Taken for granted until they are placed under threat open spaces near our urban centres not only increase our quality of life, but they are essential for leisure activities. The mental and physical health benefits they provide have been demonstrated, along with the proof that they actually prevent and slow down access to expensive health care costs. They are also the lungs of our community offsetting the effects of air pollution while providing a habitat for wildlife to survive. Exploring our open spaces not only improves our feeling of well-being but creates a sense of connection with our broader community. Our local councils, who act as the custodians of our open spaces, are now facing the consequences of a two-pronged assault by the government through their policies of austerity and Growth and Infrastructure. Given this hostile environment, it has become increasingly important that our local council’s do the right thing.
Growth and Infrastructure Act
The Open Spaces Society, have set out the legal risk to public open spaces by the Growth and
Infrastructure Act, “In the past, communities could register their local open space as a town or village green, securing their rights to enjoy it and protecting it from being built on. Now the Growth and Infrastructure Act decrees that, throughout England, landowners can challenge your use of the green for informal recreation and you then have only one year in which to register it. The danger is that the land could be developed before you even know it’s at risk.”
The Local Government Association report Under Pressure, states, “Councils are currently halfway through a scheduled 40% cut in funding from central government. Having delivered £10 billion of savings in the three years from 2011/12, local authorities have to deliver the same savings again in the next two years. As a result of these cuts councils in many areas will not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities.”
The term “statutory” refers to those services, which the council has to provide by law, the biggest areas of statutory expenditure for your council are social care for the elderly, those with complex needs and children at risk. The level, depth and speed of financial cuts demanded by the central government is unprecedented and will have consequences for generations to come. As your council struggles to tackle the growing demands of social care the stark choice is one of providing essential care to the most vulnerable in our community or reducing services, which are not generally considered “statutory” like public open spaces for example.
The crisis has brought about a natural reaction. Legitimate protests have/are taking place, but they have failed to ignite the mass movement required to force a change in policy and as a consequence had little impact on the policy of austerity. Calls for councils to use their “budget reserves” to plug the hole provides a good soundbite, but will not provide a sustainable answer and those calling for this approach know this full well given it will only delay the problem and ultimately hit services supporting the elderly and vulnerable much harder. The idea that any council will set an illegal budget is just daft. The debate is not one of just reductions, but some services may ultimately stop.
Doing the right thing
Here in Bristol, the funding cuts are valued at £92m during the next five years. The idea that efficiencies, wasteful expenditure on pet projects, gold plated pensions, and cutting jobs will magically fill the budget hole is utterly discourteous to anybody’s intelligence. As reported in the Bristol Post the financial strategy for the council includes a definite saving of £1.2m by 2019/20, which is predicated on a change in how parks and open spaces are managed and maintained with the council looking at alternative ways to run them such as setting up trusts or mutual societies
The Northern Slopes constitute three open green spaces between the Knowle West and Bedminster areas of Bristol, which had remained relatively undisturbed since the Second World War when they were utilised for allotments. Thursday evening, 16th March, I had the honour of spending the evening in the company of the volunteers who are the driving force behind the Northern Slopes Initiative (NSI). Like similar volunteer groups, up and down the country the volunteers of the NSI find themselves at the coal face of convincing their local community of the importance of the slopes, protecting and enhancing them while gently elbowing the council to maintain these critical facilities. It is a thankless role, which generates no financial reward, but these volunteers are increasingly becoming the backbone of our communities as the council is forced to retreat. Relatively small in number but dedicated they are prepared to sacrifice their evenings and weekends to improve conditions for their fellow residents. They may also be holding down a job or retired, but their sense of duty is second to known. It will be these very same volunteers who will be called upon to “step up” as part of the response to the financial crisis the council finds itself in.
It ain’t what you do, but the why that you do it – that’s what gets results
Bristol Council’s willingness to look at alternatives, while fraught with difficulties is to be welcomed, but it will not be what the council is seeking to do that will determine its success, far from it, it will be how the council goes about doing it. Until the how is declared the willingness of the council to explore alternative approaches will remain aspirational just like those many well-meaning strategies, which litter the history of local government in the UK.