Preston will “aim high” as part of a ten-year vision to preserve and improve its parks and green spaces - but it will have to become more inventive in how it funds its ambitions for them.
That was the message from the man ultimately responsible for the city’s eight main open space sites - six of which hold coveted “green flag” status.
Robert Boswell, cabinet member for the environment at Preston City Council, says that parks have provided “a lifeline” for people during the pandemic - one which he believes will leave a legacy of local appreciation amongst residents for the facilities they have on their doorstep.
He was speaking after the authority’s cabinet approved its latest parks and green spaces strategy - a document that sets out the city’s priorities for those assets over the next decade.
However, one leading parks volunteer has called on the council to ensure that it has a plan to better maintain its key sites by trying to prevent problems from arising - rather than simply responding to them when they do.
Chris Smith, chair of the Friends of Haslam Park, says that pre-emptive work at the site that he and others give their time to help look after has been reduced to a “bare minimum”.
The parks strategy, developed after a public consultation, details how the city council intends to protect its parks heritage - much of which dates back more than a century.
The document makes a series of recommendations to ensure that what it describes as the city’s “green lungs” remain “special places, for current and future generations”.
The measures include implementing masterplans for the six main open spaces that are currently without one - outlining specific upgrades to be delivered over the next decade.
There is also a commitment to increasing the contribution Preston’s parks make to biodiversity - including by encouraging more natural processes, via the creation of habitats such as wildflower meadows. A separate tree strategy is also being drawn up.
However, the parks document warns that all of the city council's aims for its parks will be determined by whether sufficient funding can be secured to make them a reality. It stresses the need for “realism'' and to seek “smarter ways” of the authority finding the cash to match its aspirations.
Cllr Boswell says that the strategy nevertheless sets down “a marker for where we want to be” - something which he says is vital, not least because of the benefits the city’s parks have brought to residents since Covid struck.
“It was the parks that kept people sane during the lockdown - they were somewhere for people to exercise and to meet [others], socially distanced, once the rules allowed.
“They were a sanctuary to help people cope - and I’m very proud of the parks and what they have always done for the people of Preston.
“But in local government you’re not in control of your own destiny - there are so many factors that can push you off course.
“We have had to cut back on our rangers over successive years, but still they do a remarkable job of keeping the parks in a usable fashion and aesthetically pleasing - and you do still have to try to set out some strategic objectives.
“There is heritage lottery funding that we’re trying to get for our play areas and we’ll apply for any national grants [that become available]. Our green flag awards also open up doors that we can push for money, but it’s an ongoing challenge,” Cllr Boswell said.
The strategy states that contributions from housebuilders, secured as part of planning permission for developments, will continue to be used to fund improvements to open spaces. It also commits to an “entrepreneurial approach”, which could include the creation of community interest companies and social enterprises to help manage individual programmes of work or even entire facilities.
The city already boasts several bands of willing volunteers in the form of the “friends” groups who help take care both of the city’s biggest parks and its many smaller open spaces.
While Chris Smith acknowledges the challenge for the city council of keeping Preston's sprawling parks estate in good condition - and recognises the work of its staff - he says he is “a little disappointed” with the contents of the ten-year strategy.
He adds that a “joined-up” approach is needed in order to develop meaningful maintenance plans for all of the city’s main parks - noting that Haslam, where he leads the friends volunteers, is a perfect example of why such work is needed.
“There is no maintenance regime for the lake in Haslam Park - it seems like we wait for something to go wrong and then do something about it.
“This year we have had the problem of the lake becoming smelly during the summer...due to neglecting to maintain it,” said Chris, who also volunteers at the Fishwick Nature Reserve.
One of the main recommendations in the new strategy is for the provision of an “appropriate maintenance programme” for all parks and green spaces.
Cllr Boswell told the Lancashire Post that each park already has an individual management plan which informs the annual maintenance work to be carried out at the sites - something that is required for the awarding of green flags.
However, he added: “The service will always be reactive in addition to this plan, as health and safety is the foundation of our work and commitment to the people of Preston and those that visit our parks.”
Meanwhile, Chris is also calling for masterplans to be approved for the six main parks where they currently exist only in “aspirational” form - and encourages a focus on the future as well as the past.
“The [proposed] masterplan for Haslam Park seems to concentrate on maintaining [founding designer] Thomas Mawson's 1910 vision, with the restoration of historic features.
“But we are looking to provide a facility for people living in the twenty-first century - and while it is nice to retain those earlier features, we want something better for the park users of today,” said Chris, suggesting that historic buildings could be repurposed to provide community and educational facilities.
Responding to the comments, Cllr Boswell emphasised that masterplans are “extensive pieces of work” requiring community consultation before the search can begin for the funds to implement them.
He added: “The council has limited resources within the parks department and we are working to capacity in providing a strategic direction of travel for parks and green spaces across the city.
“But we are really proud of the contribution they’ve made to the quality of life in Preston over the period of the lockdown - and hopefully that will now continue,” Cllr Boswell said.
PLAY SPACE PLANS
Preston City Council’s ten-year parks strategy pledges to maintain its 48 playgrounds and 14 multi-use games area to the “best standard possible within available resources”.
Accredited play inspectors routinely inspect equipment and the necessary repairs are carried out, along with ongoing maintenance.
Several of the the aspirational masterplans in the document outline intended improvements to play areas within the main open space sites and there is an overarching commitment to developing “inclusive” play spaces.
