Why our parks need help to survive

Our parks and open spaces will need help if they are going to survive the latest round of local government cuts.

Parks and open spaces are so far down the list of council priorities that along with libraries they are immediately at the forefront of any proposed reductions but there is very little if any fat left to cut.

We are told we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic making access to exercise even more imperative. Parks are free and ideal places to locate sports and play facilities.

So is the answer not for councils and health authorities to pool resources to make parks inviting places for people to come a play and exercise rather than return them to the no go areas of the 1970s.

I feel  justified to comment as the chair of Friends groups covering Norwood Park in Lambeth and Grangewood Park in Croydon.

The unique mature Oak trees in Grangewood Park

The unique mature Oak trees in Grangewood Park

Just miles apart both have very different issues which are equally frustrating and with problems that seem insurmountable at times.

For my part, I give up my time in the hope that these two parks once part of the Great North Wood,  will provide generations to come with free open space to enjoy.

However, the biggest obstacles for parks to overcome are local authorities.

In the case of Lambeth after years of making parks nice safe places for residents to go with good standards of amenities this is all now in free fall.

Lambeth is proposing to cut the parks budget by as much as 50 per cent and in the same vain it is trying to get the local community to take on parks by forming cooperatives who will have to work to these impossible budgets. It is virtually impossible to cut through the bureaucracy to get answers as to how this can possibly work without being properly resourced.

In Lambeth council officers have become commissioners or delivery leads and belong to clusters, titles which are useless when you want to know why the toilets are shut in the park and when they will reopen.

Can we not just have properly run parks, with facilities which are well maintained? Why does it all have to be so overcomplicated? Of course it comes down to money as it always does and management.

Now Lambeth is all about transforming parks in to businesses, making money from events and turning park cafes into mini Costas.

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Norwood Park has amazing panoramic views of London

Friends raised funds for outdoor gym

Friends raised funds for Norwood Park gym

While in Croydon the previous administration ran the parks so far in to the ground that I am not sure there is any way back, though the optimist in me really doesn’t want to believe that.

The parks department is run by a handful of staff, the last parks and open spaces strategy expired five years ago and a silly thing like a capital investment programme doesn’t exist.

In Lambeth parks have facilities, but now when they break as the toilets or play equipment did in Norwood Park, when and if they get fixed is a completely different question.

Meanwhile Grangewood has no toilets or café.

The play equipment is outdated and what is a unique wood in the heart of urban Thornton Heath is maintained in an erratic fashion leaving it looking overgrown and neglected. The only saving grace in recent months is the work done by Community Payback who seem to do the majority of maintenance in the park these days on behalf of the contractor and in return are given a Portaloo to use.

Friends groups are the mainstay of any park organising events, raising funds and lobbying the council to ensure the park is well maintained and looked after. Ultimately though the control belongs to the council.

For instance in Norwood Park £12,000 of S106 money is being spent on a meadow when we need new modern public toilets. A meadow while attractive is short lived and parks users won’t spend long periods of time in a park without access to toilets.

In Grangewood Park we desperately need a more modern playground but the only way this will be achieved is if the Friends raise the money. We are happy to do so but most funders require an element of match funding and this  could be achieved through the the council applying for S106 money but the parks department say they have no one available to fill in the application form.

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What’s worse is that I don’t think it will get any better and the only way to reverse this trend is for national and local government to recognise the financial benefits of parks outweigh the costs.

Parks can’t vote but Friends groups and communities can so please lobby your local council, councillors and MPs and make our parks and open spaces a priority.