Interview - Jessica Gibbons, head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden

The London Borough of Camden has more than 70 historic green spaces and a brand new head of parks and open spaces who is 35 years old.

Jessica Gibbons, head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden
Jessica Gibbons, head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden

Jessica Gibbons replaces the highly respected parks leader Shaun Kiddell and has to tackle a mix of wild open spaces, listed squares and pocket parks with a dwindling budget, shrinking workforce and no formal qualification in horticulture. Can she do it?

Q: This is a huge job. What is your background?

A: I'm stepping into big shoes. Shaun did a fantastic job, but I've run grounds management contracts, tree schemes and arboricultural services at Glendale. I have also run a business consultancy and was head of countryside and community at the London Borough of Bromley. Meanwhile, my last job as development director for the charity London Sustainability Exchange had me promoting sustainable development to strategic planners in Government and in the business and voluntary sectors. Knowledge of sustainability and good leadership skills are very relevant to this role.

Q: Budget cuts are biting. Are you up to the task?

A: Naturally, we have been affected by the public spending cuts. We lost three posts recently and we will be forced to make continual efficiency savings. However, we can build on Shaun's previous work with friends groups. He did a lot of work on broadening community engagement and that will be a big area to build on. I feel confident because I have a strong team of 25 excellent staff as well as 70 wonderful parks and open spaces including Bloomsbury Square, Hampstead Heath and Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Q: Isn't there only so much that volunteers can do?

A: Of course, you can't expect them to supervise and use mowers, but there's lots that they can do such as tackle food-growing projects. Don't forget that we already work extensively with volunteers across our parks from groups such as BTCV and there's an opportunity to expand on that. We can also work more closely with other departments at the borough council, such as sport on community health and well-being initiatives, to spread our expertise.

Q: What has the private sector taught you?

A: It gave me board-level insight, a clear strategic view and an understanding of how to deliver operationally in an efficient way. My various roles have given me a grasp of how different organisations operate and I will use this to influence how we manage our services.

Q: What can the public sector learn from the private sector?

A: Financial acumen and operational flexibility. Working for myself and as a company director, I learned to understand the detail of what we were spending, how much delivery would cost and how to continuously look for improvements.

Q: What are your strongest cards and what will you bring to the Camden job?

A: I think that my business strategy and planning skills will be crucial to ensuring that Camden develops and delivers a clear strategy for our parks and open spaces. My ability to influence and negotiate will, I hope, raise the profile and priority of parks and open spaces across the borough and their ability to address a broad spectrum of sustainability issues from health to biodiversity during these times of austerity.

Q: What is your biggest ambition as head of parks?

A: To maintain and improve the quality of the parks, which will be tough with the current budget, but it is still possible. I would like to see more community engagement through tree planting right across Camden, for example. I hope that I will be able to help build innovative ways of making things happen - perhaps we could introduce a system whereby residents donate money and the borough council then provides match-funding. The people of Camden love their parks and that is a great starting point.

Q: How can quality go up when budgets go down?

A: Some people maintain that you cannot have your cake and eat it, which is true up to a point, so we need to look at things differently - such as outsourcing more of our services. However, we are very fortunate in Camden to have section 106 money from agreements with developers that can be used for landscape and development work across our parks. Although these are very tough times, our parks service has survived remarkably well and we can quite realistically look at improvements and refurbishments to some of our green spaces. The key is how we use that money and this is where clever project management can really shine through. We are currently going through discussions on what more we can do to our parks, so it's not all about cutting back services.

CV

1995-98: Agroforestry degree, Bangor University
1998-2000: Worked on coffee plantations, Columbia
2000-01: Masters in agroforestry, Bangor University
2001-03: Worked in forestry, Tanzania,
2004-09: Regional director, Glendale
2009-10: Sustainable business director, Addington Consultants
2010-12: Development director, London Sustainability Exchange
2012: Head of parks and open spaces, London Borough of Camden


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