As we’re involved as volunteer gardeners at Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope, probably the least surprising piece of news we’ve read today is this: UK’s cash-starved parks at tipping point of decline, MPs warn – https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/11/uks-cash-starved-parks-at-tipping-point-of-decline-mps-warn Hardie Park, run and maintained by volunteers (with Thurrock Council just collecting the rubbish) stands in stark contrast to many parks across southern Essex that are visibly showing the signs of slashed budgets and severely reduced maintenance schedules.
Despite research showing that well maintained and well used public parks make a contribution to social welfare and public health, when local authorities are implementing the government’s ongoing austerity agenda, cutting expenditure in this area seems like an easy option. After all, when presented with a choice of making further cuts to already abysmally funded adult social care services or letting the weeds grow in the local parks, the vast majority of people will say no to any more cuts in the former, so councils slash expenditure on the latter. Obviously, if the narrative underpinning the government’s continuing austerity drive was being effectively challenged, we wouldn’t be forced into making these choices would we?
We remember what Hardie Park was like back in 2007 and 2008 when we contested the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward for the Independent Class Association. It was a litter strewn, unloved no go area that most local people tried to avoid. Now, it’s a much loved, well used community asset although as the volunteers will admit, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done to bring the park up to the standard we’d like. The point is that now the park is being well maintained, more people are using it and with the volunteer run cafe, it’s becoming a hub for the local community. The benefits of this in health and wellbeing are plain for all to see.
If there aren’t volunteers stepping up from the local community to pitch in with park maintenance, they will decline and start to turn into unwelcoming, litter strewn no go areas. When that happens, local authorities looking to boost their coffers will use the neglected state of the parks as justification for selling them off to developers for housing. We’ve already seen this happen in Basildon with the council taking a significant chunk out of Gloucester Park and casting their beady eyes over other parks and open spaces in the area.
What does the future hold? Well, with the political situation as it stands, there’s little chance of an effective challenge to the government’s doctrine of permanent austerity succeeding. This leaves the people power solution that has worked wonders for Hardie Park. A word of warning…it’s bloody hard work! Although, it has to be said that it’s running the cafe and associated meeting rooms that comprises a significant chink of the work. The one thing all the volunteers will agree on is how empowering it is to be actively involved in running and maintaining a local community asset.
It could be said that the volunteers at Hardie Park are letting both Thurrock Council and the government off the hook for austerity. However, we prefer to see it as an empowering form of people power where we start to have a say in what happens in our community. Some of us are starting to think beyond what happens at the park at other ways power can be brought down to the grassroots…watch this space for developments…