The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on the parks service at Watford Borough Council. It is forecast that the loss of income will be £86,000 but the situation has resulted in a significant difference in the way the service now communicates and operates.
Watford Borough Council is a borough council in Hertfordshire and is home to around 90,000 people. It has over 50 parks and green spaces, with over 2 million visitors to Cassiobury Park alone each year. The council’s park service has six staff, with the remainder outsourced to Veolia and an active and valued community of volunteers totalling over 300, some of whom were able to continue volunteering informally under social distancing measures.
All parks and green spaces remained open however all facilities were closed during the lockdown period including cafes, sports clubs, paddling pools, gyms, play areas, toilets and car parks. All events have been cancelled in line with guidance but future events are still being planned. All of Watford's park cafes are leased to private operators and the majority of cafe staff were furloughed.
The reopening of remaining facilities will be a phased approach as per government guidance. The first facilities to reopen were some sports facilities including croquet, bowls and tennis courts and cafes for takeaways.
The COVID-19 crisis impacted the parks service to quite a degree as the service saw one member of staff redeployed to the Cemetery and one to the Crematorium. The day-to-day Grounds Maintenance was not affected (except line marking) as the contractor has continued with operations as did the Rangers. There has been a significant impact on Grounds Maintenance since the lockdown easement as parks have seen an increased use affecting business as usual. Park Rangers have worked closely with the Police to manage social distancing, particularly in the key parks such as Cassiobury Park and Oxhey Park. It is however believed that the closure of the car parks helped to resolve these issues.
The communications team have played a good role in keeping users informed through social media, additionally the Park Rangers have put posters up in parks. There are some pinch point issues in some parks e.g. bridges across canals and rivers that could be an issue, to address this there are plans to put signage up.
With regard to levels of use; parks have at times been deserted, particularly during the initial lockdown phase. Since lockdown has eased parks are getting much busier with destination parks even busier than usual with local parks having seen more use.
More joggers and cyclists have been using parks and the council have seen a rise in complaints about cyclists in particular. The council responded with increased ranger patrols and use of social media.
The total annual parks service net budget for 2020-21 pre-COVID-19 was £1.7 million (gross expenditure was forecast at £2 million and income at £300,000), external income accounts for 15 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 £86,000. The COVID-19 crisis has had a significant impact on income from leases and concession rents and car parking. Car parking charges at Cassiobury Park brings in around £100,000 per year and it is forecast that 40 per cent of this income will be lost. Additionally, businesses in the hub and park cafe lease holders have been issued with a two month rent relief, then 50 per cent to be reviewed on a regular basis.
The council forecasts an estimated £5,000 per month additional losses as a result of closing facilities, redeployment of staff and extra security. No loss of internal income is currently forecast. However, corporately we have a significant gap that grows daily.
|Sources of income||%|
|Core council funding||85|
Most capital projects were halted, causing delays and contractual claims e.g. Woodside Playing Fields which is a £7 million project may be reduced and deferred subject to ongoing council financial forecasts.
|Annual income source £||Expected income after loss £||Maximum estimated loss £|
|Leases, licences, concessions, catering||54000||36000|
|Events and activities income||60000||40000|
|Car parking charges||90000||10000|
Survey participants were asked about the anticipated impact of COVID-19 on sources of income for the remainder of the year.
Some planned projects may get mothballed as match funding may get diverted, having said that the income across the council is generally high and parks are very much valued. There is an increased and wider appreciation of parks and green spaces and elected members have picked up on this. Watford recognises the value of parks to their communities so may look at other ways to make savings.
The parks service has a strong volunteer community who play an important contribution in supporting the preservation of the borough’s parks and green spaces.
Throughout the pandemic some informal volunteering has continued including work by the Friends of Cassiobury Park and Oxhey Park volunteers carrying out river clearance work at a distance.
Most volunteering including Green Gym and ParkRuns have all been suspended and a loss of in-kind volunteer contributions is estimated between 21 and 40 per cent.
There is a strong volunteer network across Watford and a COVID-19 response was issued to all groups with many new volunteers coming forward. Friends Groups and Businesses have been directly mailed and the Cassiobury Parks Manager also holds a weekly zoom meeting with the Friends forum there to ensure continued engagement.
Lessons learnt and future plans
The biggest impact on service delivery has been keeping on top of customer enquiries, reporting procedures and the development of new corporate incident management processes.
However, the council adopted a good response programme during the lockdown and senior managers reported into the Incident Management Team everyday (now every three days). If a service wanted to change something e.g. open car parks a Service Change Request was submitted and signed pre-change.
Parks are high on the agenda in the council's COVID-19 recovery plans and there has been increased awareness and interest from elected members in parks due to the public’s growing appreciation of parks and green spaces.
The council were already looking at ways of increasing biodiversity i.e. reduced cutting of grass verges etc but the situation has accelerated this. Additionally, as a result of the pandemic the council are looking at delivering more services remotely and are reviewing how departments can work better together. Moving forest school activities online has proved to be successful as have other online activities published on https://www.watfordtogether.co.uk/
A large scale recognition and thankfulness event is planned for post COVID-19 in the Town Centre and at Cassiobury Park to bring the local community together.
The recent restrictions have led to huge benefits with regard to our climate and biodiversity. There is now an increased and wider appreciation of parks and green spaces.
Head of Parks
Heritage and Culture
Watford Borough Council
Watford Borough Council: Parks and open space