Last week I attended the West Midlands Parks Forum at The Midlands Art Centre in Cannon Hill park, Birmingham. A fitting venue for the meeting, set in the heart of Birmingham. Cannon Hill park was in fact one of the first parks I worked in when I was a parks apprentice working for Birmingham City Council in the early 1970s. It is Birmingham’s premier park, set in over 300 acres of prime city land - one of over 180 parks and open spaces that Birmingham Council manage.
The West Midlands Parks Forum was originally established in 1986 by the former West Midlands Chief Leisure Officers Association as a response to Compulsory Competitive Tendering.
They are a networking and advocacy body managed and led by their own members (Parks Officers) from across the public, private and charitable sectors.
The Forum has a membership of around 40 local authorities and green space professionals within the region, which is defined as Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. They also welcome participation from those outside of their region.
The Forum seeks to exchange information between members on best practice within parks and green space management and maintenance and raise awareness about the contribution of parks and green space to quality of life.
The Forum meets bi-monthly, at venues around the region and in addition holds an annual one-day seminar or conference. The Forum has a good reputation within the region and the profession. Meetings and seminars are well attended.
The reason for my visit was to catch up with the new proposals to amalgamate both the East Midlands and West Midlands parks forums to form one more central, larger organisation to reflect the changes and challenges of an ever-changing model of parks management.
This allows the forming of a new charitable organisation which will extend their reach within the region and offer increased opportunities for members. Resilient heritage funding has enabled them to develop a business plan, with day to day management undertaken by the Partnership Manager until 2020.
The day’s meeting was also the chance for attendees to discuss and agree a proposal for setting up a new board of trustees and agreeing new membership rates and charges to ensure the sustainability of West Midlands Parks Forum.
This new West Midlands Parks Forum would enable over 70 local authorities to participate and join the group, thus bringing in additional members and clients to benefit from the opportunity to network with so many parks professionals.
During the morning’s meeting we had a couple of interesting presentations, including one from Joe Hayden, parks services manager for Birmingham City Council, who gave an interesting insight into the new parks accelerator programme they are participating in along with seven other local authorities.
This new £10 million ‘Future Parks Accelerator’ programme launched by the National Trust and Heritage Lottery Fund is a new initiative that aims to secure a future for urban parks and green spaces.
The pilot scheme, the first in the country, is currently being tried out by eight local authorities and communities to develop and implement bold and innovative funding and management solutions for all their green spaces, against a challenging backdrop of financial uncertainty.
The eight local authorities chosen for this pilot scheme are Birmingham City Council, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole unitary authority, Bristol City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council (and the six other associated local authorities), London Boroughs of Camden and Islington, City of Edinburgh Council, Nottingham City Council and Plymouth City Council.
Joe was keen to point out that Parks management had to change, and this new scheme will help develop ways to enhance and sustain the way we manage parks and open spaces in the future.
The scheme is centred on valuing the assets we have and finding the best way to utilise the skills and resources to manage these valuable assets.
As most of us who work in the industry know, the value these parks bring in terms of promoting health and wellbeing is often unmeasurable - but it is now time to work closely with other agencies and restore the opportunities to make these parks self-supporting and valued in society.
This New Parks accelerator programme is a two-year programme to do just that. Birmingham are now starting to see the benefits from this work.
The aim of the programme will support places to grow the contribution parks make to civic life, whilst becoming financially sustainable. It will involve discovering how parks and green spaces could be better used, managed and funded to serve community needs and aspirations now and over the next generation.
Ian Baggot then spoke on behalf of Paul Rabbits, who was unable to attend the meeting, on the latest news about his idea of establishing a new Institute for Parks Management or whether to align with an existing organisation. Well the response was overwhelming with over 600 individual responses from across the UK with a significant spread from London, the Midlands, North West, Yorkshire and the North -East, Scotland and South Wales. The results of the survey and summary of the way forward can be read here.
Next to speak was Stuart Wetherell (Wicksteed Director) who gave the members an interesting talk on Inclusive Play. Wicksteed has been supplying children’s outdoor playground equipment since 1918, boasting the widest range of commercial play equipment in the UK.
Stuart spoke about the issues facing local authorities on the selection and choice of play equipment that is now available to ensure they are able to provide an inclusive play space for all generations, a universally designed, sensory-rich environment that enables children to develop physically, socially and emotionally. An engaging place that provides the just-right level of challenge and offers opportunities to succeed. A place that goes beyond minimum accessibility to create play experiences that meet a variety of needs and interests.
He showed us a number of playgrounds the company had recently installed and talked about the issues that they overcame to ensure the quality and performance of the equipment met all regulatory standards. Having managed playgrounds myself, I am only too aware of the issues that come about in their design and installation as well as their upkeep.
A more in-depth piece by Stuart from Wicksteed will be featured in TurfPro in the coming weeks.