Newcastle Parks Forum and Save Our Parks Meeting

The information that was released last week, ahead of Newcastle City Council’s Cabinet Meeting at which the parks proposal will be discussed, instigated the decision at the weekend to convene this meeting today.

Some of what I say this evening you will have heard me say before – but I believe that some points are important to reiterate. And I apologise if what I am about to say doesn’t flow or seems to jump around.

The release of the financial information provided by Social Finance had not been previously completed or available. It is that information that will inform our conversations and it is that financial information which was not, unfortunately, available to the public consultation on parks and therefore, the proposed model of delivery was presented on its own outside of any financial context.

The proposed new delivery model – the ‘charitable trust’ model – the language has changed from ‘social enterprise’ please note – will be presented to Cabinet on Monday for recommendation to proceed to a fuller plan to be delivered to Cabinet in October.

That leaves 3 months to consider or offer input, or changes maybe, to this model. It may well be that this model is the right model for the City.  But it might not.  Or it might be with adjustment.  Let’s discuss.

I attended graduations yesterday at which Nick Forbes, Leader of the Council, was the guest speaker. He said something quite interesting which I will share with you in a minute.  For now I want to start this meeting where he closed his speech.

Nick told those graduates to remember where they graduated – in Newcastle. He wanted them to have a sense of place and he listed historical, architectural, cultural triumphs of this “great city”.

Thinking where we are – Newcastle is so green. Country parks, city parks, heritage parks, village greens, woodland, nature reserves, so many green spaces – it was certainly a draw when I moved here 12 years ago with my then 5 year old.

So a reminder of the background.

Funding to Newcastle’s parks has reduced year on year since 2010 when all 10 of Newcastle’s Park Keeper posts were deleted.  Newcastle City Council’s Health Department recognises the benefits of parks to the community and has committed funding from its budget.   However, monies available to the Parks Department are paltry and barely cover the wages of the remaining Parks staff.  The result of slashed funding and the absence of a permanent and skilled workforce has resulted in a lack of maintenance, overgrowth, increased litter, broken and unreplaced furniture and play equipment.

That’s 7 years of underfunding.

And in 2020 funding from central to local government will go …

Something needs to happen. Change is a certainty.

Change is an interesting concept because people often think that change is something external, something that happens outside of them, which other people should do …. But really change starts inside each of us.

The paradigm through which the function and purpose of Newcastle’s parks is considered as an entire responsibility of Newcastle City Council, needs to shift.

Retaining the transactional analysis model of relationship between residents and parks staff as ”The Council”, as the homogenous, bureaucratic headache that it can so often be, is not productive.

I would like for us to discuss these issues outside of the Council context and focus instead on us and on community.

What I want to give you this evening is an opportunity to shift the narrative, to think differently – to think other than.

So what I would like is for you to think about what it is you can do. What it is you can contribute?  What other ideas do you have that are realistic?  What is the scope of the delivery model – too large – too many different components maybe?  Maybe it is just right.  What about individual trusts or social enterprise models?

I will be putting some sheets up around the room with given themes and I will be asking for your contributions.

In the consultation sessions provided by DigiLab – which were responsive to each layer of consultation and modified accordingly and did provide interesting and useful insights – the context, the social enterprise (now charitable trust) model was the given context.

In the public consultation run by the Council, which was well attended, the charitable trust model was the proposal but without the financial information sitting alongside it for consideration of the financial context.

Newcastle Parks have different areas with different user groups, priorities and locations. Last year the Forum used a simple process of adduction to ascertain commonalities.

There were found to be 3 main areas of concern – maintenance, litter and recycling and play equipment – and a 4th – public engagement.

And this is what I wanted to tell you that Nick Forbes said yesterday.

Nick was talking about bins and rubbish collections and littering across the City and how various and many solutions and strategies at varying costs were put into place to address this issue.

Nick said the most successful campaign the Council had run, was not about rubbish and litter but about giving communities funding for planting and flower schemes – residents engaged, got involved, became empowered in their own streets, took pride and ownership of their area – and rubbish wasn’t a problem – it was also a cheaper scheme. Community engagement was key to this.

It is this community engagement that I wish to focus on.

Writing last century, the psychologist Erich Fromm proposed the concept of Biophilia: a love of nature, but also a need for human beings to be in nature, with a psychological connection between the two.

He suggested that the attachments humans make with plants and animals is genetically determined and is linked to our inherent dependency on the natural world for food and shelter.

Fromm argued that nature as a whole is rooted within our biology.  This idea extends with the Deep Ecology Movement pioneered by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.  This broader, modern theory regards nature as “a living tissue of complex inter-relationships” and reconnects human beings with nature, who in the industrialised world have become separated from it.

This is to regard ecology as environmental philosophy and there are similarities here with root traditions.

The benefits of time spent in nature are widely recorded and include boosts to physical, emotional and psychological healing and wellbeing.

The theories of Deep Ecology and Biophilia support the argument that the issue of parks should be raised on the political agenda.

The importance for the community  in maintaining parks is not just for the protection of the flora and fauna, but for human beings and particularly then for those of us living in urbanised areas, to connect with ourselves and reconnect with each other in what Erich Fromm calls “Unity”.

Parks will only exist as a political issue for Newcastle’s residents when they see and feel that they are purposeful for them. This is where increasing engagement is so important and this is where support needs to be invested currently, within communities.

The National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces asserts from UK-wide consultation that the biggest threat to Parks is public apathy.   Public support will not, however, be gained by simple awareness-raising.  So what can be done?

How do we build strong, resilient hubs for the benefit of flora, fauna and community?

How do we harness the passion and purpose of residents and park user groups?

How do we synthesise their intent and passion?

It start with us. It starts with the converted. It starts with how we present ourselves and our interests to the broader community.

Popular perception is critical because the political battles that need to be fought will be dependent on community support in order to be successful.

The challenge ahead for Newcastle Parks Forum is to reposition the perception of parks on the agenda of the communities they serve.