If I asked you “what does your local council do?”, I am sure your list would include emptying the bins, cleaning the streets, looking after our parks, and social services, to name just a few.
In fact, the complete list and range of services and support that we provide is actually significantly greater than the one above – from working to secure business investment and jobs for local people to making e-books available free of charge in our libraries. We are actually responsible for 167 individual service areas according to a budget analysis I saw recently.
We are required by law to make sure that some services are provided, including social care and waste collection.
But many of the services on that list are “discretionary” which means that we don’t have to provide them. Even so, they are almost always things which are valued by local people and make a positive difference to life in our Borough.
Maintaining and managing our public parks is one of those discretionary services. Our parks – 18 of which proudly fly the prestigious Green Flag quality standard – are fantastic assets. They are pleasant places where people can walk, jog, exercise a dog, get together with friends, work out in a green gym, enjoy an activity with a ranger, or attend an organised event.
As I’ve sadly had to write many times before, the savage cuts from this Tory Government and the previous Tory/Lib Dem Government are real. We have lost £86m since 2010 and by 2020 this number will be £100m. Knowsley has been hit harder than any other local authority in the country (and that’s a fact, not an “alternative fact”!). We have seen a significant reduction in our spending power which in turn means we have had to stop spending money in many areas where people might expect us to be more active.
When these cuts from Government really bite, it’s understandable that councils look at discretionary services and sometimes see them as an unaffordable luxury. As our funds reduce year on year, I do not want to get to the point something as important as our parks are constantly under threat.
That’s why, as we did with our leisure centres, we must act now to protect our parks. At the Council meeting last night, the Labour Group put forward a Notice of Motion aimed at protecting our parks and green spaces by establishing an independent board to make recommendations on their future. The Motion was carried unanimously with the support of the Lib Dems on the Council.
The Knowsley Parks and Green Spaces Review Board will review funding and governance arrangements for these facilities, and consult with the public to help them make their recommendations.
I also want the Board to continue the work we have started in exploring how our parks and green spaces could help to generate income which could be ploughed back into the costs of the maintenance and management. The Council has already started this process by running bush craft sessions, “Forest Schools” and offering team building experiences in local parks, all of which were well received. More activities like this would help keep the parks open and free to access to all our residents, which is, I’m sure, what we all want to see.
Now that the Notice of Motion has been passed, work will begin to recruit members to the Board. They will include representatives from local Town and Parish Councils, local businesses, “Friends of Parks” groups and academics. They will carry out research from March to June, and then begin talking to local people and other stakeholders in July and August before presenting their recommendations to the Council in October.
I and my fellow Councillors do not regard our parks simply as something that “nice to have”. They play an important role in delivering benefits for the health and wellbeing of all people visiting and living here, young and old.
I’m confident that, by taking a more co-operative approach to the management of these important community facilities, we can protect and even enhance them. While some other local authorities across the country are simply cutting their parks budgets, that is not good enough for us – we want to find a solution which protects these amazing places from future budget cuts whilst ensuring that they remain in place for our children and their children to enjoy for years to come.