Friday 16 November 2012

Why You Are Wrong To Put Your Faith In Councils...

Alison Benjamin (editor of the Guardian's Society section and co-author of A World Without Bees and Keeping Bees and Making Honey) thinks parks are the bee’s knees:
More adults want councils to protect spending on green spaces, including parks and playgrounds, than spending on libraries, youth clubs and helping people find work. Nine out of 10 adults in the Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by environmental charity Groundwork said green spaces are an important factor in making somewhere a good place to live or work.
Yes, well, that’s the problem with surveys – they tend to provide the answer the people running them seek.

It's all in the way you phrase the questions, as S Weasel shows us.

I'm pretty sure if the libraries people ran a survey, or the association of youth club leaders, it’d miraculously find a quite different answer!
… a range of environmental bodies will argue in Manchester on Wednesday that failure to maintain investment in green space is a false economy.
Well, yes. Of course they will.
Green spaces near our homes give us valuable places to get to know our neighbours, and build the social glue that reduces crime, says a report on the benefits of green space.
"High-quality, well-maintained parks and green spaces make a significant contribution to the establishment and retention of stable and law-abiding communities," it says.
It also states that if everyone had easy access to green spaces, obesity costs to the NHS could be reduced by up to £2bn, and that the calming effect of green spaces has been shown to reduce hospital admissions for mental illness in deprived urban areas in the US.
Far-fetched claims?
Well, almost certainly, but that doesn't usually stop people, does it?
Not if we remember the origins of public parks. The first official acknowledgment of the need for my local park in east London came in the 1839 annual report of the registrar general of births, deaths and marriages.
Recording a mortality rate far higher than the rest of London, brought about by overcrowding, insanitary conditions and polluted air, he wrote: "A park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousands … and add several years to the lives of the entire population."
And in 1839 it was indeed a good idea, but then, in 1839 we were a vastly different society to the one we have now, weren't we?

I rather doubt that in 1839 they had gangs of disaffected youth, muggers, drugs dealing, litter, dangerous dogs, disrespect for property… all things which plague modern day parks.
Today in the UK we don't need parks to prevent diseases spreading, but they still provide a range of vital benefits. So how can we pay for them? The majority of those polled want councils to pay for their upkeep.
But 40% said money from sponsorship by local companies should foot the bill. In Manchester, MPs worked closely with major industrialists to bring parks to cities.
Is that the way forward 150 years on?
Well, as a commenter points out, it better not be left solely to the public sector!
I have been waiting 10 years for this article: I worked as a ranger in Ealing (2nd greenest borough in London) and was shocked at the sheer incompetence of the management, not only in wasting money but also in a complete lack of environmental or social knowledge. A few examples : A fountain in Walpole park used mains water pressure (i.e. was simply a large bore tap) running all day, all year because there was no budget for installing a motor or simply even putting a timer on it. Grass cutting contracts were so badly managed and written that in a particularly sunny wet year the grass that had been cut was longer than that that had been left (grass grows until it seeds and then grows much much less - apparently not one contracts manager was aware of this fact of nature) that was a waste in excess of £1 million each year, plus all the unnecessary noise and air pollution from the grass cutters. We couldn't take a deposit from contractors wanting to put a temporary access road across a park because the accounts were zeroed each year and thus we couldn't hold the funds. The contractors were paid to do a variety of things but the actual completion rate was below 40% i.e paid to fertilise raised beds but never did (nor even had the equipment to do so - despite being paid for the job. All tree work was done on a job basis regardless of the amount of work involved, felling 6 trees cost the same as removing one limb from each tree. Several members of staff did zero work but couldn't be sacked as the process would take so much work effectively you would need to hire someone to watch the person every day for a year to see that they had done nothing. The vehicle maintenance (not fuel) contract cost £7,000 per vehicle each year (the vehicles weren't even worth that). Play parks were overhauled without any research into user needs (and there is no point building a BMX track if no one on the estate has access to a BMX. By now you have got the picture. Lessons learned: I could have saved at least half the budget just by not cutting the majority of the grass and then by removing rose bushes, enforcing the contracts that were already signed, sacking the bad staff and a few things could have delivered better service for 20% of the cost. Also the guy whose kid was injured in the foot by a roundabout in Acton would probably like to know that yes we knew about the potential danger (it had happened before and was highlighted every year by external auditors, and by me every month) and was not a non-preventable accident, and yes the management lied utterly and destroyed evidence to hide this..
Is anyone surprised by this? I'm not.


The Jannie said...

(Mounts soapbox and takes deep breath)
I say again - and again- if you think your council is inefficient, you need to try working for a PFI contractor.

ReefKnot said...

Which 'Groundwork' charity ? There are 67 of them listed on the Charity Commission website. I picked a few and it seems they are funded by mostly a mixture of Government and Public Agency grants, Lottery money, and EU Grants ( pretty much all taxpayer money ). Virtually no income was derived from private individuals whereas real charities that do real charitable work like RNLI and Air Ambulance have to survive on private donations.
We have no idea what we are paying for, do we.

MTG said...

I can only speak from my humble experience as a grateful Kirklees Council Taxpayer. I have every confidence in our honourable council members, civic employees and police doing the very best for our Towns with the meagre resources which remain after these groups have fully served themselves.

JuliaM said...

"I say again - and again- if you think your council is inefficient, you need to try working for a PFI contractor."

Oh, yes indeed. That was a disastrous policy, and I fear the chickens are still to come home to roost on some of them...

"Which 'Groundwork' charity ? There are 67 of them listed on the Charity Commission website. "