Agenda item

Reviewing the delivery of parks and trees maintenance services

Wards: All

 

Report authorised by: Bayo Dosunmu: Strategic Director for Resident Services

 

Contact for enquiries: Kevin Crook, Assistant Director Neighbourhoods (Parks, Leisure and Cemeteries), 020 7926 8973, kcrook@lambeth.gov.uk

 

Minutes:

The Cabinet Member for Sustainable Lambeth and Clean Air, Councillor Rezina Chowdhury, introduced the item and stated:

·           Lambeth had pledged to plant 5,000 trees in the borough, as part of the Tree Planting and Tree Risk Management strategies.

·           The Parks Service worked closely with other council teams, external organisations, and volunteers to deliver parks and green spaces for physical exercise, leisure and food growing.

·           Lambeth had been the highest performing parks service in London in 2020 and second in 2021.

·           Volunteers were essential to ensure parks were welcoming, well-maintained and treasured spaces.

 

The Committee next heard from Ann Kingsbury, Lambeth Parks and Open Spaces Forum (LPOSF) and Brockwell Community Partners, as follows:

·           The Parks Forum’s main concern was funding, with overspends each year just for maintenance.

·           Parks were used by a majority of persons in the borough but was under-resourced.

·           Maintenance was back in-house, saving considerable capital, but now had a modest budget.

·           In-house services improved public engagement and the relationship with the Parks Forum meant that issues were not getting lost in complexities of service management.

·           Brockwell Park Community Partners had pushed for partnership working, which brought together the community, officers, and Members to allow for strategic planning, which was a moderate success, had been a role model for other parks and was excellent for operational working.

·           Some political decisions were difficult and where partnership working sat within the Council’s decision-making required resolution.

·           Volunteers were essential to develop amenities for park users, as eyes and ears, fundraisers, builders and being able to input into their communities; the newly formed Friends of Loughborough Park’s developed neglected area was recorded as a volunteer project.

·           Parks were vitally important and produced significant benefits.

 

Simon Millson, Vice Chair on LPOSF and Chair of Clapham Common MAC, next provided the following evidence to the Committee:

·           The Parks team’s engagement was praised, with direct and open communications, a willing- and eager-ness to work in partnership; and improved speed and quality since coming back in-house.

·           The capacity to deliver and accountability for delivery needed improvement as there was not enough people to consistently deliver first-class services for communities.

·           Projects could get lost in council mechanisms and deliberations, whilst parks needed to ensure they delivered to planting seasons and Friend groups and MACs needed more autonomy.

·           Autonomy and increasing Council resources, such as hiring parks managers for single parks, would result in higher quality and quantity, and improve accountability and reasonability.

 

The Committee then heard from Thomas Stanbury, Co-Chair of Friends of Hillside Gardens:

·           Hillside Gardens Friends were frustrated by recent Council works, prioritising the central path thoroughfare resurfacing, whilst the tennis courts were only recently started and this required a complaint to be made and there was still no play park. 

·           Funding was used on items the Friends did not prioritise, and the Friends had to complain to receive a further award to undertake other items of work.

 

Steph Charalambous, Co-Chair of Friends of Hillside Gardens, then informed the Committee that:

·           Hillside Gardens did not have an excellent partnership with the Council, and although it had tried since 2018 to participate in consultation, it had failed to get Lambeth to deliver.

·           Funding was used on paths the community did not want instead of tennis courts and the Friends were pleading for £40,000 for playground refurbishment as children could not play safely.

·           There was no accountability over expenditure, management needed revision and there was no sense of partnership, noting that Lambeth was still using lawnmowers that destroyed trees.

 

Marjorie Landels, Founding director of Incredible Edible Lambeth and Myatt’s Fields Park Project co-founder, stated that:

·           Incredible Edible and Myatt’s Fields had good relationships with the Parks Service.

·           The Mayor had provided £40,000 Grow Back Greener Project funding to six estates across the borough to develop community growing spaces that supported pollinators and biodiversity, and created a future framework.  However, the project took twice as long to undertake and £33,000 was spent on the gardens, and participating community groups were those with spare time and they did not want to put residents under pressure.

·           Co-designing and transparency were essential, and communications and planning allowed residents to be fully integrated with the project.

·           It would be beneficial to have tree condition reports and plans for replacement.

 

The Chair read out a short statement from Teague Emery, Chair of Palace Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association:

·           Large areas of the Community Gardens were left neglected for months and visits were not consistent with the schedule.

·           The internal gardens had been left for number of years owing to works and contracts.

·           Mowing was inconsistent and weed bushes had caused the loss of fences, and there was a general lack of care.

