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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Parks for Communities

Something strange is happening in the borough’s parks, as Dave Pinwell, SUSTAiN’s Chief Executive Officer, reports.

Hillfield Park, Monkspath

The Stronger Communities Strategic Group (SCSG) meeting this month spent a little time considering an interesting puzzle. On the one hand Solihull’s parks are top of the league, on the other there is a low level of satisfaction with them. How can this be and what is to be done?

Let us start with the background. The Solihull Partnership had two targets for parks when the first round of Local Area Agreements came to an end earlier this year. The first was to hold six Green Flags (a national award for the best green spaces), of which one was for a North Solihull park. This was actually exceeded, with a total of seven Green Flags being awarded to the borough. The other target was to increase the number of respondents to the Citizens Panel Survey who were satisfied with the borough’s parks from 77% to 85%. This was failed dismally, when the result actually went in the reverse direction, down to 69%.

So why are residents so dissatisfied with their local parks? The SCSG received a report which indicates it has absolutely nothing to do with park quality. Solihull is currently seen as the top performing authority within the West Midlands for its Parks and Open Spaces, despite having the lowest spend per head of population for this area of service delivery. It is used by Green Flag as a national case study example of an authority achieving high standards with limited resources.

Likewise, 39% of Solihull’s parks are Green Flag, whereas only one of the other 6 authorities in our ‘City Region’ gets into double figures on that one. Solihull also does best when it comes to use of the parks, with 81% of residents using at least one park in a six month period.

The question is, then, what can be done to improve user satisfaction when it is lower than it should be? The conclusion from the SCSG discussion put the focus on perceptions of safety in the parks as a potential problem. We have every reason to believe our parks are better than in neighbouring areas, but do people feel unsafe using them, or some of them?

If that is the root cause, there is a limit to what the guys managing the parks can do to fix it. It will need a real partnership approach, with the police and the community playing significant roles. Another thing that marks Solihull out as a beacon of best practice is that we have some strong Friends of Parks groups in our community sector. We probably need one for every park and we need to make them even more successful.

Our parks are amongst the jewels in our crown but do we make enough of them? How many of the 18 can you name? How many have you visited? Which of them would you say are the best to spend an hour in? (I would choose Babbs Mill, Brueton and Elmdon Parks as my top three). When was the last time you spent an hour in one? And what needs to done to increase their use? The debate is now open.

Image: Hillfield Park, Monkspath

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