Parks management in the 21st century - a response

Hi Paul,

I hope you are well.

Thank you for this. I was sent a link to your article over the weekend by a friend and colleague, and I must say it made me quite emotional reading it.

It spoke volumes to me and made me feel that I was not alone, and that my frustrations with our industry in local authority parks and open spaces, and the changes we have seen, are shared with other like-minded people.

I have worked for Harrow Council for 36 years, starting as Assistant Gardener, completing all my City and Guilds in Horticulture (and many other subjects) at the Norwood Hall institute, and very quickly working my way up to Grounds Team Leader at the tender age of 21.

Even though I was the new boy and the youngest in the team ,I had nothing but respect and support from the 15 plus gardeners in my charge at the time, and my superiors alike. At that time we had proper parks managers, who knew the trade and made decisions based, not solely on budgets and politics, but on good horticultural practice. But as you know, we had staff, money and time back then in the good old days of Parks.

Very quickly it all changed with the coming of CCT and every other hurdle that followed. But I held on and dug in, seeing colleagues fall by the wayside, continued my education into Conservation and Countryside management and Garden Design, and I’m still here.

My roles (or at least job titles with every re-structure) over the years have included Foreman, Charge-hand, Team Leader, Supervisor, Assistant Manager and most recently Grounds Maintenance Coordinator. But in truth they all amount to the same thing, Managing Parks.

We do not officially have a Parks Manager as such, and very few people at this level who have horticultural knowledge. It can be a lonely place, although I have a very small and excellent team of Specialists and Operatives under me, across Cemeteries, Parks and Open Spaces, Allotments and Playgrounds (mostly the ‘old guard who have been with me on this journey). My most recent role came with a lovely £3,700 pay cut and a whole load more responsibilities including budgets and planning. I am a G9 grade, I have no Operations Manager over me, no permanent Head of Service and an interim Divisional Director.. everything in this realm falls on my shoulders. And what’s surprising is, despite all of these short comings, I absolutely love my job and feel more confident and empowered now than I have in a very long time. Having no one as such to answer to, I have been able to make my own decisions with advice from my team and get things done quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Moreover, the current situation has put the spotlight firmly on Parks and Cemeteries because of increased usage, as you said in your article, and we suddenly feel important. All the priorities have fallen within my services, and we have more than risen to the challenge with much praise from our superiors and other quarters. The public are always going to say that we are not doing enough, but given that I only currently have 13 people in Parks and 9 in cemeteries (due to shielding and suchlike) I don’t feel so bad if we can’t do everything.

Anyway, my point is that this feels like the time to strike, to push for more resources, more staff, more focus on Parks to get the recognition and to plan for the future. The current situation, although a huge cloud over us all, has at least provided a silver lining for better times ahead. I often get criticised for being too optimistic, but I am still hopeful that things will change for the better. I do have a few influential allies within the council to turn to. I am not expecting a return to the glory days; all our flower beds have been stolen from us over the years, we have very little fine turf to maintain and the Council still seem to think that volunteers are the answer to Parks maintenance, not skilled, trained full time staff.

Last week, after a delay due to Covid 19, I finally employed three new ‘Grounds Maintenance Operatives’ (not Street-scene Operatives, not labourers) to the Grounds Team (2 in Parks, 1 on Highways Verges). They should have been Apprentices but that’s all on hold at the moment. But we took them on on a year’s fixed term contract. It’s a start and I will try to nurture them and get them the training they need, and at least some of the opportunities I was given as a young man all those years ago.

Sorry, it was only supposed to be a quick ‘thank you’ but your article has really inspired me to keep my head up and keep going against all odds.

All the best,

Ray Fox – Grounds Maintenance Coordinator, Harrow Council.

Harrow Parks website