Next round of budget cuts raises serious fear of deterioration in state of UK parks

Ealing council chief queries how local authorities can 'square the circle' of more cuts without serious damage to services.

Bell: more budget cuts in Ealing
Bell: more budget cuts in Ealing

London's councillors are seriously concerned about paying for parks in the short term despite them being central to saving money long term, according to London Councils' transport and environment committee chair.

Speaking ahead of the chancellor's autumn statement on 3 December, Julian Bell, also leader of the London Borough of Ealing, said he does not know how local authorities will "square the circle" of further budget cuts over the next five years - after already cutting "low-hanging fruit" - without seriously damaging services.

Despite the economy improving, wages and tax revenues remain low and UK borrowing is higher than last year, leaving chancellor George Osborne little room for pre-election giveaways.

Ealing needs to cut £96m from its budget over the next four years, adding to £87m already cut over the past four years. Only £56m of new cuts have been identified in the draft budget so far.

"It's pretty harsh," said Bell. "We're looking the graph of doom in the face. In Ealing, we've had a 30 per cent birth rate increase at the same time as an increase in the number of older people."

The "graph of doom" originated in Barnet in 2012. It showed the council in danger of running out of money for everything except core services by 2020. The "nub of the problem" is adult social care, which is 50 per cent of the average London borough's budget, leaving less for non-statutory services.

It is a picture mirrored in urban centres across the UK. Walsall, for example, must find savings of £104m by 2019, with £362,708 to go from green spaces next year alone (see box).

Bell said Ealing has "taken a fair amount out already" from its park budgets but it was inevitable there would be more. Encouraging volunteering and revenue raising are also key, he added.

Cabinet members were also due to vote on a proposal to turn one of three council golf courses into a Christmas tree nursery and mountain bike park producing 4,800 trees a year that would save £60,000 a year and earn an estimated £60,000 to £80,000 in net revenue.

"We're trying to be more creative but there's only so much you can do," said Bell. "If you take too much management out you lose that experience. There's a real danger that parks will deteriorate and that's the real worry. I'm not sure how it's going to look. It's a very worrying time of change."

Yet Bell believes parks are a weapon in tackling the adult social care spend. "Parks and green spaces are critical to having a healthy population. We are all struggling but we all recognise that a healthy population is going to be more independent and less reliant on social services."

Case study - Impact of cuts to 2015-16 parks budgets in Walsall

Allotments

Fifty per cent grants cut. Green spaces reduction including deletion of posts, cessation of events, loss of Green Flag status, reduced maintenance.

Grounds maintenance

Staff cut at arboretum, bedding plants ceased across 75 sites, grass cutting reduced from 14- to 20-day cycle.

Tree management/urban forestry

Number of posts cut from nine to seven, management programme reduced from four years to six years.

Green spaces and countryside management

Five posts removed and events reduced to make saving of £362,708 in 2015-16.

The council said the result would be "less attractive parks and community events for improving the health and well-being for older people; an increased risk of antisocial behaviour in parks; a decrease in education programmes; the borough will be less floral and aesthetically pleasing; and potential (although managed) impact on reactive maintenance for storm damage".


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