Proposed Cuts to Parks and Nature Conservation Budget, BCC

Highbury Orchard Community works outdoors on Highbury estate and in the park. We are naturally concerned about the proposed cuts to a budget that affects parks in the city. I (Liz) have therefore limited my thoughts here to cuts in that department.

BCC are looking to make substantial cuts from non-statutory service areas. One of these is Parks and Nature Conservation, where it is proposing to make a 20% cut in the following manner:

A.      Withdraw park keepers

B.      Reduce the Rangers Hubs from 6 to 2, to focus on land management, risk assessments and repairs.

C.      Grass cutting to be reduced to 20%, in parks, open spaces and highways

D.      Remove 50% flowerbeds, to be grassed over

E.       Remove all hanging baskets and planters, expect where fully funded from other sources.

The Impact – a strain on statutory services

The primary effects of these cuts would create more unkempt areas in parks and open spaces, greater areas given over the grass only, drab civic areas, and little or no public engagement from the Rangers.

The knock-on effects from these (the secondary effects) are more significant. Parks and open urban spaces are places where ordinary people manage their own well-being. This asset is hidden, so it takes a little imagination to see their therapeutic value and appreciate the real impact they have on people’s lives. With the proposed cuts, ugly open spaces would attract fewer visitors making them less safe, increasing the incidence of anti-social behaviour and creating no-go areas. More grass and less cutting means more grass pollen. This would cause an increase in hayfever and  asthma, with a subsequent strain on the NHS. This should never be part of Council’s plan. Less public engagement means less physical and outdoor activity, less socialising and a reduced sense of well-being. These in turn make life’s stresses more difficult to manage, and for some people that will precipitate mental illness, lose physical fitness, or both. A strain on Public Health.

Clearly open spaces themselves AND the opportunity to engage with nature in them should be highly valued. So why is this department non-statutory? This is a major oversight on the part of Council, which appears not to have been strategic in its planning and management of departmental structures.

 

Strategy – Sharing Resources for Mutual Benefit.

This department should be highly valued, and the Ranger Service would seem to be key in its implementation, especially when engaging volunteers. I have been inspired by the concept of Sharing Cities (Chris Boyko and his team), where activities may be of mutual benefit to two or more groups. This concept certainly seems to apply to the Ranger Service and their ability to engage members of the public in conservation work. I wonder if this could extend to grass cutting (using scythes), and tending to flowerbeds and hanging baskets? If we citizens of Birmingham grasped the truth, that the pleasure of our outdoor environment could drop immensely, perhaps we would join in to take up the baton.

 

How to Organise It

Sadly Council did not have the foresight to respond at a time when they could see this coming. I presume it also does not have the funds or infrastructure to support the Ranger Service to take on further responsibilities. So an independent Ranger Service could be formed – perhaps a business enterprise with a strong social model which secures the goodwill of local people for local spaces and gives them decision-making powers, a cooperative maybe.

Meanwhile, Council needs to learn some new lessons. A fresh look at sustainable business models would draw an analogy from Nature itself: biodiversity is more sustainable than a monoculture, and helps create an ecosystem that is self-supporting.  In the same way, Council should avoid drawing up a large contract with a single business giant, but prefer to diversify and spread responsibilities among local groups which have the potential to support one another.

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