Merton Council proposals to contract out maintenance and care of parks and green spaces

We have been both surprised and disappointed by the emergence of proposals from Merton Council to contract out maintenance and care of parks and green spaces in joint arrangements with Sutton Council to be procured through the South London Waste Partnership.

Whilst recognising the financial and budgetary constraints within which the Council has to operate we share the outrage expressed in many quarters at the handling of these proposals and their likely impact.

We have produced a statement of our views which you can read bellow.

PARKS AND GREEN SPACES – Contracting out
Response to Merton Council proposals
December 2014

1. Mitcham Cricket Green Community and Heritage takes an active interest in the future of the Cricket Green Conservation Area and its environs. We are the civic society for this part of Merton and part of the wider civic movement through membership of the national charity Civic Voice. We act as a Friends Group for the network of open spaces and registered Town Greens in the area and work closely with other local organisations including Friends of the Canons, Friends of Mitcham Common and Merton Tree Wardens Group. The Cricket Green Charter establishes our approach to development and change in the area and was developed in partnership with the London Borough of Merton, the local community and our local councillors.

2. We have been both surprised and disappointed by the emergence of proposals from Merton Council to contract out maintenance and care of its parks and green spaces in joint arrangements with Sutton Council to be procured through the South London Waste Partnership. Whilst recognising the financial and budgetary constraints within which Merton Council has to operate we share the outrage expressed in many quarters at the handling of these proposals. We also share the concerns eloquently expressed by Sustainable Merton in response to Merton Council’s announcement.

3. We offer the following views to inform Merton Council’s final decision and the future handling of similar issues.

4. Merton’s parks and green spaces are a jewel in its crown and make a massive contribution to the quality of life of all those who live in the Borough. They instil civic pride, inspire people to volunteer and get involved in their local area, provide outdoor classrooms, support healthy lifestyles, offer sanctuary and are havens for wildlife. They are one of the most important public services in Merton and significantly reduce the cost of many other public services, including health, education and crime. The public’s passion for and love of Merton’s green environment regularly tops opinion polls and surveys.

5. Effective care for and maintenance of Merton’s parks and green spaces depends on positive collaboration between Merton Council ground staff and management, contractors and local volunteers. The contribution of volunteers to practical maintenance and care is vital and significantly reduces costs. Collaborating with volunteers and Friends Groups also provides access to immense local knowledge and creativity which ensures approaches which are sensitive to local context

6. Public confidence in decisions over difficult issues such as the local authority budget depends on effective engagement and presentation of genuine choices and options on which to respond. This is even more important when the public service in question depends so heavily on volunteer engagement and the trust of Friends Groups for its delivery.

7. Merton Council has recently sought to collaborate constructively with local Friends Groups with a view to helping establish borough-wide co-ordination of their role and improving their effectiveness. This was welcome.

8. Yet, despite their public importance and the dependence on local volunteers and Friends Groups, the announcement of the plans to contract out maintenance and care of open spaces and parks has been made without reference to any of these existing relationships and with no plan for public consultation. When called-in for scrutiny by local councillors the lead Cabinet member chose limited participation before leaving the chamber, elected members of the scrutiny panel were given poor advance information, and interested groups had little opportunity to contribute.

9. There are significant unanswered questions and unclear assurances associated with the proposals which:

  • Suggest limited savings of around £290k pa against a total net cost of around £1.6m without any evidence of options considered or costed alternatives on which people can offer informed views
  • Assume the continued commitment of local volunteers and Friends Groups in the management and care of the Borough’s parks and green spaces and do not address the added cost if the real risk of Friends groups withdrawing volunteer labour is realised. This commitment is worth more than the suggested savings and cannot be assumed given:
    ‒ Volunteer motivations will be very different if expected to be working alongside commercial contractors
    ‒ The impact of the breakdown in relationships and level of trust between Merton Council and Friends Groups as a result of the handling of these proposals
  • Propose an extraordinary 25 year contract with limited scope for amendment despite experience in neighbouring boroughs of the problems with such long term contracts – Croydon is revisiting a much shorter 5 year contract ahead of time
  • Fail to address the mismatch between the current wage costs of around £1m for 37 staff and the planned provision of £240k for just 10 staff
  • Make no provision for input from local Friends Groups to the design or award of any contract
  • Make no provision for the development of the Management Advisory Committee model in Merton as a compensating step were contracting out to be pursued – these Committees play an important part in some neighbouring boroughs by bringing local groups, local authority officers and members and contractors together around a shared interest in management and care for parks and green spaces which is more collaborative than that operated in Merton
  • Ignore the long terms costs in additional service provision (e.g. health, criminal justice and education) which will be the inevitable result of any decline in the quality of parks and open spaces

10. In the light of these issues we ask that the current process be halted and replaced by much fuller proposals with costed options assessed for their pros and cons and put our for wide public engagement. The Council should also convene a deliberative dialogue with local Friends Groups as part of this process.

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