Interview - Richard Welburn, GreenSpace trustee and former head of parks at Leicester City Council

Richard Welburn retired recently as head of parks and green spaces at Leicester City Council, where he spent 18 years. He learned his craft and honed his skills with six local authorities, from the North East to the South East. But the GreenSpace trustee will not go quietly and sees peril and potential for parks services in the months and years to come.

Richard Welburn, GreenSpace trustee and former head of parks at Leicester City Council - image: Richard Welburn
Richard Welburn, GreenSpace trustee and former head of parks at Leicester City Council - image: Richard Welburn

Q. Where did your career in horticulture begin?

A. I started in public parks in 1970 as a horticultural apprentice with Whitley Bay Borough Council parks and cemeteries department. One of my early tasks was to assist grave-digging operations, so I am proud to say not only did I work my way up from the bottom but more correctly from six feet below the bottom.

Q. What is your biggest concern for parks today?

A. That as public services are reorganised to achieve budget savings, well-qualified and experienced staff will leave or migrate to new roles far removed from parks. This could see managers and staff operating within a more multifunctional environment - for example, parks, cleansing and waste management. There may be success stories but I fear these will be outweighed by poorer standards and skills as departments struggle with the cultural shift and professionals adapt to changes in the workplace.

Q. When do you consider that the problems started?

A. As far back as the local government reorganisation in 1974, I have witnessed a steady decline in the quality of public parks and standards of service provision. The demise of the parks department and the introduction of multifunctional leisure service departments saw parks being relegated in the pecking order when it came to investment in favour of the new craze of building cash-hungry sports and leisure centres.

Q. Who is to blame for the current situation?

A. Many people and organisations but sadly the parks profession itself was caught napping. While new professional organisations such as the Institute of Recreation Management established and grew in profile, the Institute of Park & Recreation Management - the traditional mainstay of parks management - was slow to respond to the new agenda. It finally succumbed and merged with several other institutes in the 1980s to become the Institute of Leisure & Amenity Management.

Q. What did these changes mean for parks?

A. While park services were generally able to hold their own - some flourished and became involved in national garden festivals - the late introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s sounded the death knell for local authorities hoping to hold on to high-quality grounds maintenance and horticultural standards. Money was redirected into supporting other services or pet political projects. Overnight, well-established internal parks teams were split into client and contractor teams.

Q. Is there still any hope for parks?

A. Yes, absolutely. The general public hold parks and open spaces close to their hearts as a highly valued service often surpassed only by emptying the bins in resident surveys. The Localism Act gives communities an ideal opportunity to say to their local authorities "enough is enough" and they are not prepared to accept any further lowering of park standards. Ever-increasing entries in the Green Flag Awards echo this sentiment.

Q. What factors will be key in parks' futures?

A. It will be local political priorities. Authorities with established track records in parks through Britain in Bloom and Green Flag may find it harder to make major reductions overnight. However, we are at the start of an ongoing period of enforced year-on-year public sector budget cuts, which sadly probably inevitably means the vast majority of local authority parks will see a deterioration in standards of maintenance.

Q. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

A. There may be some success stories arising from the Localism Act, where well-led and motivated community groups take on aspects of maintenance and management. I hope this happens and for really switched on teams it may. But there is far more to maintaining parks than mowing the grass and basic upkeep of beds and pathways. Meanwhile, good, lateral-thinking parks departments will look at engaging more with planning, social services, housing and health to share burdens and responsibilities. This could throw up some benefits and opportunities.

Q. Who can carry the torch for parks?

A. Organisations such as GreenSpace have a pivotal role to play in promoting the values of parks and green spaces at both political and management level. They can also provide leadership in responding to the changing skills agenda.

CV

1969-71: Horticulture apprentice, Whitley Bay Borough Council

1974-75: Horticultural technician, Writtle College

1976-78: Senior technical parks officer, Guildford Borough Council

1978-83: Assistant parks and recreation officer, Hastings Borough Council

1983-88: Principal technical officer, Derby City Council

1988-93: Assistant borough recreation officer, Tamworth Borough Council

1993-2004: Principal development services officer, Leicester City Council

2004-11: Head of parks and green space services, Leicester City Council

2009-11: Trustee, GreenSpace

2011: Enabler, Design Council CABE


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