Open space sell-offs – just say ‘no’ in budget consult (deadline Jan 9th)! Council still won’t provide list of sites. Adopts standard ‘party line’.

Despite a number of requests to different people within the Council from various local campaigners, prompted by the ‘BexleyWildlife’ web platforms and Bexley Natural Environment Forum, the Council is still refusing to make public the list of 27 sites (a quarter of its total) identified for possible sell-off, saying that this would ‘bias’ the outcome of its budget consultation. It has confirmed that some of the sites are ‘parkland’. It claims that the list is exempt from Freedom of Information requests. There is a reference to sales income providing  an ‘endowment’, but this is not what the budget question says, nor is there any promise in the consultation of it being spent on remaining open spaces   

If you don’t want to risk finding yourself spending 2015 fighting the sell-off of what could be your favourite open space, or any other wildlife and/or recreational site (and then planning applications after that), then the best way to do this is to stop this plan NOW, by saying ‘DISAGREE’ to Question 22 in the budget consultation (more details on responding below) at:  

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/strategy2018

*** DEADLINE IS JANUARY 9th 2015 ***

We urge everyone reading this who is a Bexley resident to vote ‘no’ and to forward the information in this post to sympathetic friends, relatives and contacts in the Borough, because for all we know, if the Council does indeed read a ‘yes’ vote as a yes ‘in principle’ to sell-offs, then anywhere could be on the list, or put on it subsequently. Separate responses from wives, husbands and partners and older children, if they have a view, will help boost numbers.

Our concern is that if the Council then launches simultaneous but separate ‘consultations’ on 27 (or some other number of sites), it will be too late to discuss the whole idea in principle, and what the alternatives might be. It will be difficult for groups like ourselves to cover all the bases and it will be easier for the Council to play ‘divide and rule’ between different local objectors.

Whether Officers  or Councillors are asked for a list of specific sites, the response is now the same (see below), with the latter simply forwarding what appears to be an Officer-led ‘party-line’, which begs the question as to who is leading the Council and whether Councillors are in the dark or happy to play along with this approach in a bid to try and minimise immediate resistance.

The Council is as likely to have ‘biased’ the response by keeping the list secret as by being totally open. It suggests that end usage has not been decided (implying sold sites might not get built on), so some people might say no thinking concrete was inevitable (most pointers these days suggest it is, of course). Others will say no in case their site is on the hit-list when it isn’t (yet).

PERTINENT POINTS

Anyway, here are some points to bear in mind if you want to add more detail in the ‘Comments’ box under the question. They can also be used if you have time to write to your Councillors as well – each Ward (electoral area in the Borough) has three:

– Our question as to why BNEF (as the umbrella organisation for Friends of parks and open spaces and wildlife conservationists) was not engaged with over how we could increase volunteer input BEFORE calling for a vote on sell-offs has not been answered. The Council leadership says in the preamble to the budget it wants to go down that route, and we understand the financial constraints, so why risk poisoning the well of goodwill before trying?  Or perhaps they have just decided that frightening people with the prospect of sell-offs is the best  way to get  new Friends groups and volunteers?

– The Council’s ‘Growth vision’ consultation earlier in the year welcomed the prospect of ever more ‘development’ in Bexley, but claimed it could reconcile this with protecting what we ‘value’ about the Borough. We believe that a big part of what is valued is the extent of green spaces and wildlife.  The Council needs to spell out what it ‘values’ and where the red lines are. Support for building on three quarters of a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation in the Borough (Erith Quarry), continuing support for a Bexley by-pass (through another SINC),  increasing the projected housing allocation fivefold to 22,000 over what was agreed with the public for the Local Plan only 2.5 years ago and now selling off open spaces does not engender much confidence.

– The Head of Parks and Open Spaces says the sell-off plan is an alternative to ‘severely cutting the grounds maintenance budget and allowing sites to revert to a naturalised state’. BNEF has for some time been pushing precisely the argument that parks can be made better for wildlife by selectively easing off on vegetation management, saving money at the same time. This would be in line with Open Spaces Strategy 1.17 ‘The value of open space is not just recreational. The strategic contribution that open spaces can make to the wider environment includes: supporting habitats and local wildlife (biodiversity);’ … and … 5.5 …  ‘improved nature conservation and biodiversity should be targeted at all sites in line with the Biodiversity Action Plan.’ In addition DEFRA is clear that biodiversity includes populations as well as species, and numbers of insects and other species would go up significantly if some heavily manicured parks were not just treated as large lawns. For those who prefer the formal look, at least you can go back to that from a more ‘naturalised state’, but not from a bunch of buildings.

–  … ‘the alternative option being publicly consulted would involve creating an endowment by releasing a relatively small area of land over a small number of sites.’ This is not what the question says at all. It says there would be straightforward savings and receipts from the sale. It does not say how far the income would go in propping up the open spaces budget. Nor, indeed, does it promise that the money would be spent on open spaces at all. In addition, an endowment is usually a capital sum from which interest payments are used to pay ongoing costs. You can only sell land once, and interest rates are low and likely to stay that way.

