Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Bristol parks watch

Bristol City Council, like Nottingham City Council, has recently adopted a new parks strategy document. There are similarities, but at the moment, the one big difference is Bristol City's plan to sell off parks and open space to raise money for spending on its parks and other services. The following account of what is happening was posted earlier today at the website of The Bristol Blogger

'After a couple of weeks of pooh-poohing claims from the Bristol Parks Forum that the Labour administration tried to sneak through a hastily assembled report at their last cabinet meeting (pdf) to flog over £200m of land from Bristol’s Parks to developers, the council has been forced to reveal that, er … The Labour administration is trying to flog over £200m of land from Bristol’s Parks to developers!

Hidden away in the agenda for a Physical Environment Scrutiny Commission meeting on January 31 is a report - the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy - Financial Considerations (pdf).

And what’s this? Why it only says that the minimum cost of land that the council will be looking to sell off is £166m worth.

But the report also claims £25m in contributions will be made by the developers of this park land for funding improvements to our remaining parks. However the planning department says this contribution is only realistically likely to be £15m.

That’s a further £20m worth of land that might have to be sold off to make up this £10m deficit then. This is because under Labour’s hastily assembled funding formula half of all proceeds from these land sales have go to directly to the cabinet so they can fund their own pet projects with the money.

A further £11m towards future park improvements has been budgeted to come from “grants”; although at present none have been applied for - let alone agreed to. That’s another £22m of land that may need to be sold under Labour’s formula.

So the grand total of land at risk? £208m. Slightly over the Parks Forum estimate that’s been slated by politicians and council officers for the last two weeks.

Meanwhile details of the actual land that will be disposed off are still being blatantly withheld by Bristol City Council'.

Whilst this latest development is hot news today, I have been following this story about Bristol parks for some months. Originally, the plan was to sell off £57m of park and open space land, with 80% being kept got parks development. A few weeks ago it became £102m with 50% going to parks. This change was justified by saying that under this plan Bristol parks would get more money (ie. 80% of £57 = £45.6m, 50% of £102m = £51m).

If you type 'Bristol parks' into Google's blog search box you will find lots of entries by Bristol bloggers voicing their concerns about what this so-called 'Labour' council is doing. As a socialist and a Labour Party member I am appalled by what is happening and I think that park lovers everywhere need to be alerted to this story. If Bristol City Council gets away with its proposed parks sell-off then no park in the country will be safe. It was partly because of what I knew was happening in Bristol which made me float the idea of a 'Nottingham Parks Trust' in my article about Nottingham parks which was published in the Nottingham Civic Society Newsletter earlier this month (see my blog entry for 16 January 2008). Parks need to be put beyond the reach of politicians and council managers.

In situations like this it is very easy to paint oneself into a corner. I say this because I am not against a radical review of parks and open space in Nottingham and if this means selling some open space to provide new open spaces or to create a ring-fenced pool of capital to be used for future parks maintenance then I will consider it. What I won't consider is money from parks being used to fund non-park or open space developments. Councils of all political persuasions have been doing that with school playing fields for years — it happened in Lenton in 1994 when the Labour controlled Notts County Council sold off the the old Sandfield School playing fields within days of them being transferred to the new unitary Nottingham City Council.

We also need to remember that it is a Labour controlled Nottingham City Council which has systematically sold off or 'transferred' parts of Highfields Park to Nottingham University and allowed the Highfields Science Park and the business development currently under construction to be built on park land. Highfields Park, in terms of care and maintenance, does not appear to have benefitted in any way whatsoever from the sales and the transfers. Nottingham councils have a track record of selling park land and open space. It could happen again if we are not careful. We have to be alert, which is why this blog today is devoted to news from Bristol and a reminder that Nottingham's track record suggests that it would happily do the same as Bristol if it thought it could get away with it.

Parks have no statutory protection in law. They should have.

Teacher trainees in further education do not systematically identify or address the literacy, numeracy and language needs of their students, and some are constrained by their own weaknesses in these skills, the government's schools inspector warned today.

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