·           The Gardens were not well maintained or respected, but residents paid service charges.

 

The Committee then heard from Lydia Stone, Friends of Loughborough Park, as follows:

·           Loughborough Park had been in total disrepair and neglect, and although there was minimal support from the Council, who often barred progress and were a source of negativity, there had been improvements.

·           Lambeth needed to treat Friends groups as partners, noting that the Friends had managed to raise £8,500 to transform a neglected area into a garden.

·           The Friends had held 11 community gardening sessions, but the Parks team had not acknowledged these nor visited.

·           Lambeth had issued reprimands for minor procedural errors.

·           There were conflicts between parks users and local residents, and the Council could help facilitate mutual respect.

·           There was a lack of park services and infrastructure, noting the community centre contained a toilet but could not be used due to lack of funding, but a security guard was provided instead.

·           It was asked that officers to attend discussions on public health issues in the park.

 

The Cabinet Member and officers responded to questions as follows:

·           When the Parks Service was in-sourced in 2016 it also experienced a budget cut of 50%, then lost its £75,000 overtime budget, despite this being needed to open and lock parks, and was later required to meet costs previously covered by other departments, such as water testing.  In the previous year, a further £300,000 had been removed when agglomerated with the Facilities Management’s budget.  This meant there was virtually no operational budget to manage 150 sites, its large vehicle fleet, depots, nor buildings.

·           The effective lack of a budget beyond staffing accounted for the annual overspend.

·           The concern expressed by Friends groups on co-working and empowerment was a result of capacity.  Whilst the Council had set up Partnership Boards, it only had three park development officers, who looked after 30-40 sites each and meant that individual Friends groups did not get the time they needed from the Council.

·           Many issues in parks were complex and time-consuming to resolve; combined with old infrastructure such as plumbing, and difficulty in accurately identifying causes of problems.

·           Each park had a management plan detailing actions which were reviewed with stakeholder groups. The Service was installing a detailed agreement with Friends groups to ensure efficient dialogue and empowered task management.

·           The service recently received funding for one additional parks development officer.

·           The Council had closed considerable numbers of park toilets, although the Service had managed to keep open toilets identified from the Culture 2020 programme for closure.  However, those left were largely old and could not cope with levels of use, and there was no allocation from the capital investment programme to upgrade all of these.

·           Parks had only received £5m of a £9m capital investment programme request, which only covered essential works; although increasing toilet provision was a priority and the Service was looking at opportunities to increase provision and accessibility, such as opening changing room toilets in Larkhall Park to all users.

·           Covid-19 had seen increased park usage, and portable toilets had been installed in several parks, whilst Vauxhall Park was using capital to install toilets.

·           Capital only existed to invest in new bins on a small scale, but even with more bins staff only worked from 7am – 3pm, and they would still be overflowing by the next morning on busy summer days.  A weekend evening shift had been trialled and agency staff were utilised during summer, but supervisors would then be needed and there was not available funding.

·           Tree maintenance was contracted out from 2004-2019 during which many trees were over-pruned or received poor quality work resulting in prematurely dying or dead trees, and 2020-21 recorded a net loss due to felling high numbers, but this should return to normal levels soon. 

·           Tree Maintenance had invested in modern equipment to remove issues with visual inspection of trees, such as accurately recording rot and whether felling was needing.

·           The 5,000-tree target was a net increase, which would entail needing to plant 6-7,000 trees over the next four years.  This work had a £2.5m budget over three years with recruitment underway for a dedicated project manager to oversee contractors.

·           The 2021 Serco contract integrated bulk bins in parks, so was fully integrated.

·           Officers worked closely with the transportation team, with some parks, such as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, containing designated cycle routes, and officers were keen to link with walking routes. 

·           Conflicts arose from park cycling and remained banned under byelaws.  The Council did not want conflict over sustainable travel but there was a small number of irresponsible cyclists going too fast endangering pets and young children, and compromise was needed.

·           The Tree Planting Strategy set out locations following an aerial survey and included all wards.  Canopy cover was a key consideration, with a regional target of 20%, although Lambeth was also prioritising proximity to schools, healthcare, and mitigating issues such as surface water runoff.

·           Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were required for larger capital projects or procurement but this could be reviewed for inclusion in the Tree Planting Strategy.

·           Tree Protection Orders (TPOs) sat within Planning and they had a dedicated tree officer who responded on a case-by-case basis, but TPOs could only be issued in certain legislative situations.

·           TPOs could not be placed on all council-owned trees as it was not possible or practical under legislation.

