New budget consult: opportunity to support open space ‘maintenance’ reductions over sell-offs, plus more recycling and new energy-saving/light pollution measures

Bexley Council is consulting on further budget-savings proposals which could save open spaces, increase recycling and cut carbon emissions and light pollution, thereby benefiting wildlife and people.

The deadline for responses is February 20th. It’s important that as many of us submit views as possible, given what is at stake. We provide below some commentary on why four of the new proposals should be supported on the above grounds, including suggestions as to the sorts of points respondents may wish to make. We also cover the fact that the Council is also seeking further views on their previous proposals, including the suggested principle of open space sell-offs.  

Navigation to all the relevant information is not as straightforward as it could be, so ….

The background is at:

http://www.bexley.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=18672

The on-line survey form is here:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LBBstrategy2018

At the end of this survey form there is also an opportunity to comment further on the previous budget cuts proposals, including the ‘in principle’ proposal to sell off 27 open spaces/pieces of highways land. The Council now admits that 10 of these are designated as ‘parks’. We deal with this at the foot of this piece

The Council has said that ‘paper copies of this survey will be available …. from local libraries and the Civic Offices, Bexleyheath.’

Specific new proposals

The Bexley Natural Environment Forum meeting of 28th January agreed that the group would formally support the following four proposals, subject to the caveats given following each one.

7. Grounds maintenance: Bring forward 2016/17 saving of an extra £113,000to 2015/16. Specification to be reduced, including ceasing leaf clearance,reducing grass cutting to 9 cuts a year, reducing shrub bed maintenance and benches and sign maintenance. (Total saving over four years =£737,000) 

and

8. Highways grounds maintenance: Reduce grass cutting to 10 cuts a year in 2015/16 and reduce shrub bed maintenance. In 2016/17 cease leaf clearance,reduce grass cutting to 9 cuts a year, reduce maintenance of benches and reduce reactive maintenance by 65%. (Total saving over four years =£180,000) 

We think that less ‘maintenance’ (broadly, less frequent cutting of vegetation) will be better for wildlife if done in an informed and selective manner (there are a few sites where there are rare London species that require frequent ‘grazing’ by mowers to survive). Anyone who has seen the ridiculously inefficient tidying up of leaves with noisy blowers – instead of a good ‘old-fashioned’ rake – only to see the wind transport them straight back to where they were, will be glad to see the back of leaf clearance, which in turn will benefit our soils, worms, Blackbirds and Thrushes.

Making open spaces better for wildlife in this way will align with the following Council policy: Parks and Open Spaces Habitat Action Plan 2010-2015, PA02, ‘Enhance at least [i.e. it could be applied to all of them] 15 parks in Bexley to improve their value for nature conservation and the experience of nature they provide for people’.

The Council’s position hitherto has been that either frequent cutting or no cutting are options, and more nuanced management e.g. wildflower meadows are out because of the cost of taking away cut material after more occasional cuts. But our view is that leaving a lot more areas of simply no cutting at all will itself significantly increase the abundance of wildlife, and probably the number of species. An example would be North Heath Recreation Ground where I played as a kid. The hedges around it host the largest number of House Sparrows of any site we’ve counted in Bexley. A couple of metres margin of longer grass would increase seed and insect supply and benefit declining Sparrows.  You would very quickly get lots of Grasshoppers and Butterflies which are lacking now. This is the sort of thing we’re asking farmers to do, so let’s do it here as well. The key point is that it’s not just ‘rare’ species that are in serious trouble due to habitat loss and over-tidiness, but hitherto common ones.

We think more varied vegetation structure and more wildlife will be more interesting for people (and their dogs – aren’t we expecting zoos to provide this sort of ‘enrichment’ for their animals nowadays?).

We also stress that more selective management needs to mean that contractors don’t cut shrubs down to the ground every 5 years just to make up for less frequent trimming!

If you find yourself arguing about this with friends and neighbours who fret about an ‘unkempt’ look, then the bottom line is that all the while somewhere is open space you can at least recover the ‘tidy’ look later if you so choose. Once it’s covered in concrete, bricks and mortar it’s gone for your lifetime and probably well beyond.