– What criteria have ‘in principle’ been used to determine which sites are on the secret list and which not?

– Is 27, which is one quarter of all sites, a ‘small’ (and by implication insignificant) number of sites. If so, why?

MORE ABOUT RESPONDING TO THE BUDGET CONSULTATION, AND HOW TO WRITE TO YOUR COUNCILLOR

The Council’s pre-amble to the consultation is here:

http://www.bexley.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=18250

The online questionnaire is here:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/strategy2018

 

Paper copies are available from libraries or the Civic Office in Bexleyheath.

22. Parks: Bexley has 106 parks and open spaces plus numerous pieces of ‘green’ highway land across the borough. Disposal of 27 of these sites would generate receipts which would reduce the financing costs on the Council’s capital programme. Half the saving would be generated through the disposal of half of one site.This proposal is the disposal of 27 out of 106 open spaces or pieces of ‘green’ highway land (Total savings over four years = £1,620,000)

Answer ‘Disagree’ to this question. You do not have to answer all questions, but there are others on which you may also have a firm opinion.

To write to your local Councillor expressing concern about the sell-offs and the way the ‘consultation’ on this is being handled, you can find their contact details here:

http://democracy.bexley.gov.uk/mgMemberIndex.aspx?FN=WARD&VW=LIST&PIC=0

 

RELEVANT CORRESPONDENCE WITH THE COUNCIL

Letter from Chris Rose (Vice-chair BNEF) to the Head of Parks & Open Spaces, 16/11/2014:

Dear Colin,

Reference the ongoing budget consultation and question

22. Parks: Bexley has 106 parks and open spaces plus numerous pieces of ‘green’ highway land across the borough. Disposal of 27 of these sites would generate receipts which would reduce the financing costs on the Council’s capital programme. Half the saving would be generated through the disposal of half of one site.This proposal is the disposal of 27 out of 106 open spaces or pieces of ‘green’ highway land (Total savings over four years = £1,620,000)

In order to be able to answer this sensibly, we (and the wider public) need to be able to see the list of sites. We wrote to Mark Taylor asking for a list as soon as this became public, but he seems to have been instructed to send us an ‘official line’ which did not provide us with the required information.

It is blindingly obvious from the wording of the question in the consultation that not only does a list of identified sites exists but also, from the statement that ‘Half the saving would be generated through the disposal of half of one site.’ and the figure for the total saving, that the Council has also already decided upon the sorts of likely end usages that it would approve.

Mark suggested that I try asking you for a list before escalating this to a FOI request.

Will you now provide a list?

If you are going to tell us there is no such list, can you please explain how the above sales income/savings figures were derived?

We would also be interested to know why, given that Mark’s reply talked about the alternative option of more volunteer input on management, and that this was in line with similar comments made by Cllrs O’Neill and Bacon in their budget preamble, the Council has not approached Bexley Natural Environment Forum about this in advance, given that we are the umbrella group for Friends of parks and open spaces groups in the Borough.

We have sought to work constructively with the Council but this is going to become increasingly difficult if we keep getting implausible responses to reasonable questions, such as claims that there are no sell-off lists and there is no list of identified sites where the five-fold increase in housing allocation over what was agreed in the LDF would go.

Yours sincerely, Chris Rose
Vice-chair, Bexley Natural Environment Forum.
Reply from Colin Rowland, Head of Parks and open Spaces

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your email.

The first thing to say is that this is a policy option that is being developed by a small working group consisting of officers from a range of specialist disciplines within the Council. Mark was not a member of that group and remains unaware of the specific sites identified.

The consequence of this work is that the Council is consulting local people on the principle of disposing of surplus areas of parkland and ‘green’ highway sites. The income this could generate would then be used to support the cost of grounds maintenance across other parks and open spaces. If the principle is agreed, residents will be consulted again on any specific proposals to dispose of land, following the Council’s usual procedures.

Identifying the sites at this stage would likely distort the consultation process and instead of encouraging a balanced view from residents, it could potentially generate unnecessary localised concern and a biased and disproportionate response from those living in close proximity to any one of the possible sites.

I hope you will therefore appreciate why the Council has not publicly identified the sites at this stage. Equally I trust you will also understand that as an integral part of policy development the information would at this stage be exempt from disclosure if subject to a Freedom of Information request.

It would also be premature to suggest that the Council has already decided what end uses it would approve. At this time the Council is openly consulting on a principle. The outcome of local consultation will inform a decision as to whether to proceed with this proposal. At that point the Council would consult on what alternative use each site could potentially be used for. In addition any development proposal would be subject to further public consultation under the planning process. Clearly however at this stage the valuations for each site have been identified on achieving the best possible value for the Council as is required by legislation. This information is of course commercially confidential and would not be disclosed on a site by site basis as it would jeopardise the requirement to achieve best value.

