CALL-IN OF DECISIONS MADE BY CABINET ON 24 JANUARY 2017 - REVIEW OF GREEN SPACE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY
Prior to the item being presented and debated the Chairman drew attention to the following sections of the report:
Page 3 - a copy of the Call-In; Page 5 - the options open to the Committee having considered the call in; Page 7 - the recommendations made by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at the meeting held on 17 January 2017; Page 11 - the decisions of Cabinet made at the meeting held on 24 January 2017; Page 15 - the report considered by Cabinet at the meeting held on 24 January 2017. The Chairman informed the Committee that the order of business for this meeting would be as detailed in the Constitution at Paragraph 6.3.5 being: The Members who signed the Notice of Call - In would be invited to address the Committee on the reasons for the Call - In; Members of the Committee would be invited to ask questions of those who signed the Call - In; The Executive Member. in this case Officers would be invited to address the Committee on the decision taken and the grounds for Call - In; Members of the Committee would be invited to ask questions of Officers; The Committee would debate the Call - In and make any recommendations or referrals. The Chairman invited Councillor Ian Albert to address the Committee on the reasons for the Call In. Councillor Albert referred the Committee to page 3, which contained a copy of the Call - In. He acknowledged that the subject had been debated at length at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting held on 17 January and that Cabinet had considered the matter on two occasions. He welcomed the progress made in that any closures had been delayed until 2018 and that a new tranche of consultation would take place with the community, although he would have preferred this consultation to have occurred before the debate by Members. He stated that consultation regarding the provision of facilities should not take place after a decision had been taken. Councillor Albert was concerned that a focus group of 29 people was not sufficient consultation as the age demographics of any focus group was important and he doubted the make up of the group and the nature of the consultation undertaken. He believed that groups that were against the removal of equipment from play areas and the recommendations from Royston and District Committee and Hitchin Committee, who understood local peoples views, had been ignored. He stated that this was an issue of such importance that it should be referred to full Council to consider. The decisions to be taken were difficult and the importance of play areas to local people must be considered. It would be difficult for small community groups to take responsibility for play areas and there may not be a logical existing group to do so. It was also unreasonable to expect community groups to step in when there were no funds available. The Chairman invited Members of the Committee to ask question of Councillor Albert. Members asked whether Councillor Albert believed that the timing of the consultation would have changed the decision. Councillor Albert advised that, in his opinion, if the consultation had been listened to, the outcome would have been different. He remained convinced that the focus group was not the right way to consult on this issue. He commented that the Executive Member for Leisure spoke about the community needing to get involved, but the decision taken may have been different if their views had been taken into account. The Chairman asked whether Councillor Albert had an outcome from this meeting in mind. Councillor Albert stated that he would like full Council to decide on the future of play areas and that these play areas should be invested in, refurbished and kept open as it was unlikely that enough community groups would come forward to take them over. The Chairman stated that the decision by Cabinet meant that all options remained open, but there was now a timescale attached and that, at the end of the process community groups could be running play areas. Her view was that Call - In was about scrutinising things that were difficult and that could be catastrophic and, in this case it may be that the public thought that it wasnt worth coming forward as the decision had already been taken. Councillor Albert stated that play grounds were different to community centres, in that there were no natural groups to take them on. The Chairman invited Officers to address the Committee on the decision taken and the grounds for Call - In. The Head of Leisure and Environmental Services drew attention to and summarised the written statement from the Executive Member for Leisure that had been tabled. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager advised that the main focus of the call-in related to the consultation and that, like most people he was not an expert in consultation and that was why Opinion Research Services were appointed to undertake a qualitative consultation exercise on behalf of the Council. He drew attention to the Response Note which had been tabled as follows: Item 1 Opinion Research Services were a highly qualified nationally recognised company that specialised in the field of consultation. Opinion Research Services confirmed that the number of participants in each of the focus group and their make up were appropriate. As explained to Cabinet, the use of this methodology was adopted over an open questionnaire approach because it allowed for more considered opinion and the ability to obtain different perspectives and points of view from a broad spectrum of residents who could interact and discuss their opinions freely. A copy of the presentation provided to each of the focus groups had been tabled. The wider public consultation referred to in the call in notice that straddled the Christmas period was not part of the formal consultation process. The consultation adopted a focus group approach rather than an open questionnaire. A summary of communications received was included in the January Cabinet report. Item 2 Details of the exact make up of the focus groups had been provided. It was apparent that views of children were well represented as 14 participants reported having children under 8 years old and most participants aged over 55 had grandchildren. Item 3 Identified that, in an ideal world, the focus groups would have liked to retain all 47 equipped play areas across the district. Whilst also recognising that investment was in short supply and that change was thus inevitable, the groups made alternative suggestions to try to retain play areas. Rather than disregarding this view as stated in the call-in notice the Green Space Strategy adopted by Cabinet was modified to reflect these suggestions. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager noted the comments regarding the focus groups finding it difficult, due the lack of site by site information, however this was intentional, as site specific details may have skewed the results and the aim was that the group consider the broader policies and decisions. In respect of the Local plan, Section 8 of the Draft Green Space strategy made specific linkages to the Councils emerging Local Plan and associated policies. Item 4 Provided information regarding the additional correspondence received. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager, in response to the comments that the Council had not proposed to use some of the proposed financial savings to encourage community groups running pavilions or play areas, stated that Paragraph 15.1 of report presented to Cabinet on 24 January 2017 identified the need to increase officer time for the proposed adoption of play area and pavilions by third parties. Officer time in Parks, Legal and Estates equated into a real financial cost which the Council was funding to help find interested parties, encourage them and help them through the process with any transfer of assets. Subject to the outcome of this Call - In, officers would produce an information pack for community groups that explained the process and signposted those to other groups that were already operating community facilities such as play areas and/or pavilions. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager informed Members that the House of Commons had just published an 87 page report on Public Parks, which recommended the production of green space strategies which highlighted the importance of green space and targeted available investment to areas that maximised community benefit. The Chairman invited the Committee to ask questions of the Officers and opened up the debate. Members asked for clarification regarding the provision of Section 106 funding to provide new play areas for new areas of housing and whether these funds could be used to improve play areas. They noted that interest did not accrue on Section 106 funding, that Leisure funding was being restricted and that North Herts College was considering closing leisure facilities. They queried how Section 106 funding would be sufficient to provide play areas in the long term as open green spaces did not provide for the imagination of children. The Parks and Countryside Development Officer advised that Section 106 funding was a matter for the Planning Department. Play areas would likely be provided for large developments but would need to ensure that maintenance costs would be met. The green spaces were important in themselves. Negotiations regarding Section 106 funding relating to the development in Market Road, Royston had resulted in a potential developer commitment to provide long term development.funding to retain the existing Newmarket Road play area. Members asked for clarification regarding the make up of the focus groups used during consultation and queried whether any other Councils had been consulted about their approach to play areas and whether housing associations had been approached to take on existing play areas. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager informed Members that there had been three focus groups consisting of a total of 29 people. In respect of the approach taken by other Councils, a lot of research had been undertaken and a number of other Councils were taking a similar approach. The idea of contacting housing associations to take on existing playgrounds was warmly welcomed and he would contact them to discuss the idea. Members noted that Baldock, Hitchin and Letchworth were un-parished and therefore there were no logical groups to take on specific playgrounds. They expressed concern about the health of children, in particular regarding obesity levels and stated that NHDC should be providing opportunities for children to play. The Parks and countryside Development Manager advised that the Council was retaining play areas, but were retaining those that were most used and that they could afford to maintain. If the Council tried to retain all of the play areas, even those that were rarely used, the limited funding would result in deterioration in all areas. Members acknowledged the difficult decisions that had to be made and that sourcing funding from other organisations was becoming increasingly difficult, but continued to express concern regarding the decline in playgrounds and the need to be certain that the consultation exercise was thorough so as to ensure that the play areas proposed for closure were definitely underutilised and that closure of a particular area would not leave a significant gap in unmet need. They expressed concern that the proposed removal of play equipment would result in a significant capital cost. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager acknowledged that removal of equipment would result in a capital cost, but the result would be an ongoing revenue saving. He advised that, if all play areas were retained the revenue savings would not be generated and there would also be an ongoing capital cost to replace equipment. Members commented that use of play area was one of the few free activities provided and asked whether any funds would be made available to groups willing to take on play areas. They also noted that there were some significant housing developments in North Herts and that consideration should be given to leaving play areas open in areas where these developments would take place. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager advised that the Council would not be offering money to groups willing to take on play areas, but would be offering help and support as well as advice on other funding sources. All of this information would be included in the information pack, which was being prepared. Members queried what Section 106 funds were available to use to save play areas and whether developers should be asked to fund maintenance costs as part of Section 106 agreements. . They remained concerned at the size of the focus groups used during consultation and questioned whether these groups were led towards a particular outcome. In respect of the use of play areas, they commented that it was little surprise that play areas requiring repair were little used, as parents would likely stop their children from using them. Members also expressed concern that, if provision of new play areas formed part of Section 106 funding agreements, funds needed to be available to maintain them for the future. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager advised Members that, in respect of Section 106 agreements for future play areas, NHDC would specify in these agreements that ongoing repairs would be funded by the developer and encourage developers to invest in existing play areas. In respect of the use of play areas, the Strategy stated that the survey had not been scientific and it was possible that certain play areas were under used due to the equipment provided, but NHDC had limited funds, as identified in the Medium Term Financial Strategy. Members comments that a large proportion of new developments would be social housing and queried whether social landlords could be asked to provide funding for upkeep of play areas The Parks and Countryside Development Manager confirmed that social landlords could be asked to provide funding for the upkeep of play areas and advised that some Housing Associations provided their own play areas that they maintained and this would be encouraged. Members acknowledged that savings had to be made, but remained concerned that play areas could be closed and that a large amount of funding could be used to remove equipment rather than effect repairs and replacement of equipment. They also acknowledged that the approach recommended by the Parks and Countryside Manager had been supported by a Government paper. The Parks and Countryside Development Manager reminded Members that repairs and maintenance were funded by revenue whereas replacement or removal would be a capital cost and that, even if equipment were replaced, it would need repair and/or maintenance in the future. The aim was to produce a sustainable Strategy. Members acknowledged that this was a difficult and emotive subject that affected communities. They commented that, although they were unhappy with the decision, it was difficult to see any alternative ways forward. They acknowledged the work to be undertaken by officers in seeking and supporting groups to take on play areas. It was proposed and seconded that the decisions regarding the Green Space Strategy not be referred back to Cabinet and that this Committee receive a progress report in 6 months time and prior to any decision being made to close any play areas. Councillor Albert, speaking as one of the Members who signed the Call- In acknowledged the thorough debate at this meeting. He commented that information which had been presented to this meeting for the first time should have been made available at an earlier stage. He stated that he remained concerned about the demographics of the focus groups and was disappointed that the consultation had not included Councillors at an earlier stage, which would have helped to develop the Strategy. He believed that, in the towns it was unlikely that groups would come forward to take on the play areas, but welcomed the one year delay with the opportunity for groups to come forward in that time. He requested that information packs include information on how groups could be created not just how existing groups could take on play areas He remained of the opinion that this should be referred to full Council and that lessons from this experience must be learnt. The Chairman acknowledged that play areas in Letchworth, Baldock and Hitchin were potentially more at risk than other areas that were parished, but commented that officers had 12 month to work on this problem. She noted that officers would be talking-to precepting bodies regarding play areas in their areas The Chairman commented that the Parks and Countryside Manager had undertaken a thorough piece of work, with the intentions being made clear from the start and amendments being made in response to suggestions made. She believed that Scrutiny should not be about pulling the subject apart, but about giving advice and suggestions for improvement. She stated that there seemed to be a need for a communications framework for officers to work within, that would ensure that they were supports to get the best quality, width and depth of input from residents on their proposals. RESOLVED: (1) That the decisions made by Cabinet on 24 January 2017 regarding the Review of the Green Space Management Strategy not be referred back to Cabinet; (2) That the Head of Leisure and Environmental Services be requested to produce a report detailing the steps taken and the progress made in identifying interested groups and organisations to safely provide facilities and present it to this Committee at the meeting due to be held on 18 July 2017. (3) That the Head of Leisure and Environmental Services be requested to produce a report detailing the steps taken and the progress made in identifying interested groups and organisations to safely provide facilities, together with details of play areas that have not attracted any interested groups and would likely close following the deadline of 1 March 2018 and present it to this Committee at the meeting due to be held in March 2018. REASON FOR DECISION: To enable the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to consider the Call - In of decisions made by Cabinet on 24 January 2017 regarding the Review of the Green Space Management Strategy.