However, it also notes a “challenging” funding picture for the facilities and the need to seek external sources of cash for their development and to replace equipment whose life can no longer be extended by repair.
Chris Smith, chair of the Friends of Haslam park, says that playgrounds are vital for children who have “fewer and fewer places to play”, particularly in derived communities.
Cllr Boswell said that the importance of the city’s play spaces was not in doubt, but that they would require “significant investment” to implement the improvements outlined in the strategy.
The majority of Preston’s main park sites do not yet have an approved masterplan, but the council’s ten-year strategy outlines a series of “ambitions” which could form part of such documents as and when they are developed.
This is what could be in store at each of the eight strategic open space locations in the city, almost all of which would be also in line for improved signage and an increase in tree cover and planting to improve the visual appearance of the ark and enhance biodiversity.
ASHTON PARK (Green Flag status since 2011)
***Restore features of historic significance, including the entrance from Pedders Lane, the maze, the listed drinking fountain and the walled garden.
***Creation of a sports hub with a new 3G pitch, improved grass pitches and refurbished tennis courts.
***Develop a café and function room, plus office space for charitable groups.
***Upgrade the southern play area, improving the quality of the play equipment.
***Refurbish the bowls pavilion and its surroundings.
***Improve vehicular access and car parking capacity.
AVENHAM AND MILLER PARKS (Green Flag status since 2008)
Masterplans have already been implemented at the adjoining Grade II*-listed Victorian parks - and the city council intends to ”continue to maintain infrastructure improvements in the future”.
GRANGE PARK AND GRANGE VALLEY (Green Flag status since 2002)
***Refurbish features within the footprint of Ribbleton Hall, including the steps, main entrance, gates and furniture.
*** Create a recreational sport opportunity within the park or in the Grange Valley, without impacting upon its historic design.
***Secure use of the Interpretative Centre for community groups.
***Introduce lighting to the main route to the Interpretative Centre in the formal park area.
***Introduce additional community artwork elements within the park.
HASLAM PARK (Green Flag status since 2006)
***Restore features of historic significance which fit better with the original design - including views over and along Savick Brook, the ornamental bridges, cascade, footpaths, drinking fountain and planting design.
***Reinforce the physical and visual link with the Lancaster Canal.
***Increase biodiversity throughout the park, including by wildflower planting and additional planting in the local nature reserve.
*** Explore the possibility of constructing a café and toilet.
LONDON ROAD RECREATION GROUND AND FISHWICK LOCAL NATURE RESERVE
***Provide a building which acts as a centre for the BMX Club, footballers, park rangers and community groups associated with the nature reserve.
***Refurbish the Recreation Ground entrance, local nature reserve boundary and other infrastructure.
***Improve access and car parking provision, especially serving BMX club events and footballers
MOOR PARK (Green Flag status since 2018)
Works under a phase 1 masterplan were completed in 2019. Phase 2 could include:
***Reinstate the Serpentine Lake as a destination feature and reinstate the historic features surrounding it - including the bridge across and the viewing platform. De-silt and increase its size and scale to original 1867 design and restore horticultural features, including shrub beds and specimen trees, surrounding it.
***Restore the south east historic entrance and the stone flag paving at the south west historic entrance.
***Create fountains to provide interactive displays for visitors.
***Increase the tree stock in the park.
***Refurbish footpaths and drain networks.
***Upgrade the play area near the Serpentine Lake to offer natural play opportunities and improve the main play area to make it an inclusive destination for children of all abilities.
***Provide a reinforced grass parking area by North Lodge.
***Remove and grass over the informal footpaths known locally as the 'tank tracks'.
***Restore the historically significant 1867 Thomas Cooke refractor telescope within the observatory and reinstate the roof opening mechanism for its use.
RIBBLETON (WAVERLEY) PARK
***Enhance security by implementing boundary and entrance improvements
***Demolish and rebuild the football pavilion - probably on the current footprint.
***Upgrade and/or relocate the multi-use games area - if possible, to include floodlighting.
***Create a community garden.
***Create a central decorative garden using the site of the redundant bowling greens
***Establish an area for small community events.
***Include community artwork elements within the park.
***Upgrade the play area.
***Improve car parking provision, especially where it serves footballers.
WINCKLEY SQUARE GARDENS (Green Flag status since 2017)
Approved masterplan already implemented, with a commitment to maintain infrastructure improvements in the future.
Source: Preston City Council Parks and Green Spaces Strategy, 2021-2031
COULD YOU JOIN OR FORM A FRIENDS GROUP TO LOOK AFTER ONE OF PRESTON'S OPEN SPACES?
Eleven of Preston's parks and green spaces currently boast a friends group that helps to care for them - and the volunteer members are usually on the lookout for extra pairs of hands.
Meanwhile, if the open space where you are interested in volunteering does not yet have its own friends group, you could form one - if you can find enough likeminded people.
"We can't all go out and solve the issue of climate change, but we can do our bit in our own local green spaces," explains Chris Smith, chair of the Friends of Haslam Park.
"And it also means that we aren't just sitting there pontificating when it comes to commenting on things like the council's parks strategy - we are getting out and doing it."
For more information on joining or creating a friends group, email: [email protected]
PRESTON PARK STATS
1833 - year Moor Park was developed, the first municipal park in an industrial town
200+ - total number of parks and open spaces in the city
700 hectares - of open green space in the city
100 acres - size of Moor Park, the city’s largest
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