Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – No Firm Conclusions

6. No Firm Conclusion

So, what to say in response to the proposed cuts?

  • They look like they’ve been chosen in a cursory way;
  • There’s no evidence of how they were identified, and how they’ve been weighed up against other possible cuts;
  • We don’t know what other possibilities were considered

It may be too late to send them back to the drawing board. But if I could, …

  • I’d ask for a new way of funding parks and outdoor activities;
  • Through limited corporate sponsorship;
  • Through public sector funding, e.g. sport, health, congestion charging, etc;
  • through community-based initiative, including asset transfers, land trusts, service agreements, and so on.

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – Community-Based Management

5. Community-based management

Management of the public realm is changing. It’s also becoming much less straightforward. There are two themes to cover here. One is how complex these arguments need to be. The other is community-based asset management and what’s being called the sharing economy.

How Complicated!

I started this post thinking I’d stay away from the complicated arguments that need to be made. I haven’t the access or time needed to collect the data, chase down answers and so on. That’s why I settled on emotive, impact-focused ideas.

But the complicated ideas show up anyway. Given the state of national finances, and the multiple demands on public resources, decisionmakers at all levels are trying to come up with ways of maintaining public services and resources. It seems as though there’s no political will to challenge Whitehall’s  centralised view on localism; no willingness to reject centrally imposed revenue and spending limits.

Instead of kicking against the traces, some local authorities are trying new approaches to public service delivery. There are little experiments in doing things differently. These might include corporate sponsorhip of fitness programmes (just don’t mention Coke Zero). Or they might focus on supporting 3rd sector organisations in delivering support services. Or there might be new ways of providing access to resources for community-based organisations. In Birmingham’s case, there’s also an awful lot of foot-dragging on the part of members and officers unwilling to take steps in new directions. The avenues that might be grasped with both hands are being pushed to one side.

So I reckon part of my work is to keep pushing for innovative methods; keep asking about opportunities for us to get involved, and gain access to resources. To a certain extent I’m calling that community based asset management. It could also be called the sharing economy.

What is the Sharing Economy?

Here are some snippets from folks in the know:

There has also been a revival of non-monetized initiatives such as tool libraries, which arose decades ago in in low-income communities. These efforts are typically neighborhood-based in order to enhance trust and minimize transportation costs for bulky items. New digital platforms include the sharing of durable goods as a component of neighborhood building (e.g., Share Some Sugar, Neighborgoods). These innovations can provide people with low-cost access to goods and space, and some offer opportunities to earn money, often to supplement regular income streams.

Juliet Schor – Debating the Sharing Economy


The theory of ‘collaborative consumption’ is defined as ‘the reinvention of traditional market behaviors—renting, lending, swapping, sharing, bartering, gifting—through technology, taking place in ways and on a scale not possible before the internet. It includes three systems: product service systems, collaborative lifestyles and redistribution markets that enable people to pay to access and share goods and services versus needing to own them outright.

Rachel Botsman

A lot of the discussion centres on merchandise and commercial services. But there are much deeper and older ways of managing land and access to resources through sharing. These include things like open access to data, land reform, and a rediscovery of the Commons.

This essay is a good starting point for the whole book Wealth of the Commons. In part, this argues for a reconstruction of the public sphere through citizen-led, voluntary activity in managing public spaces. There’s a sizable bunch of people across Birmingham willing to give these ideas a go, but from my perspective it’s been a talking shop, with no allocation of resources, no commitment to act.

BCC could really pull a finger out, get some of these initiatives going, and find they can reduce costs and preserve the public realm.

 Next Section – 6

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – Other Approaches

4. Other approaches

Turning to other tactics, where we try to influence councillors through carrot-and-stick approach, we can focus on what a given member may gain or lose. I’m not keen on telling them off and saying they’ll lose votes and so on. They hear that anyway, and they’ll also know what the real vote-losers are.

Instead, I’d focus on how they can benefit from our energy. What most councillors want is for their patch to gain good marks, so most will support anything locals do to make positive change. If you go to a member and say you’ll help manage a volunteer group so long as there are plenty of Rangers, you will have ticked several boxes for that ward, and any sensible councillor would make an extra effort to protect that budget.

Focusing on alternatives brings me back to my starting thoughts. What can we do to find funds elsewhere? Someone on Facebook suggested levying a congestion charge, and using it to pay for greenspace maintenance. I like that idea. At the time, I didn’t know that it’s exactly what Cllr Trickett has mooted. I also didn’t know that a Coventry MP and a 4th rate newspaper rubbished the idea without so much as a kind word. (Best not to let me get started on topics relating to public malfeasance by the 4th Estate, journalistic incompetence, and the deterioration of political discourse, as I don’t know when to stop. So I’ll do a separate post about that, when I can find the words to write about reporters and editors who undermine the public trust.)

I like the idea of congestion charges, just as I like the idea of 5p for carrier bags, & bottle deposits. But it will take too long to set up; it’s not going to save the Parks and Rangers budget this year. This would be the case with any number of other funding streams. Setting them up takes a long while. So we ought to look for money that’s already available. I think we can’t look at private sector money, at least not in the short term. I’d accept a limited corporate sponsorship of parks maintenance; but no financial sector involvement, please. :p

Do I have enough info to identify alternative funding sources? Nope. Can I speculate? Yes. For example, does the NHS have money for fitness programmes? How about Sport England? What about the Public Health bodies? I want to know who has money, and how that money could support greenspace and activities therein. I think there could be stop-gap ways to use lottery money to fund training for volunteers, who then provide specific services – and which the council can draw some income from. This requires a willingness on the parts of BCC and funders. But it can be done. It requires lateral thinking and a willingness to loosen up. Not likely, I know. But still worth requesting.

Given the crude and unexplained way cuts have been targeted, I believe the council have not looked into alternatives. I think the current targets are cursory and unexamined. We are having to do their job for them, but without the resources. So I reckon we ought to be swatting it right back at them.

 Next Section – 5

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – Likely Effects

3. Likely effects

What happens if the proposed cuts are enacted? Let’s look at effects, and at whether we are motivated to challenge those cuts.

Withdraw all the park keepers?

No litter picking, no leaf-blowing, lots of overgrown shrubs/borders, no gritting, no reassuring presence, no lookout for anti-social behaviour. The impact on amenity and safety would be immediate, and very visible.

Would you feel safe going to a littered, unkempt park? Would you enjoy your visit less? A lot less?

Do you feel strongly enough about this that saying so to one of your councillors would convey real strength of feeling? Would be feel distress? Can you convey it? Alternatively, would you ask your councillors to outline the impacts of this cut? Have them talk through the consequences with you?

Reducing Ranger Hubs? Restrict them to land management, risk assessments and repairs for the most part?

I can’t figure quite what this means. But it sounds like Rangers would not be doing the thing they are most needed for: public engagement and volunteer management.

The rangers are an essential 3-way linchpin between nature, people and the council. Taking them away from that work means fewer volunteers, learning less, using parks less, doing less outdoors. The impact of this loss would be to leave parks and open spaces much more vulnerable to anti-social behaviour, and loss of amenity resource for the public.


If nature is a classroom, Rangers are the teachers. Taking them out of the classroom is a dereliction of duty. If greenspaces are a bus, Rangers are the conductor.

I feel quite strongly about this one. How anyone would come up with this as a proposal is problematic, ill-informed, or downright malicious. I am certain there are other ways of making savings, even though I have no access to evidence.

My comment to councillors and officers would be: go back to the drawing board; start over; think this one through properly. Come up with something that’s not so destructive of the public realm, public amenity, perceptions of safety, and so on.

Stop cutting 20% of the grass?

The immediate effect would be an increase in wind blown litter. Parks would look less tidy, and might put people off, or might give others the impression it’s okay to litter.

There are probably better ways of reducing mowing. Instead of reducing the area by 20%, reduce the frequency by 30-50%. Let the grass grow longer – but use a more powerful mower, every 2*N weeks instead of every N weeks.

Remove half of flower beds & shrub borders? Grass them over?

Grassing over borders means more mowing, right? Removing flowers and planting/mowing grass costs money. Or are the flower beds going wild?

Why not just plant zero-maintenance ground cover instead? The immediate impact of replanting flowers with grass is that it’s hardly a cost saving. Why throw good money after bad?

No more baskets & planters?

The immediate impact will be that city centre and neighbourhood high streets look a lot less pleasant. It may affect first impressions more than anything else, but will also mean some public spaces appear more barren, more desolate.

That’s a first turn through the impacts; other impacts can come from local knowledge about each park or open space.

Would the loss of park keepers or rangers mean:

  • More vandalism?
  • More fires?
  • More quad-bikes?
  • More drinking?
  • More cruising?
  • More fly-tipping?

The point here is to connect the dots between loss of a council-run service and loss of amenity, safety, community, health & wellbeing.

 Next Section – 4