9. Reuse and recycling centres: Increase recycling at the centres to 70%.(Total saving over four years = £60,000) 

Credit where it’s due. It’s great to see that the Council is not resting on its laurels as the best-performing Borough in London for percentage of material recycled – but we should really be going for ‘zero waste’. 70% is still almost one third of material going to landfill or incineration. We think the Council ought to be talking to local businesses about simple stuff like stopping giving plastic bags out like confetti. These things make up a large proportion of the litter in the Borough  and I get fed up of repeatedly having to refuse  the things even though I’ve obviously got a big bag over my shoulder ….

10. Street lighting: Saving achieved through a combination of conversion to LED lighting; part night lighting; and switching off some street lights permanently and removing columns. (Total saving over four years =£730,000)

Excellent. This is something that BNEF suggested in the budget consult before last, but it was rejected at the time. It was clear to us that this would be a big ticket money-saver, as well as being good for the environment. We have previously said to the Council that it needs to look at the latest research on LED lighting and Bats, as standard LEDs have a wide spectrum which can be more disruptive than existing sodium lights. Areas around known Bat sites, and corridors between them, should be prioritised for reduced lighting. We hope that Bexley will launch a proper information campaign about this before implementation, so as to avoid a knee-jerk backlash from the public, and possibly Councillors driven by ‘populist’ tendencies, who may run around claiming we all have a God-given right to blazing 24 hour illumination everywhere, and that anything else heralds the collapse of civilisation as we know it. We think we have a birthright to see the marvels of the Milky Way, rather than the pathetically few brighter stars we can see through London’s red glow at the moment!

For anyone concerned about the safety and security ramifications, this site has some useful myth-busting info:

http://www.britastro.org/dark-skies/

Opportunity to comment further on previous proposals (including the 27 site sell-off)

The document upon which the council now seeks more views is entitled ‘Equality Impact Assessment/Equality Analysis pro-forma’ and can be found here:

http://www.bexley.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=14246&p=0

The key piece of text is on page 1:

‘It should be noted that the policy being consulted is ‘in principle’. The consultation seeks views on the principle of disposing of some park / green highway sites, in order to retain a level of grounds maintenance across the majority of Bexley’s parks. The alternative is to retain all these spaces but to substantially reduce the level of maintenance the borough undertakes across the parks portfolio. Following feedback on this concept, further consultation will be undertaken on the specific parks and highway sites that could be disposed of. It should be noted that of the 27 sites identified, 10 are designated as parks sites and 17 as ‘green highway’.’

In other words the Council does appear willing to retain all spaces if the public will accept what it seeks to portray as lower standards of maintenance. As we state above, we think this will mean HIGHER STANDARDS for wildlife, and dispute the implication in this Council paper that you can only get more visitors by spending sell-off cash on the standard sorts of ‘tidiness’ and ‘improvements’. We also note that the Council has not consulted BNEF – as the umbrella body for Friends groups already contributing £41K per annum worth of maintenance  on Borough open spaces – about increasing volunteer input to cut costs whilst still keeping them in good order, before floating the sell-off plan.

The fact that such large savings can be made whilst still cutting the grass 9 times a year suggest scope for even more savings if more areas were left uncut for wildlife, further weakening the sell-off position.

We are pleased to note that up to a couple of days ago there was a 87% to 13% majority in the News Shopper’s on-line poll for less intensive ‘maintenance’ rather than sell-offs, and that the number of participants at that point was around 500. This suggests that the public understand that gone is gone for good, and are also – or can be – persuaded of the pro-wildlife arguments.

Please respond to the survey, and do mention how you would like to see a specific site near you improved for wildlife with less intensive management, and how this would lead to you visiting it more often (and not less). The more different places are mentioned the better.

Apologies to those of you starting to suffer severe consultation fatigue – but let’s make sure it’s the Council that buckles first!

Chris Rose, Vice-chair, on behalf of Bexley Natural Environment Forum. 

How many more tres will be lost if Bexley Council sells off open spaces - and then let's them get built on? (Photo: Chris Rose)

How many more trees will be lost if Bexley Council sells off open spaces – and then let’s them get built on? (Photo: Chris Rose)

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