• Dumbing down? 26 June 2018 | View comments

  • 18th June 2018 | By David Jolley

    It was the realisation of a modest dream to take a train to Chester. We stopped at every station between Altrincham and Chester and enjoyed their platforms and the pattern of people getting on and off. It was time for students to be travelling to schools in neighbouring towns – beautiful uniforms – cheerful, peaceful behaviour and some intense concentration on mobile devices.

    Chester is a small city – I had found maps amongst our collection at home and was pretty sure I could walk across to the town hall via the city centre, though which roads or streets might be the ones for me was not clear until I was walking them. Even here there are empty shops – even in the fabulous double-decker main street. Chinese or Japanese tourists were out as a group this early hour, commenting on the architecture and the floral displays. These latter are well worth the investment.

    The town hall is modest in size compared with Manchester’s but still impressive. It is across the way from the cathedral, which I have visited in the past for a wedding of one dear friend and the inauguration of another to become a lay reader in the Church of England. His further progress in the church was frustrated by rules prohibiting inclusion of divorcees – How strange it is that the organisations which would claim most closeness with Jesus, have such difficulty with the flexibility and open love which he taught.

    I was attending a study day on parks organised by APSE – Association for Public Sector Excellence – my second such study day with them in a few months. The challenge is to maintain standards or improve them despite the draconian reduction of funding for parks within the austerity measures imposed and prolonged by government. APSE has monitored the financial and workforce implications throughout: http://www.apse.org.uk/apse/assets/File/Paul%20O'Brien%20-%20presentation%20%5BCompatibility%20Mode%5D.pdf

    We heard a presentation from Wigan, which is said to be the 85th most deprived authority in the country and the 3rd most affected by austerity measures. Turning disadvantage on its head, the council has included the community in its response and established ‘The Deal’ to change and improve practices https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Docs/PDF/Council/Strategies-Plans-and-Policies/Corporate/Deal-for-future/The-plan.pdf

    Though previous streams of funding have been choked off, spending has been maintained by income generation. There has been a massive buy-in from ordinary people. Green Flag awards have increased, there were 33 North West in Bloom awards last year. NB services are all ‘in-house’.

    We heard next from Leeds – The earlier (Mere) seminar had told us about their impressive high-profile income generation projects. The Chester presentation covered the wider perspective of all parks and green spaces. Again income has been maintained despite austerity cuts to the traditional funding streams. There is a ‘Parks and Green Space’ forum and a strategy which aims to bring all parks up to Green Flag ‘field-based’ standards – that is the parks are assessed against the Green Flag standards by an in-house system – only a few are entered for the national standard which requires considerable desk-based work and costs. Leeds University have been engaged to survey activities and opinions – the findings are being used to inform future plans and activities. NB services are all ‘in-house’.

    Finally Blackpool told us about their work and particularly the encouragement and collaboration with Friends groups. There was much to recognise here in our own experiences in Trafford. Friends groups vary in who they include, skills and motivation and what people want to do. One of the Blackpool parks organises massive entertainments which bring in many thousands of pounds. Most are concerned with keeping order and decent horticulture in local parks. There are links with health, education and other arms of the council. Much of the horticulture now falls onto Friends – most work from employed staff seems to be limited to cutting grass. Never-the-less, there is reference to ‘gardeners, arboriculturalists and rangers’: respectful and preferable to the label ‘operatives’ which pervades the Trafford scene. Blackpool’s services are also delivered ‘in house’

    There is a shared and welcome message, that opening parks to the involvement of volunteers has much to commend it, in terms of finance and quality for the parks and satisfaction and health for the people.

    This is a lesson which is surely transferable to other settings, including support of older people and people with dementia. But these advantages can only be sustained if we set aside sufficient funds and provide a suitable career structure for professionals to be educated and assured that they can use and develop their skills over a lifetime. Dumbing down to use volunteer commitment and generosity, without allowing for the spice which comes from knowledge and understanding in depth, will yield bland and sterile crop.

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