At this point it is important to understand that all Local Authorities are facing significant financial challenges as the coalition Government seek to achieve a balanced national budget. Over the next four years Bexley is challenged with achieving savings of around £50m. Bromley for instance are consulting with their residents as to how they will achieve savings of around £60m to meet the reduction in local government grant.

Bexley’s annual expenditure is around £160m and achieving a reduction in expenditure of just under a third to enable the Council to set a legal budget has involved a fundamental examination of the level of provision of all statutory and non-statutory services.

The standard of maintenance set within parks and open spaces is a non-statutory function. Rather than severely cutting the grounds maintenance budget and allowing sites to revert to a naturalised state, the alternative option being publicly consulted would involve creating an endowment by releasing a relatively small area of land over a small number of sites.

Whatever the outcome of public consultation on the principle of disposing of surplus site the subsequent decision of Council will clearly lead to the need to engage constructively with local groups. I hope the forgoing provides a better insight into the current situation and I hope you and your group will be able to engage with the Council in a positive and progressive manner at the appropriate time.

Yours sincerely

Colin

Colin Rowland
Head of Parks & Open Spaces
London Borough of Bexley

________________

From Mandy Stevens, committee member, Friends of the Shuttle.

Dear Chris (Rose)

… see very unsatisfactory and disingenuous response from the Council below. They are obviously hoping to get people to sign up in principle to dispose of green sites and will then use that to justify disposing of sites which could be parkland and wildlife friendly spaces, leaving us no option than to oppose the proposal. No mention at all of consultation with local groups.

Mandy

**********************************************************

Reply from a different Council Officer, via Cllr. Lynn Smith

From: Councillor Smith, Lynn [mailto:Lynn.Smith@bexley.gov.uk]
Sent: 18 November 2014 14:47
To: Mandy Stevens
Subject: Green Sites

Dear Mandy,

Many thanks for your email. Apologies for not getting back to you sooner.

I have made enquiries of the kind you have asked and received this response from one of the people dealing with it.

Please find a copy of the email I received from Toni Ainge

**********************************************

Cllr Smith,

Thank you for your email. I am not currently in a position to inform you of the potential sites which might be disposed of under this Strategy 2018 proposal. The sites have initially been identified by a small working group consisting of officers from a range of specialist disciplines within the Council, as policy formulation work. As a result of this initial work, it has been possible consult residents across Bexley on the principle of disposing of surplus sites, in order to generate income, which would then be used to sustain grounds maintenance across other parks and open spaces. If this principle is agreed – i.e. disposal of a small number of sites in order to cover the cost of grounds maintenance, residents will be then consulted again on any specific proposals to dispose of land, following the Council’s
usual disposal procedures.

Identifying the potential sites at this stage would also likely distort the consultation process, and instead of encouraging a balanced view from residents, it could potentially generate unnecessary localised concern and a biased and disproportionate response from those living in close proximity to any one of the possible sites.

If the principle of the approach is agreed, officers will begin consulting on the detail in 2015, as appropriate.

_____________

Storm clouds are gathering over Bexley's parks and open spaces as multiple threats, including the GLA and Council promoting vastly more 'development', and now proposed sell-offs from

Storm clouds are gathering over Bexley’s parks and open spaces as multiple threats, including the GLA and Council promoting vastly more ‘development’, and now proposed sell-offs, emerge. (Photo of Hollyhill Open Space by Chris Rose)

 

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4 Responses to Open space sell-offs – just say ‘no’ in budget consult (deadline Jan 9th)! Council still won’t provide list of sites. Adopts standard ‘party line’.

  1. Derek Moran says:

    N401 Elec Sub Station adj 42 Elsa Road Welling DA16 1LD

    One of the sites in the sell of survey. Already on Rightmove and about to be Auctioned by Clieve Emson.

    Makes you wonder why they ask us!

  2. Derek Moran says:

    The list of sites to be sold.

    democracy.bexley.gov.uk/documents/s61606/Plans.pdf

  3. Chris Rose says:

    I have seen the list Derek refers to. It is NOT the same list as the ‘secret’ one the Council will not release. It’s just a co-incidence that it includes 1 less site than the budget proposals seek to sell off, which is no doubt adding to the confusion. It is clear from the response of the head of Parks and Open Spaces that the ‘secret’ list includes parkland. This may be of existing wildlife and/or recreational value, or have the potential to be improved in those regards. It will probably be built on (i.e. effectively lost forever) in order to maximise the one-off income. It would also establish a damaging precedent for the future. PLEASE continue to respond DISAGREE to Q22 in the budget consult!

  4. Maureen says:

    If councils around the UK adopt this attitude and system then the UK will just be one big concrete jungle! Who are these faceless councillors who make these decisions bet they live where it has open spaces! Name and shame them.

Comments are closed.