Discussion Synthesis 2011: Workshop report – Green space Friends and LAs

Relationships with councils, management and park staff.
– Two way information sharing is important.
– The cuts are a threat but can also be a challenge.
– Access for all including those with disabilities is an important principle that needs to be stressed.

Organising successful projects and events ourselves.
– Planning and good organisation is vital.
– Good publicity; flyers, p[osters and press announcement.
– Ensure dates dont clash with other local events.

Issues involved in volunteering and the Big Society
– Need to work in partnerships as equals.
– Volunteering should be fun: no coercion.
– Volunteers should enhance but not substitute for full time workers.

Access to specific funding sources for our own green space – projects, events and improvements?
– Useful sources of grants, small and large were identified as:
– NCVO online register is free (Funding Central) providing a useful search facility for specific projects & relevant sources.
– Awards for All; a good place for grant applications 60% of which are granted.
– Heritage Lottery, Sports England, Kings Fund (health related) named as other sources. Plus. CVS(local branch) offers training for Fundraising courses.

Protecting and enhancing biodiversity and nature conservation
– Get a group together for specific projects.
– Focus on single species (hedgehogs, bats) and involve schools and wildlife organizations.
– Look at LA action plans for their targets.

Lobbying for funds and resources for all green spaces.
– We need to publicise and raise the profile of parks and green spaces;
– Scrutinising local policies, and using them and campaigning.
– Petitions, protests and lobbying councillors.



LA Relationships with Friends’ Groups
I have been attending the quarterly pan-London Friends Groups Network meetings for the last year and the annual gathering in May. The Network is encouraging the formation of borough-wide Friends networks to share intelligence, best practice and ideas, co-ordinate events or campaigns. Half the London boroughs now host these on a regular or annual basis.
I have picked up several re-occurring issues during the course of the year, which mainly relate to communications with representatives of the local authority; this has a direct bearing on quality of relationships and how these relationships are perceived on both sides. Good communications are essential for good relationships obvious, but not always what happens in practice. Too often assumptions can be made, or misunderstandings occur about terminology or process.
I thought it would be worthwhile to bring it to Heads of Service to address where relevant locally. 
However, there seems to general accord within Network meetings that:

  1. Friends Groups need to be recognised as grass roots organisations and not imposed by the local authority.

Recognising formal and informal ways of working, or the difficulties and problems with top down initiating one to satisfy HLF critieria, certainly seems to cause concern. Obviously LAs should encourage the formation of Friends Groups and on occasion even initiate one where there’s no prospect of park users doing so – and certainly the advice and support provided by officers is much appreciated, but officers need to let go, step back and allow the group to take control of its own destiny.
It is therefore also clearly recognised good practice to have independent chairs of any borough-wide Friends Forums.
Formalising the role of the Friends group is obviously useful for legitimacy, but the Group needs time to develop, debate any pro forma constitution and adapt to reflect their own particular needs.
Knowing what the local authority is able – and not able – to do to support them is also clearly useful to set out. This may take the form of a formal agreement, with the role of both sides set out. However, if groups are unwilling or unable to sign up, the distinction between those that have – and are formally recognised – and those that cant and arent, can be a source of contention.

  1. Lack of clarity about what is included in any GM contracts, and regarding parks budgets and decision-making generally.

Some LAs have said they cannot release the specification because it is commercially sensitive. This is clearly a feeble excuse, as the rates do not have to be revealed at the same time as the spec clauses. However, if specific clauses in the GM contract do not apply to their park they need to know, which may cause problems in disaggregating what is relevant from the GM contract but should be known by the relevant park manager (if it isnt, that is worrying).
This will continue to be contentious as more involvement is sought from volunteers either in monitoring quality, in decision-making about the future of open spaces, or taking on more practical tasks themselves. Clearly they cannot do this without an understanding of what is included in the GM contract.
Many groups are understandably sensitive to job losses and do not wish to take on what they see as the legitimate tasks of paid staff. They are adamant that volunteering as a Friends Group is very much about adding value and not a replacement for necessary routine management and maintenance by paid staff.
It is perhaps worth noting that many Friends groups do not necessarily perceive themselves as volunteers per se but indeed as Friends – park users acting collectively in all kinds of informal and collective ways for the good of their green space.

  1. Frustration about hierarchy of decision-making – and the involvement and empowerment of Friends groups.

LAs increasingly recognise the vital role of Friends groups, but community partnerships can be new territory with some challenging issues for Council departments and contractors. For their part Friends groups do not necessarily have a full understanding of contract roles and responsibilities and how they can have an influence on decision-making.

At the most basic level, they may not understand (that they do not have a contractual relationship) why they cannot ask staff working on site to do something differently or in addition. It is worth testing understanding and explaining how contract changes are negotiated and instructions issued and by whom. 

A corollary to that is having a clear route whereby Friends groups requests, ideas etc. are properly debated, considered, consulted upon more widely if necessarily (and they can be involved in this) and either implemented within an agreed timescale or given clear reasons why they cannot be taken forward now or in the future. If it is not practical due to financial constraints, other means should be explored, or the item kept on the agenda and periodically reviewed. (There may even need to be some kind of arbitration and appeal to a higher management level if local relationships breakdown).

These are three of the main issues which keep coming up; I hope it is useful to draw to your attention.

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