Smith On ... Parks are a crucial front-line service

From my experience of almost 40 years working in the industry, the savagery of the current cuts to parks and green space services is almost unprecedented, with the levels of money lost not seen since compulsory competitive tendering in the early 1990s.

Politicians of all parties have adopted the ethos of protecting front-line services at the expense of the back office. But is this the reality?

On a recent trip to the Lake District, I found the toilets in Ambleside's main park closed. I walked half a mile to where I was told the nearest toilets were only to be greeted by a sign reading: "Closed due to council budget cuts." I was surprised to see such an admission in what is a major tourist destination.

Closer to home, my local Green Flag park remained closed over a busy weekend and six weeks later I am still trying to find out why. Meanwhile, a Greater Manchester borough council has just cut £1.7m from its parks and street scene budget while at the same time engaging consultants to rewrite its human resources policies at a cost of thousands of pounds.

You do not get anymore front line than the parks service. These green assets are freely accessible to the public, of huge economic benefit and used by millions on a daily basis to jog, walk, cycle and play. This exercise not only keeps us sane but saves the NHS millions of pounds. In tough economic times, we rely on our parks even more.

Yet while nationally millions of pounds are disappearing from parks' budgets, plenty is being spent on the back office. Leeds City Council spends more than £350,000 on its equality and diversity team. How many gardeners would that pay for? Elected members and the public want quality parks and open spaces and not the bureaucracy that has given local government a bad name.

If politicians really do want to protect front-line services, there is an urgent need to clarify what they mean by "front line". In my view, and surely that of the majority of the general public, front-line services mean good schools, clean streets and good-quality green space. That's what they vote for, not more bean counters.

Steve Smith is a parks consultant.


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