Open spaces sell-off: openness, Bexley Council and the ‘phantom list’ it now declines to make public

Bexley Council is consulting the public on a proposal to sell off up to 27 pieces of ‘open space’, as part of its attempt to make further significant budget cuts by 2018. But despite accepting that it will need to work even more closely with volunteer groups and others to get things done, it has removed the list of sites  – which we are reliably informed was downloadable initially – from the consultation website, and is now declining to make it available.

It is blindingly obvious from the wording of the question in the consultation:

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)

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.

Some of the sites will probably be ‘highway land’, but we are led to believe that some parks, or parts of them, are also being considered for sell-off.

Bexley Natural Environment Forum was first alerted to the fact that the consultation was online on October 17th, but it was probably live before that. When we spoke to the Parks and Open Spaces department on Monday 20th, two key staff said that they’d heard about the list, but had still not seen it and would have to ask someone further up the line about it. Later that day we asked in writing for a copy of the list, the projected sale price and the identified usages that the prices were based upon for each site. We were told that we could only be sent the ‘approved response’  (reproduced below), which seeks to sidestep the issue of the list.

In the online preamble to the budget consultation at:

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

we are told that ‘The Council is also exploring new ways to deliver a wide range of services, including the use of volunteers who are prepared to devote their time to contribute to the well-being of their community, neighbours and friends.’

and that:

‘The scale of the savings means we are going to have to become a different kind of Council over the next four years,” added Deputy Council Leader, Cllr Gareth Bacon. ‘We will be reviewing everything we do and asking if it needs to be done, if there are better ways of achieving the same results, or other organisations who could work with us to deliver better for less.

‘We will become a smaller organisation which works through partners, voluntary services and residents more often and that delivers fewer services itself.

The Council therefore needs to answer a number of questions:

i) In its so-called ‘Vision’ for ever more ‘growth’, we are told that we can have loads more ‘development’ without compromising the things we ‘value’ about the Borough. One of those things is surely open spaces of all kinds. It’s time we were told in black and white what things the Council itself ‘values’ about the Borough, and that it thinks should be sacrosanct beyond any sale price it can get for them.

ii) Does the Council think that residents can sensibly answer Q22 without knowing which sites are on the list? (of course the lack of a list and a reference to unspecific parks might actually mean more people say ‘no’) .

iii) The ‘approved response’ goes beyond the consultation question in saying that ‘The alternative [to sell-offs] is to substantially reduce or cease maintaining these sites.’ As the Council knows full well, there is a body called Bexley Natural Environment Forum, which is the umbrella group for Friends of Parks and Open Spaces groups, and wildlife conservationists in the Borough, which already do much valuable maintenance and litter clearance work, the meetings of which are attended by some Bexley Councillors. Before stirring up worry and unnecessary confrontation, why has the Council not come to this group to explore what can be done together to set up Friends Groups for these potential disposal sites – and more of the others in the Borough that do not yet have them – instead of touting the ‘nuclear option’ first? It is also the case that reduced ‘maintenance’ in the conventional sense could in some cases be good for biodiversity. Of course any sale can only generate one-off income, and if the Council’s blind faith in increasing future revenue through general ‘growth’ in the economy doesn’t work, it will be back to square one.

Chris Rose, Vice-chair of Bexley Natural Environment Forum said   ‘The Council says it is looking for more help from volunteers. We suggest that giving the impression that it is tactically withholding information, perhaps to outflank potential objectors, and to minimise the time they have to muster opposition, as well as treating the public like fools on the subject of the list, is not the best way to maximise the number of people who might come forward, or to foster working together constructively with local organisations in a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Sadly the Council has other recent form on this front, by ‘hiding’ the five-fold increase in the number of houses it envisages being built in the Borough in ‘plain sight’, whilst implausibly claiming that there is no list of specific sites where they are all going to go.’

Perhaps we should be grateful that if the Council is ducking and diving to try and minimise flak, it is doing it in a way that may help stir up even more objections. It seems likely that at least some sites will be particularly controversial for amenity and/or wildlife reasons. One parcel is said to be worth £800,000, although the average would be £60,000 each. Given the Council’s dramatically inflated housing ambitions, there is a justified fear that this could be the thin end of the wedge, even if it turns out that there are no major wildlife implications this time around.

The online budget ‘consultation’ can be found here:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx? sm=n2236yhloJk6SA6PRbNOHazLZ2qLPXXMr%2bKhMFRT9RQ%3d

responses must be submitted by 9 January 2015.

The ‘APPROVED RESPONSE’ from Bexley Council to our written request for a copy of the list of sites put forward for possible sale, the projected sale prices and the identified usages that those prices are based upon is as follows:

‘The Council is currently undertaking consultation on the borough’s medium term financial plans.  The consultation invites views on 39 specific proposals that will contribute towards achieving the significant level of savings the Council must identify over the next 4 years, due to our exceptionally challenging financial situation.  The Council has reduced its spending by £61 million since 2006, but needs to save another £50 million over the next four years.

The consultation includes proposals to dispose of a number of highway and park/open space sites, to generate revenue that can be used to support the cost of grounds maintenance across the borough’s parks and open spaces.  The alternative is to substantially reduce or cease maintaining these sites.

If Councillors decide to proceed following the consultation, we will carry out further work. If particular sites are selected for disposal, this would be carried out in line with our usual processes, which would include appropriate consultation specific to each site.’

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Chris Rose

 

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2 Responses to Open spaces sell-off: openness, Bexley Council and the ‘phantom list’ it now declines to make public

  1. Chris Rose says:

    Thanks Malcolm. We have seen the list you refer to, and as far as we can see thee have already been separately agreed for sell off. The wording of the budget questionnaire, and what we have been told by Council Officers (before everyone clammed up) strongly suggests that some parkland may be on the other, now hidden list.

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