Remember George Osborne? Remember the Tories’ Housing Bill earlier this year? Remember the threat to Council assets it contained – to libraries, parks. . . ?
Labour’s John Healey warned about the likely consequences of George’s plans to plug the holes he’d made in the public purse back then. And we duly passed on his warning.
The threat to our public parks continues. And Labour is still on the case.
Labour’s Clive Betts is chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee in Parliament.
And he is so concerned about the future of our public parks , that his Committee launched a public consultation this summer.
As Clive put it then:
‘”Whether it is kicking the ball about with friends, joining a park run, walking the dog or just relaxing with a paperback, people value their local parks.
But with councils under enormous financial pressures and with no legal obligation to fund and maintain public parks, these precious community resources may be at risk.
The Committee will be asking what the future is for our open spaces and we want to explore the ways in which parks can be supported and secured for generations to come.’
Leeds Labour Council has responded to the enquiry.
The threat to our public parks here in Leeds is very real.
‘The council has placed a strong emphasis on sustaining the principle that parks and green spaces are protected and free to access by the public during times of austerity.
The impact of the current budget situation threatens to compromise the ability to sustain standards achieved and indeed could threaten a return to the decline experienced in the 1970s and 1980s.’
Faced with drastic budget cuts over the years of Tory/LibDem and now Tory government, the Labour Council has made every effort to ensure continued access to parks maintained to the highest standards.
‘the key idea [is] civic enterprise where the council becomes more enterprising; businesses and partners more civic; and the public more engaged.’
A good example of this is Golden Acre Park here in Leeds NW, where ‘ a local company has donated a conservatory which is now in place along with a recently extended patio area. This was also used as a catalyst for other improvements and enabled funding for a ‘changing places’ toilet facility, a shelter for dog walkers and an extended patio area which has sustained outdoor seating capacity.’
The Council has also encouraged volunteer activity – which plays an enormous role now – with an estimated 29,000 volunteer days each year, equivalent to around 109 full-time equivalent staff!
Leeds has much to be proud of in its parks – 4000 hectares in the city, 7 major parks, 62 community parks – and 7 parks which have achieved Green Flag status, our own Otley Chevin and Goldan Acre among them.
But there’s a limit to what the council can do to protect them in the face of year-on-year cuts to its budgets.
‘The Parks and Countryside net budget has reduced from £14 million in 2010 to £8 million in 2016/17 (over 40%), with likely reductions to £6 million (a further 25%) over the next 3 years. The budget reduction is primarily being managed by increasing income, but has also involved cost savings by reducing the number of back office staff and by adopting seasonal working hours.’
Under pressure from the Tory government – and its LibDem/Tory predecessor – the council is doing all that it can to maximise the commercial potential of its assets.
But Leeds faces an extremely difficult year in 2017/18. It will be forced to save £82 million – the loss of gardening staff is on the cards, with obvious results for the parks.
Leeds parks are enormously popular with the people of our city.
96% of us visit one of our parks every year, 51% visit most days, or once or twice a week. The benefits for our health are obvious, and parks also play a key role in our local community life.
Quite simply, we just enjoy them.
The Leeds response to Clive Betts’ enquiry makes it clear that the Labour Council is doing everything it can to ensure that free access to the best possible parks continues to be something we can all continue to enjoy.
But it also issues a warning.
There’s a limit to what can be achieved by civic enterprise. Parks are arguably most important in areas of the city where there is least commercial potential. If parks are to remain free to access, then the Council’s core funding must be able to sustain them.
That ball is firmly in the Tories’ court.
We need to keep up the pressure and ensure they don’t kick it into the long grass.