On the 18th January I, with over 100 parks managers and officers, attended a Zoom meeting to hear delegates from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Parks and Green Spaces speak.
A number of MPs turned up from both Labour and Conservative to hear the concerns of parks professionals including Paul Rabbitts representing the Parks Management Association and Paul Todd of Green Flag Awards, who gave presentations stating the current state of parks and requesting that government would do something to prevent further decline of parks services.
Pauls Rabbitt’s presentation focussed on an email that he received before Christmas from a parks manager who, having worked in the industry for thirty plus years, was concerned about the current state of his industry. This plea for help was centred on his experiences and evidence of what is happening in many local authorities up and down the country.
The letter read –
“Parks staff are broken, disheartened and aging – people have forgotten we’ve been in serious measures for over a decade, and compounded with 2 years of COVID, public expectations of green spaces what they should be like and what service we can provide with the resources we have. We are on our knees.
Complaints are on the increase. Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) – the kids have gone feral and we are suffering vandalism, weekly on sites all over the borough. Two play areas have had to be removed/decommissioned this summer due to ASB. Safer Neighbourhood policing reduced = reduced youth services = no engagement. Arson and vandalism increased, and it’s taking a toll on the revenue budget.
Friends and volunteers are struggling to keep going, aging, frustrated, disheartened by the ASB, and reduced support from us. The current recession and what happens over the next few years as we are asked to tighten our belts even further. 35yrs in and I’ve never seen it this bad.
We need to support the volunteers we have as best we can, we can’t afford to lose them. During covid we did have an increase in volunteer litter pickers, which was a god send with the increased footfall.
We have reduced grass cutting frequencies over the last 5yrs – which is now branded as rewilding. More areas to come under the new banner next year. The push to plant trees, is meaning we are again reducing areas of grass cutting within some of our lesser used sites planting small copse and mini orchards.
Only seasonal bedding we now have is around the Town Hall – the rest was taken out of schedules in 201. Any seasonal in our district parks is arranged by the Friends groups from funds they have raised, but it’s minimal.
There is no capital for development, this has been like this for decades (revenue is laughable). All development /new facilities are funded via external grants /106/ whatever the three of us can get our hands on - but we are on our knees answering complaints and firefighting.
No different to everywhere else I expect.
I would love to hear what little easy wins others are trying – but while housing, social services and education remain top of the list, poor old parkies will always get the short straw.”
Something needs to happen
I believe this is a very sad account of where we are now. I personally have seen this across all parts of the country. As a Green flag judge, the standards in parks and public open spaces are definitely on the decline. For me, this is a national scandal in that successive governments (Labour and Conservative) have done nothing to rectify or control this decline.
We have so much evidence to portray the value of these parks in numerous reports and documents, but no notice is being taken. This decline has been happening for years. It really began on the back of the Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) Act of 1980.
This was an initiative whereby local authorities were forced to open up in-house services, such as refuse collection and road maintenance, to private competition in an effort to cut costs and improve value for money.
Since then, we have seen a continued decline in spending in local authorities. However I do agree that there was a need for authorities to work more efficiently. We did, and probable still do, waste a lot of money ticking boxes and having lots of middle management. The worry for me is that once these experienced parks managers retire in the next ten years, who will replace them?
There are sadly very few hands-on operatives who have been on the tools and have had the opportunity to work their way up the chain of command.
We now have a very different landscape manager to the ones I was brought up with. Also management techniques and ways of working have changed out of all recognition.
Over the years I have seen a significant decline in the horticultural skills being taught and promoted in the modern management of parks services. The standard of horticultural excellence is limited with fewer and fewer horticultural practices being undertaken.
Maintenance budgets have been slashed over many years. I also hear of local authorities struggling to employ young people to come and work in this environment. We do have a number of apprentice schemes happening within some local authorities, but these are sporadic.
This problem of recruiting is not just happening in local authority sector. I see it happening in all aspects of the sports grounds and gardens industry.
I hear on a daily basis the concerns of businesses that struggle to attract young people to come and work in this diverse industry. Many Premiership football clubs are finding it difficult to employ new staff. This is also being seen across many sectors of our industry. The new generation are not interested in a career in horticulture / sports ground / landscape related jobs. I feel this is mainly down the fact that pay and conditions are poor compared to other career opportunities.
As an industry both the GMA and BIGGA and many other organisations have been talking about this for many years. However, talking about it is one thing, but delivering is another.
I personally think it is now time to act. We need to see something happen in the next two years.
I believe it is now time for all these leading organisations - such as GMA, BIGGA, PMA, BAGMA Landscape Institute, Fields in Trust, RHS, R&A, Arb Association and others - to finally come together with some of the major manufacturer CEOs to agree a way of nationally selling our industry and making everybody aware of the career opportunities that can be found within it. This can be achieved with a national campaign that can go into schools and promote the importance of this industry and the range of career opportunities it offers.
We also need to set up a National UK Apprentice scheme funded by the Government and private monies to develop a national 2-year introductory programme, working with existing colleges, that will see at least 1000 apprentices a year trained. In five years’ time we would then have had 5,000 additional people coming into his industry. This would be a game changer.
The time for talking and promising must stop. It is time we came together as one and solved many of the current problems we are facing today.