The COVID-19 pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact on the parks service at Walsall MBC. It is forecast that the total annual loss of income will be £120,500 and up to 13,440 volunteer hours will be lost but the enhanced awareness of how important parks are to the local community and how they benefit people's health and wellbeing is promising for the future.
Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council is a metropolitan district council in the West Midlands, it is home to around 281,300 people. It has 36 parks and 477 green spaces, with 6 million visitors to its parks per year. In 2019/20 the council’s parks service saw significant cuts and reorganisation. The park and sport development services were brought together under the council’s public health function and renamed the Healthy Spaces team. This has resulted in a greater focus on the potential that green spaces can offer in addressing health inequalities. The service has 18 members of staff and an active and valued community of volunteers who deliver healthy walks and contribute to maintenance. Many volunteers fall into the 60-70 age bracket and are therefore shielding or at risk.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the council closed play and gym equipment, MUGA's and skate parks. Extra precautions were taken where necessary, for example the skate park at the Arboretum was fenced with sisal and partially filled with woodchip.
Staff were moved between service areas to cover duties during the initial lockdown phase - this saw grounds maintenance staff assisting with waste management and some of the Healthy Spaces team redeployed (part time) to help with food boxes and deliveries for those shielding. The impact of the latter has cost the service £11,258 to the end of May.
Public Health funded events and activities have been suspended, health walks run by volunteers have also been suspended. Grounds maintenance activities have not been reduced. Play area inspections have continued especially because the hazard tape used to close off areas has often been removed by residents. Water play facilities will not open or be staffed this summer due to the associated risks.
Community engagement activities such as Friends group meetings have reduced, however some of the engagement has now moved online with friends groups using Microsoft teams for meetings. External events, fair grounds and circuses have all been cancelled and the knock on effects to these businesses could be substantial. Other activities which have been delayed include Green Flag Award judging, work towards improving sites in management plans and school holiday activity programmes.
The council has proactively dealt with people not adhering to social distancing rules, which has been a problem in parks in more deprived areas and amongst young people gathering and using closed facilities. Kingdom Security who patrol and enforce dog fouling and littering have been working to encourage social distancing. Managing visitor numbers at its destination park, “the Arboretum” during the Easter period proved difficult and resulted in its closure following a request from local police. It was closed on Monday 13 April (bank holiday) but was open again by the Wednesday following further advice from the government and police.
Friends groups have received regular communication through the council and the forum chair and vice chair and have been advised not to volunteer or meet up as it is considered non-essential. Allotments activity has continued as long as social distancing can be maintained.
The council are planning a phased reopening of facilities as per government guidance. Tennis and bowling were the first facilities to reopen. One Bowling club in Pelsall began operating again on 25 May with very strict guidelines about social distancing and is able to track and trace its players. The Arboretum cafe reopened for takeaways on 23 May 2020 and ice cream concessions have restarted trading. There are also plans to start up some low key events in line with government’s social distancing guidance such as “couch to 5k” and Nordic Walking.
The total annual parks service net budget for 2020-21 pre-COVID-19 was £3.9 million (gross expenditure was forecast at £4.32 million and income at £408,900), with external income accounting for 8.6 per cent of the total cost of the service.
The loss of income to the service over the initial three months of the lockdown period is estimated at £32,700. Losses from external income will impact on delivery of services and long term management and maintenance of sites. The service generates £109,500 from sports bookings, concessions and cafes and are forecasting 40 per cent annual losses with regard to these sources of services and facilities in response to the pandemic.
|Sources of income||%|
|Core council funding||77.4|
|Internal income - other departments / services||13.9|
|Annual income source £||Expected income after loss £||Maximum estimated loss £|
|Leases, licences, concessions and catering||60700||29800|
|Fees and charges, including sports bookings||17240||14000|
|External charging for services||159200||39800|
|Events and activities income||9220||36880|
Loss of external sources of income
For example, the volunteer run café at Willenhall Park has not reopened for take away service. Ball courts are not being charged for, boating will not be reopened. No loss of internal income sources is currently forecast.
Some additional cleaning costs are anticipated as a result of implementing the “Stay Alert” guidelines i.e. cleansing of benches in town centres and some parks where visitor figures are very high. The pandemic has also resulted in delays to capital funded projects.
The parks service has a strong volunteer community which amounts to an annual value of £120,000 pa. They play an important contribution to the council’s public health agenda e.g. health walk volunteers contribute approximately 60 hours per week towards event delivery, this has ceased and could be a significant loss to the service over the next 12 months in addition to having an impact on health outcomes in the longer term. Volunteers also help to keep parks and green spaces litter free and manage allotments. Corporate volunteering is also on hold affecting the Nesta Rethinking Parks project.
It is anticipated that volunteering activities will restart when government guidance is published however, the temporary suspension of volunteering will have a substantial impact on the service as current forecasts predict a loss of 61-80 per cent of volunteer contributions this financial year. It will be really difficult to cover the loss of volunteer time, and we anticipate that more elderly volunteers will be reluctant to start volunteering again immediately for fear of not being able to deliver socially distanced activities, such as the health walk programme.
* Local Authorities calculate volunteer time differently therefore to allow for comparisons to be made an average hourly rate of £12.38 has been used across all six case studies.
Lessons learnt and future plans
Whilst the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging it has presented the service with an opportunity to trial new approaches with regard to tennis booking systems, agile working, resilience, active travel routes and alfresco dining.
As a result of Public Health funding, visitor counter data has been available through public health intelligence to assess the results of lockdown on visitor numbers which has reported an increase in use of 40 per cent compared to the same period last year. The team want to understand the demographics of these visitors and whether they intend to continue to use the open spaces after lockdown.
This is particularly significant because as many as 40 per cent of Walsall residents in the town centre do not have access to a garden, the data presents an opportunity to do further work in this area.
Augmented reality apps have been developed for people to explore parks. Videos of parks/nature reserves have been put on You Tube channels so that people who cannot get out into green spaces can feel like they are in green spaces at home. The council have added parks and green spaces to the 'Where I live' tab on their website and are currently working on mapping their green spaces to increase awareness via iShare / Google maps to encourage more use and manage visitor numbers, dispersing visitors across a wide variety of spaces rather than just local or destination parks.
Lengthy advice from national governing bodies has been put on posters using a QR code to provide all the relevant information to users.
Tennis courts have been reopened using a booking system developed by the LTA called “club spark” in order to manage court bookings and requests online. This was being trialled prior to the pandemic but not all players were using the booking system, our work to promote the system by making information on mobile phone booking available on site has helped to improve usage.
There are pinch points that require effective management (path around Arboretum lake), the Parks service are working with Highways with a view to marking out one way systems. Additionally, the council are reviewing managing visitor numbers at the popular Palfrey Park. The team are currently reviewing the last eight weeks of visitor counter data to see if there has been increased use and confirm the peak times, so that visitors can be encouraged to visit during less busy times. This will be promoted on social media and on posters at the park entrances.
It is hoped that there will be an increased national political realisation of how important parks and green spaces are to the local community and how they benefit people's health and wellbeing.
Nature conservation enhancements had been trialled in key parks prior to lockdown and it is hoped that a greater appreciation of green spaces will change people's response to biodiversity programmes.
Public Health Project Development Manager
Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council