.2: Providing space for physical exercise. We are told that one in four British adults is obese, while obesity among children is rising. Parks provide the space for gentle walking, which is incredibly beneficial to health, as well as space for children’s both structured sports (such as football clubs) and unstructured physical play, of immeasurable benefit to children’s health. Blythe Hill Fields hosts three children’s sports clubs, and two adult structured sport activities.
5.1.3: The park provides a place for social meetings, alleviating loneliness among older residents and facilitating families’ meeting and friendships among dog-walkers, parents and children. Such social links enrich healthy social capital and can alleviate the mental health problems that arise from social isolation. At any time of the day at least three people can be seen chatting on the Fields, and one man with dementia spends most of the day sitting on a bench, where he’s so well known that countless people sit and talk to him during the day.
5.1.4 Providing spaces for valuable biodiversity without which any horticultural effort in the local area would potentially suffer, i.e. lack of pollination for flowers and allotments and the risk of over-development of pest species, such as greenfly and slugs and snails.
5.1.5 providing cool spaces in heat waves, and cooling buildings near them if positioned near stands of trees. (Source: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/2890-Forest_Report_Pages.pdf/$FILE/2890-Forest_Report_Pages.pdf)
5.1.6 Mitigating noise pollution and noise nuisanceby providing space for people to do noisy things and for young people to let off excess energy. Many people play noisy musical instruments and have noisy social gatherings in our park, which disturb very few people as it’s large enough to absorb the sound.
6. How new and existing parks can best be supported and what scope there is for Local Authorities to generate income from park users
6.1 How existing parks are supported is ultimately a local decision, based upon the make up of the surrounding area. There are some parks in our area that are surrounded by relatively affluent residents and support for such spaces is driven through the voluntary approach. In other areas, there are large green spaces where there are significant social problems such as high unemployment and low educational attainment, so a lack of engagement in improving local areas often follows from this.
6.2 The support for parks would best be administered through a clear assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the locality, to determine how the space can complement the existing area. In inner cities such as London, the volume of support and interest, together with need for funding can vary significantly over relatively small geographical areas. In terms of new parks, a clear assessment of the local vicinity and an understanding of any gaps in provision is essential to making the best use of limited resources and providing adequate support. For parks to be best they may benefit from marketing and focus groups to identify relevant factors and enlist the support of the local community from the onset.
6.3 There is significant scope for local authorities to generate income from park users. For this to reach its full potential the local authority would need to be clear to park users what the income would be used for and show a tangible link to the income generated and how the park will benefit. This would require consultation, in the form of user surveys for example. Such opportunities might include:
6.3.1 Income from park users such as outdoor gym classes, forest schools, corporate events, film location, etc. can generate income
6.3.2 Cafes in parks can be run to put resource back into park
6.3.3 A self-financing model with grants for start ups
6.4 Beyond park users, there are also businesses and organisations which should be involved in discussions with local authorities regarding parks funding. There should also be significant strategic joint working to ensure that parks can tap into relevant income streams and this can be achieved through local planning agreements and strategic partnership boards.
6.5 In terms of resourcing parks in an inner city environment, working alongside regeneration and development programmes is key. Existing frameworks such as S.106 of the Town and Country Planning Act and the more recent Community Infrastructure Levy should be effectively managed by local authorities to ensure that a strategic view on park spending and that the amount of money available from each development is scrutinized and maximized.
7. The advantages and disadvantages of other management models, such as privatization, outsourcing or mutualisation.
7.1 The privatization of public spaces is something that would not protect the long term future of our parks. Whilst the opportunities for financing new facilities could be increased through sponsorship, branding and corporate events we believe many park users would echo the view that our parks and green spaces are somewhere to get away from the high street or retail park. In the same way that there are controls on children’s television advertising parents may also be concerned by branding and advertising in children’s playgrounds and this could lead to a decline in park user satisfaction, and a reduction in users itself. Privatization goes against the egalitarian principles of public spaces and an unclear future may lie ahead, as privatization runs the risk of land being included in development proposals.
7.2 The outsourcing model works effectively in our local authority. The council has overall control of contract management and the works are carried out by a single private company, as mentioned above. This ensures that the grounds maintenance is managed with a clear consideration of cost and the authority has the security of a fixed cost for the work through the lifetime of the contract. From the park users’ perspective, however, this can seem overly complicated and bureaucratic as lines of responsibility are not always made clear. Outsourcing does mean that the local authority loses some control of the management of its green spaces, and it is vital that in tendering companies to undertake the work that the culture and strategic needs of the authority is made clear and understood by those awarded the contract.
7.3 Running parks on the premise of mutualisation links itself to the localism agenda, which has prevailed in public sector delivery since 2010. Devolution of power in principle creates more efficient public services. However, we believe this still requires significant top level governance. It may lead to stagnation unless agreed principles are identified at an early stage. The success of this approach also relates to scale: if each individual park was run by a co-op there runs the risk of a lack of joined up working and strategic alignment which may lead to a greater contrast to the provision of parks and services