Oldham adds value to park service

Oldham Council's parks department is hoping to make itself so indispensable to the local community that further cuts to its parks budget will become unthinkable.

Oldham: residents being encouraged to use growing hubs in a number of parks and learn to harvest and cook food - image: © Alan Hamer
Oldham: residents being encouraged to use growing hubs in a number of parks and learn to harvest and cook food - image: © Alan Hamer

Environmental services manager Glenn Dale explained that park staff are branching out into public health activities, with funding coming directly from the health service for a number of community projects aimed at health promotion.

Residents are encouraged to use growing hubs in a number of parks and learn to harvest and cook food. At Alexandra Park, for example, the community growing hub includes an outdoor pizza oven and a three-mile pathway from the park is being developed as a "Fruit Route" complete with berries, apples, pears, plums and cherries to encourage residents to exercise and eat free, healthy food.

"Walk, Talk & Prune" sessions are held along the route, where volunteers can be active and get to know their neighbours. A "Wheels for All" cycle scheme for people with disabilities provides specially adapted bikes and training sessions run in the park to help people develop confidence.

Ultimately, Dale explained, the aim is to link the park into the public health strategy and make it essential to the community. "A lot of people are looking to make savings," he said. "We want to make it very difficult to take them from our parks."

Dale's department has a contract with the public health service to ensure it hits its health targets, so parks staff try to make every contact with the public count. Getting parks people to engage with the community makes perfect sense, Dale added.

"All our parks are manned and they are a front-facing service who interact with the public - they come into contact with lots of people and can initiate a general conversation, and then pass on information to individuals."

Frequent park visitors develop relationships with the gardeners, who can impart information about services such as counselling or help with alcohol problems. Gardeners may often be the first to find out if one of the regular visitors is in trouble. "They become something different than a gardener. Parks people have always done this role but we wanted to make it a bit more worthwhile."

This year's £100,000 of environmental services savings - covering everything from cemeteries to street cleansing - are coming from management rather than grounds staff, with three retiring managers not being replaced.

"We're trying to make sure that Oldham's parks don't suffer, but obviously that's extremely difficult," said Dale. "We're looking at differential mowing and changing the way we operate, with a reduction in vehicles and machinery."

The team is also "upping the ante" by offering a seven-day service. "We are conscious that the majority of residents and visitors are there on the weekends so that's when parks are the busiest," he pointed out. "But we tend to have places where we've got no staff on weekends, which seems wrong, so we're addressing that."

He added: "It would be wrong of any manager to assume as far as cuts are concerned that that's an end to it. We're not clear yet as to what will come back but the council is working on the 2017-18 budget now, so they're very proactively trying to identify savings."

The key is to plan far ahead, he explained, adding: "If we tackle it now and telegraph the changes so they are made in good time we won't have to have a knee-jerk reaction."

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