Recently I posted an interesting video that, for me, highlighted the concerns I now have for the future of many valuable public open spaces and sport facilities run by local authorities.
In recent years we have seen trends by local authorities to either pass on the responsibility of these facilities to a third party, close them down, or sell them off to be built upon to gain land sale monies or reduce their overheads.
Brackenwood Golf Club, along with the other Wirral Municipal Golf Clubs (Arrowe Park, Warren, Irby, West Hoyle, Hoylake) now have renewed hope and optimism for the future following a crucial vote at Wirral Council’s Policy and Resources committee meeting held last Wednesday, 17th February 2021, to safeguard the closure of these four golf courses.
Speaking after the meeting, Brackenwood Golf Club Secretary Keith Marsh said:
“We would like to thank the Labour group for formulating a budget that saves our much loved Golf courses and open spaces. The Golf Clubs that have these courses as their home base, and have done so for many hundreds of years between them are now more optimistic for the future. We are obviously a little disappointed that other parties did not see the merit in the proposed budget but hope that they can be convinced of it for full council in March.
"However, we are under no illusion, Golf does need a longer-term strategic plan to make the service more successful and attractive to players. We need to see that the council has that vision to move the service and golf forward for the future and we would expect the starting point to be agreed recommendations from the workshops and reviews carried out only in 2019 which include a plan for 8 years of investment to bring course back up to standard. This we believe, will enable the subsidy to be reduced and offer all our Club’s a longer term secure future, but for now we wait with hope and optimism that Wirral Council will deliver upon its agreements. Of course, the newly formed Alliance of Wirral Municipal Golf Clubs will be on hand to scrutinise proposals and hold Wirral council to account. But for now we must again recognise the hard work and dedication of Councillor’s Muspratt, Cottier, Williams and Lewis and we look forward to carrying our relationship with them into the future”.
This whole saga began when Wirral Council produced figures of a potential saving of £273,000 per year if they offloaded the responsibility and management of these four golf courses. And this saga had been going on for several years.
This is a worrying trend which I believe is ruining the reputation of many local authorities and, over time, is effectively diminishing the services and skills they historically provided.
Examples similar to this have been replicated many times over the years, resulting in the loss of valuable land assets and sports facilities once managed by the councils.
In recent times we have seen the passing on of ownership and management of these land assets to town councils, parrish councils and third parties who themselves then have to upskill to acquire the practices and costs of managing these sites. Technically passing the buck!
Having watched the video, I was keen to find out more about this situation, and duly contacted Keith Marsh, the secretary of Brackenwood Golf Club to find out more information.
It was obvious that Keith and some of his golf associates were keen to put up a fight to save their beloved golf course and rightly ask the council questions about what was happening regarding the future of their golf course - plus the three others that had been mentioned in a proposed scheme to sell them off or indeed close them.
Keith has since posted another video that helps further explain the situation:
Whilst another video shows the stance that most local authorities now find themselves in and having to justify their actions
Historic lack of investment
While I admit it must be a challenging set of issues for the council to undertake and overcome, not least finding the funding, for me this is purely down to the lack of investment and vision and poor management of resources and assets over many, many, years. This council will not be alone, there are many who have faced similar scenarios and will do for years to come.
The seeds of its demise were sown way back when the Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) Act of 1988 was introduced, forcing councils to be more accountable for the services they provided.
This was an initiative whereby local authorities were forced to open up in-house services, such as refuse collection, grounds and road maintenance etc. to private competition in an effort to cut costs and improve value for money. The Best Value regime eventually largely replaced CCT.
The success of this scheme was purely down to how councils would react and take on board this new policy with many being influenced by its political agendas. The net result was a complete transformation in their way of working. Some embraced it, others rebelled, and consequently we ended up with an unprecedented range of service agreements both in-house or externally managed by private contractors / service providers.
However, the major change that has disrupted services in my eyes has been the constant ever ongoing internal management restructures and strategy changes that go on within departments that over time have affected the way services are delivered managed and budgeted.
Many council services have been decimated, or transferred into other large portfolios, and have seen budgets lost and distributed to cover other functions. Therefore, we have lost or severely reduced some frontline services - with parks and green spaces taking the brunt of these changes.
There’s no denying it, the STRI report in this case has highlighted the fact there has been no significant investment in these golf courses for thirty plus years. This is a trend seen at many other local authorities up and down the country.
As a Green Flag judge, I also do find it hard to comprehend when often asking council officers if they know what their annual budgets are for maintaining a specific park or open space, many officers cannot give me a precise budgetary figure? Nine times out of ten it is often part of a bigger service agreement and not known.
Without this information it makes it very difficult to manage and maintain relevant standards of provision. I have seen it myself, and it was one of the reasons I came out of local authority management. I basically lost my voice and the levels of service I wanted to deliver were not seen as a priority. No effort was made to invest and no entrepreneurial spirit was encouraged. Hence the reason many parks and open spaces, as in the case of these four golf courses, were left to a path of deterioration and neglect. In the end a substantial amount of money is required to bring them back to a condition to become viable assets again.
Luckily, all is not lost. There are some authorities that have invested well and produced a sustainable model that brings in substantial income to help them maintain their facilities to a modern day standard.
Let’s hope that this council can move on and start begin a programme of investment to retain these unique golf course facilities.