·           No Mow May was successfully undertaken on Council housing land, and officers were not aware of complaints arising, but increased engagement with housing officers was needed. 

·           Eight pilot estates had been identified for a more varied grass-cutting regime to enhance biodiversity, with all to include long-grass areas to remain uncut until Autumn.

·           Officers were working with Incredible Edible Lambeth’s bid to increase biodiversity and allow more areas to be managed by the community.  These would be rolled out shortly in either four-weekly cycles or permanently, and would include tree, hedgerows, bulb, and wildflower planting.

·           Lambeth Housing had stopped using herbicides, but this significantly increased manual work and did not present cost-savings.

·           Pests and disease were increasingly problematic issues, and inspections and capacity to mitigate these issues were also increasing.  The Tree Planting Strategy would diversify stock and plant trees that were more resistant to current and future expected issues.

·           The Parks Service had taken on three apprentices and was increasing training opportunities and a divisional coordinator was in place to improve training.  It was expected that the Good Parks for London score for skills development would increase in 2022 but was an area that required improvement.

·           Some of the Parks apprentices were to be moved to employee-status once apprenticeships ended.

·           The Apprenticeship Levy was being used, and all apprentices on one day a week formal training course.  English as a Second Language training would hopefully be established to support the diverse Housing Grounds Maintenance team.

·           The Tree Planting Strategy set out how Lambeth intended to green-up its urban centres and ensure equity among the borough’s residents; and feedback was welcomed on this appendix.

·           The Streets Green Initiative worked closely with the Capital and Highway teams to green highways with Parks responsible for their soft landscaping.  Grass specifications had moved from amenity turf to a wildlife and wildflower seed mix, which would help meet the aims of the Pollinator Action Plan to see that 70% of new plants were pollinator friendly.

·           Ward councillors and residents would not be consulted on the Tree Planting Strategy, but initial works would focus on empty tree pits in streets before moving to housing land.

·           Street tree planting restrictions were caused by utilities under footways and most feasible locations for street trees were taken.  A list of sites from residents and councillors existed and anyone could put forward suggestions.

·           Parks had ring-fenced funding for an accessible audit covering the largest parks, with a large number of recommendations.  These were being built into capital works where possible, with some specific measures to improve accessibility using surplus events income, as suggested by the Events Scrutiny Commission.

·           Some new benches would have hard-surfaced areas next to them for wheelchairs, such as in Clapham Common’s current bench replacement programme or wheelchair friendly picnic benches.

·           There was a large demographic disparity of park usage and no simple answer to resolve.  The Parks User Survey asked what could be done better, but there were individual successes, such as Myatt’s Fields diversified Management Board structure.

·           Officers would need to discuss the external tree contractor’s poor performance and resultant loss of trees with Legal Services to see if there was recourse to dispensations.

 

The Committee noted calls for increased funding for parks, particularly in recognition of their role in the pandemic, their social-economic and ecological importance, and as spaces open for all. 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS:

1.         To increase collaboration with Friends groups, Partnership Boards, and volunteers; ensuring management plans contain regular weekly communications with the Chairs of each Friends group to allow for more efficient and effective use of volunteers.

2.         To investigate what penalties could be applied to the previous tree contractor for failures.

3.         To ensure the prioritisation of tree planting, including achieving canopy cover of 20% and prioritising disadvantaged areas, in consultation with ward councillors and residents on both streets and council estates; and to provide data on trees lost and mature tree conservation.

4.         To review programmes of communal gardens maintenance on council estates to ensure they are kept to a reasonable standard, and to publish information on biodiversity and environmental protection.

5.         To ensure investment, where available, is prioritised on refurbishing toilets and adequate bins in parks and increasing parks’ accessibility; in addition to investment on free facilities such as playgrounds, multi-use games courts, outside gyms, benches, and accessible paths to attract a wider range of users and ensure attractiveness for all residents.

6.         To improve co-working with Planning, with developers discouraged not to destroy trees and to be responsible to maintain mature trees in future developments with a requirement to replace trees within a five-year period and that this was regularly monitored.  Furthermore, that this be made clear to residents via the Planning website to allow monitoring by local people.

7.         To encourage the Parks Service to make better use of the Apprenticeship Levy and the Government’s Kickstart Scheme to take on apprentices, care leavers, young people, and existing staff members to develop skills and careers.  To also offer opportunities to diverse communities, such as mentoring, to ensure that under-represented groups progress in the Parks Service to increase diversity within the service.

 

The Chair closed the discussion by congratulating Lambeth’s Parks service for securing 19 Green Flags and for being in the top two highest performers in London over the last year.

 

Supporting documents: