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East Herts Council Parks and Open Spaces Strategy – A Response from East Herts Green Party

[The East Herts Council Parks and Open Spaces Strategy 2022-27 can be found here - EHGP submitted the following response on 24 September 2021]

In general the East Herts Green Party welcomes the new Parks & Open Spaces Strategy 2022-27, and supports East Herts Council’s aims to use its green spaces to provide a calm environment for everyone to relax and exercise, and create sustainable habitats that support an abundance of wildlife. We also recognise the need that our parks should generate some income to help the council maintain them. 

Page 1: Though we support the general aims, we are concerned by some of the language used in the Executive Foreword.  In particular the use of the following phrases: “deliver cost effective services with limited resources”… “looking for inventive ways to commercialise”… “council is under considerable financial strain… difficult decisions…” 

This language does a very effective job of turning out the lights on public expectations. We do not feel that this is what an EHC public consultation document should look like, nor that this is what was intended. Stating the constraints is understandable, of course, but we are concerned that introducing such a strong statement of limitations at the opening of the document acts to undermine the idea of a consultation, to direct all that follows along a particular route and risks giving the public the impression that the council will need to start to close down open spaces. Pointing out the challenges is necessary, of course, but we feel the language should be moderated to encourage positive input and a spirit of “can-do”.

Pages 3 – 13: We feel that the “Full proposed strategy for parks and open spaces” document, as linked from the webpage, would benefit from some clarification. 

Specifically, from page 3-10, the document lays out 6 sections which appear to be snapshots of projects that have either been completed or are under development. However each is headlined with an aspirational statement. It isn’t clear from the structure and wording in these sections which parts are descriptions of what has been done under the existing strategy, and which are parts of the proposed strategy going forward. Are these six sections the main EHC priorities in future? Will EHC continue to roll out these ideas to all parks? For example, on page 6, it includes: “Fitness zones at Bishop’s Park, Marked running tracks”. Have these been completed or are they aspirations for the future? On the following page, actions that have already been completed at Southern County (sic) Park are discussed. 

We suggest that clarity could be improved if case studies were extracted, and put together into a clearly labelled section, and actions clearly labelled as “completed” or “to come” or “underway”. 

On Page 6, the strategy highlights work on a playground in Trinity Close. We support EHC in providing high quality play equipment. But we would like to see EHC place a greater emphasis on the use of natural materials for playgrounds. In particular, we would support an aim to replace plastic and metal with wood or natural materials including willow, hazel hurdles, along with recycled materials where possible, eliminate the use of concrete where possible, and employ simple landscape-based “naturalised” playgrounds such as hillocks, with ditches, bridges, tunnels and burrows for imaginative play. This helps stimulate children’s minds, provides exercise without bringing large amounts of metal and plastic into parks, while also helping to keep the costs of equipment down. See for example:

https://earthwrights.co.uk/previous-work/
https://www.naturalplaygrounds.com/

On Page 7, the strategy highlights the excellent work done in the Southern Country Park. This can and should be replicated in other parks and open spaces – and it can work on a small scale too. We suggest this might be done without increasing costs through the large nos of volunteer groups and/or community teams that are available. Has a programme of engagement been carried out for any of our smaller public spaces, for example? We would encourage EHC to be more ambitious in its approach to “interested residents and healthy habitats”.

On pages 11-13, the document lists other policies that play a role in the strategy document. This is very useful information, but given that these are really supplemental to the strategy itself, wouldn’t they be better relocated to the end of the document?

Page 13: Here we are introduced to what seems to be the heart of the new strategy, but even then, the phrases “Looking to the future” and “ongoing ambition” don’t help to clarify what is actually new vs what is existing. So our question is: do the sections that follow represent actions that will take place as part of the new strategy? It isn’t stated explicitly. Some kind of clearer sign-posting would really help clarify what we are reading. 

We also have a specific criticism. On Page 13 we are introduced to ACE. We support the use of an acronym to summarise the approach at EHC, but feel there is something critical missing. 

The document states: “Our Parks will be ACE; Attractive & Accessible to all, managed with a Commercial influence and Engaged with their users and will continue to contribute to the wellbeing of our residents.” 

We note that the council has declared a climate motion, and as the strategic context section on page 10 points out, the first of EHC’s strategic aims is: “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do”.  

So it is extremely surprising that this acronym has no recognition of the important role that parks play in supporting wildlife and environmental sustainability. We feel that as used, ACE does not live up to EHCs claim of “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do”. 

Perhaps ACES would be a better choice – with the S standing for Supporting wildlife and environmental sustainability? Whatever is chosen, this acronym should be modified to include recognition of the vitally important role our parks and open green spaces play in supporting nature, a role that will become even more vital during the strategy’s time horizon due to continuing climate breakdown.

Page 13: We appreciate the need for parks to help raise income, but commercialisation must not come at a cost to the environment in our parks. For example, we support commercial activities such as fun runs etc which are valuable for a number of health reasons, but these should not end up damaging the parks and open spaces where they are held, and there must be a balance struck. We would suggest that reference to that balance be included.

As another example, most ice creams release air pollution while they are open for business. EHGP object to ice cream vans sitting in parks with diesel engines running, releasing dangerous pollutants just metres away from families and children, and we hope that EHC shares that view. So we would like this strategy to include a stated aim of providing electric hook up points so that a new generation of electric ice cream vans can plug in, providing ice creams without noise and air pollution. (Note: in 2019, Whitby Morrison, which makes 80% of all UK ice cream vans, started testing battery powered ice cream makers and Nissan etc have made electric versions too). EHC should be encouraging this transition in its parks and open spaces by requiring all ice cream vendors to run off batteries or plug in to electric points, or set limits on the time for which diesel engines can run. EHC already works to encourage new electric taxis – surely this is an opportunity to do a similar thing for ice cream vans in its parks and towns. 

Car parks could also offer an opportunity to save money. EHC spends hundreds of thousands of pounds resurfacing car parks with conventional tarmac etc. The Parks and Open Spaces Strategy should include an aspirational aim to switch these unsustainable surfaces to ones that are more environmentally friendly, and lower cost? If such sustainable surfaces are currently too expensive, can the strategy include a commitment to reassess this during the policy’s lifetime? Given EHCs policy “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do” it would seem that this approach to car parks would be a better fit.

Page 14: The EHGP supports greater engagement with the community and the role this can play in enriching our open spaces (and in aiding EHC at a time of financial constraints). We draw attention in particular to groups like the Hertford Playground Alliance, which with its crowd-funding for Hartham, has shown a lead in ways to work with councils to create and enhance existing facilities or develop new ones. EHC should not be afraid to engage more widely and encourage local resident groups to follow this model. And as more residents become concerned by our degraded environment and the impacts of climate breakdown, the council should be prepared to engage with them in new and more flexible ways. This will help make our parks more sustainable and resilient in the long term.

As an example of where EHC could expand engagement, there are a number of parks in the district with issues of crime. We would urge EHC to consider reaching out to local communities, to help create small community-run projects within these parks, whether by offering small areas for play zone development opportunities, or through community wildlife gardens, or community orchards or tree planting, or a host of other ideas including rewilding/regeneration/wild-flower meadows etc which would encourage community action and care, and help to increase community involvement and oversight in these areas. 

These kind of partnerships should surely be encouraged, and if steered in the correct way, could benefit both the council in reduced costs of long-term management, but also in terms of greater community buy-in to the park itself, through improved local ownership and presence, which can play an important role in helping to discourage crime. 

EHC has seemed loathe to do this in the past, but this new strategy offers a chance to realign for a changing world where many people feel increased ownership and passion for green spaces, especially after COVID and lockdown, and with the ongoing climate emergency. We recognise that some officer time would be involved in establishing this kind of project but this would be an investment in the broadest sense of the word, and EHGP urges the council to make the most of this change in public mood.

Page 15: We agree that increased littering is a huge issue. The current system of bins and collections is failing time and again in busy periods and we urge the council to think beyond the conventional model of simply placing small bins around parks. Some councils have adopted a zero bin policy and as a result have found the waste problem greatly reduced. This should be trialled. Others have provided extra bins for mixed recycling, dog waste and non-recyclables. Alternatively, providing larger bins for waste, with simple options for recycling too – eg plastic bottles, glass, is certainly worth exploring, and could work along with a separate dog waste bin. Certainly change ought to be a high priority since the current waste collection system has been found wanting many times during the last 2 years. 

Page 20: We support the role of parks and open spaces for the health and well-being of residents. Yet beyond the 4 lines on this page, the consultation doesn’t really stress or explore the value of parks, open spaces or green habitat for mental health well-being, as revealed clearly during the COVID emergency. This should be an important part of any strategy and EHGP is disappointed that this strategy doesn’t provide more focus on its importance.

Page 20: As far as biodiversity and sustainability are concerned, where is the evidence for the claims made in the consultation - in particular, where there are suggestions that biodiversity has increased due to council action? The consultation uses the right words but we would also welcome seeing evidence, and to see assurance that these things have been properly monitored and will be so in the future.

Page 20: Trees. Here the strategy argues that EHC cannot try to plant more trees itself as it doesn’t own much land and wants instead to work with other organisations to get them to plant trees. Supporting others to plant trees is laudable, but for a council that states a key policy as “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do” this lack of ambition in tree planting is woeful. 

EHC owns large numbers of smaller grass spaces within areas of housing, for example. Instead of trying to close down the prospect of tree planting in the strategy, it should recognise the value in assessing and wherever possible adding small species of suitable trees to enhance shade, and opportunities for wildlife. Shade in parkland will become more important as temperatures rise during summers and the district sees more heat waves. 

One way in which EHC could raise its tree planting ambitions within financial constraints is to allow streets or communities to adopt a green space, whatever its size, and to encourage residents to be involved in tree planting and limited maintenance. EHC should also consider allowing residents to sponsor the planting of memorial trees, for example. The unofficial planting of tree memorials has become widespread and rather than just trying to stop or ignore it, EHC could help residents do this in a controlled, and financially- and environmentally- sustainable way by allowing individuals or groups to fund such memorial trees. Such trees increase community engagement with their open spaces. 

We would also ask that EHC introduce a “sponsor a bird box” programme in council open spaces, to encourage residents to engage with their local open spaces and to support wildlife.

Page 23: Key Action 11: says it aims to “explore ways to deliver…” 

Considering that we are in the midst of a climate emergency, with clear scientific data showing a huge impact on biodiversity, the wording of this is surprising! Should we be “exploring ways to”? Shouldn’t we be “actively working to…”? We need real change, not a tentative plan to consider how or when we might start to achieve change. Come on EHC, roll your sleeves up and live up to your policy “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do”!

Given this policy statement, EHGP argues that EHC ought to create a more nuanced management scheme for things like hedgerows, trees, grassland and meadow in those areas of its parks and open spaces that have potential for biodiversity increase. This would require a proper audit of parks and open spaces, and planting within. Biological recording and baseline surveys are a fundamental part of this, and again this offers an opportunity to engage with community groups (school six forms, community volunteers or expert groups like Hertfordshire Flora Group etc). We appreciate that EHC green spaces are not generally nature reserves, and we wouldn’t advocate such work on a football field. However there are many parts of EHC’s green spaces that have huge value in terms of wildlife. The council should have an ambition to maintain and increase the biodiversity value within such spaces. We argue that enhancing wildlife and nature is an issue of health and well-being. The sight of wild creatures, be they butterflies and bees, or herons, kingfishers, woodpeckers, lizards or snakes is known to bring benefits to mental health and well-being. We believe EHC should be more ambitious in its approach to supporting nature in council-owned greenspaces. For areas in its open spaces and parks identified as having potential, we would like to see biodiversity action plans for species under threat eg hedgehogs, stag beetles etc and see EHC implement evidence-based conservation management plans to help conserve species there.

Finally there should be a strategic assessment of park and greenspaces for their connectivity in providing wildlife corridors across the district. This strategic view should be used to implement new planting opportunities by EHC and partner organisations in and outside parks that strengthen existing wildlife corridors or help create new ones.

Key Action 12: states “Manage and develop the grounds maintenance contract efficiently”

This action links closely with action 11. Park maintenance is a key issue that needs to be addressed in terms of commercial viability and deliverables, but most importantly it needs to be completely reassessed in terms of sustainability.  

For example, EHGP appreciates that there is a risk associated with dead trees but some 40% of species rely on dead wood in some form or other. Where possible, dead trees should be cut back but retained. In addition, currently contractors clear logs and cut wood away from parks – we would argue that this is wrong-headed in terms of environmental sustainability, since the logs and woodpiles should be created and left to encourage insects and mammals, especially saproxylic invertebrates, which are a vital part of the food chain. Similarly brushwood, branches etc can be left in piles to offer attractive habitat to insects etc. These changes should offer an opportunity for financial savings on contracts since contractors no longer need to tidy, remove and dispose of such material from site. EHC should also involve officers, members etc in understanding these changes and why they have been made so that they can explain the logic behind them to the public. This does not always appear to be EHC policy.

Grass cutting is another opportunity for long term financial savings. There is a pressing need, and public demand, to develop effective verge/pollinator/wildflower initiatives which have been almost ignored till now on the majority of EHC land. This has to change rapidly, and would be widely supported. Though playing fields obviously should be maintained in the best way to ensure their use for sports etc, EHC parks and open spaces have huge areas of grassland around the margins of playing fields and on edges of rivers etc, where an alternative model of grass care including pollinator/wildflower initiatives should be implemented to increase biodiversity value. In the past, residents may have complained at the sight of uncut grass, but this view is changing and EHC should remember its “Sustainability at the heart of everything we do” policy. Through a limited cut approach, it is possible to maintain a neat appearance around the margins of grassland while in the longer term improving the biodiversity value of the whole area. We are not asking that all parks are simply allowed to rewild (though we would support this in many places). However it is possible to create major change while still “make people feel that they are in a cared-for place”.

We would also argue in favour of creating in-park composting sites at larger parks, to take waste wood, leaves, cuttings etc where material can be left to compost rather than being removed from site at extra cost and carbon emissions. This also encourages beneficial insects etc on site.

Consideration should also be given to climate breakdown in terms of new planting and plant maintenance: drought tolerant planting schemes, for future temperature resilience should be used in places. There should be reductions in the use of annuals for decorative planting due to cost and water requirements etc. Any contract should also make use of hedgerow management routines based on Wildlife Trust principles – rotational cutting of hedges, and cutting kept to January/February. Wherever possible, hedges should be managed to optimise use by wildlife.

EHGP also demands that a ban on the use of herbicides and pesticides within parks and open spaces is put in place due to health risks to people, pets and living creatures that are impacted inadvertently.

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