Reduction in investment and maintenance has led to deterioration of public parks and open spaces in South Ashford.

Ashford Borough Council does express its support for parks and open spaces in in its policies and it is hoped that this will lead to some improvements.

Whilst some capital funding might be gained from grant funding bodies and from developer contributions, these sources are unlikely to provide funding for ongoing maintenance.

There may be opportunities to raise revenue from park users and from activities undertaken in parks and open spaces but care is needed to ensure that the atmosphere of the parks and open spaces is not lost as a result of commercial activity.

South Ashford Community Forum believes that there are opportunities for community involvement in parks and open spaces and that this may provide resource for some maintenance tasks, consequently bringing some reduction in costs in addition to direct benefits to the community.

1 Background

1.1      South Ashford Community Forum

South Ashford Community Forum (SACF) is an open forum set up to represent the views of people living and working in the unparished area of South Ashford and to help communicate those views to Ashford Borough Council (ABC), Kent County Council (KCC) and other statutory organisations. It is an independent voluntary group with its own constitution.

Any reference to South Ashford in this submission relates to the area served by SACF.

1.2      Parks and open spaces in Ashford

South Ashford includes the following public parks and open spaces:

  • Victoria Park: A semi-formal urban park, a short walk from the town centre, originally purchased by Ashford Borough Council’s predecessor in 1898. Trees and furniture originally commemorated eminent townspeople. The Grade II* listed Hubert Fountain is located in the park. The Park incorporates laid out paths, open grass, some flower beds and children’s play areas. The Stour Valley cycle/footway passes through the park together with some secondary transit routes. A indoor bowls club building has been built in the park and a children’s nursery occupies another building.
  • Watercress Fields: A large open space, stretching westward along the River Great Stour from Victoria Park, to the boundary of the unparished area. Part of the Stour Valley cycle/footway runs through Watercress Fields. Although mainly open grass, small wooded areas, meadow and river bank environment are also present. A Community Orchard has been created within the space.
  • Bowens Field Wetlands: An area constructed as surface water storage to the East of Victoria Park, in 1990, modified and planted to create a wetland area in 2004.
  • Open spaces, designated in the Local Plan, at Noakes Meadow, Cryol Road, St. Anne’s Road, which include play parks and/or multi-use games areas, and at Cleves Way, Knoll Lane and Musgrove.
  • Non-designated open space created in the planning of the housing estates of South Ashford.

1.3      Ashford’s Green Corridor

Victoria Park, Watercress Fields and Bowens Field form part of Ashford’s Green Corridor, a linear area of parks, recreation grounds and other green spaces alongside the River Great Stour and its tributaries flowing through Ashford. In addition to recreational space, being adjacent to the River Stour the Green Corridor is a major area of flood protection, most of which is designated as a local nature reserve. The Green Corridor is protected by ABC planning policies.

1.4      Ashford Borough Council policy

1.4.1   Corporate Plan

In Corporate Plan adopted by ABC in October 2015, Priority 4 is

“Attractive Ashford: Countryside and Townscape, Tourism and Heritage”.

The stated aspiration attached to this priority is:

“To achieve an environment that creates higher standards of public space design, alongside improved standards of presentation of key green spaces.

“To safeguard and conserve our local heritage and areas of outstanding landscape quality to ensure the very best attractive environment with thriving and vibrant town centres”.

Included in the actions attached to the policy are

“Improve and safeguard the quality and presentation of the borough, recognising its unique environment, countryside, local heritage and tourism offer”:

  • Create Landscape Action Team and implement higher maintenance standards. Respond to growth and associated land management issues through quality, flexibility, control and cost management.
  • Bring forward a new green corridor action plan to improve presentation, signage, planting and better water quality.

“Delivery of best mix of new and existing parks and green spaces, incorporating quality public art and cutting edge design”:

1.4.2 In-house Landscape Management

From October 2016, ABC will be bringing the responsibility for grounds maintenance across the borough back in-house. ABC have said “this initiative is a key part of delivering the adopted Land Management Improvement Plan, which aims to make the borough a pleasant and enjoyable place to live, work, visit and enjoy.

“The new in-house service will give us greater flexibility as we will be able to move resources where they are needed most, with an ability to be more fluid with changing priorities. It will also be more cost effective.”

1.4.3   Planning Policy

ABC’s current Local Development Framework includes a number of policies relating to creation and maintenance of open space and a Supplementary Planning Document, Public Green Spaces and Water Environment.

ABC’s Draft Local Plan, for which the Regulation 19 consultation has recently been completed, incorporates similar policies into the single Local Plan document. There is, inevitably, less detail than contained in the current plan. The Draft Local Plan does however refer to a separate Green Corridor Action Plan that has not yet been published.

1.4.4   Victoria Park and Watercress Fields Masterplan

In September 2015, ABC Officer, Chris Dixon, gave a presentation to SACF outlining proposals to produce a management plan for Victoria Park. This resulted in a creation a Concept Masterplan for improvements to Victoria Park and Watercress Fields together with proposals for an Application to Heritage Lottery Fund for finance to implement part of the Masterplan which included the refurbishment of the Hubert Fountain.

In March 2016 ABC’s Cabinet resolved that:

(i) the Victoria Park and Watercress Fields Concept Masterplan be adopted as an indicative framework to support the future planning of new development, refurbishment and timely partnership working as opportunities arise.

(ii) the first stage application to the Heritage Lottery Fund with a Council contribution of up to £10,000 be endorsed and a further report be brought forward in due course to consider the second stage application.

The HLF first stage application was, however, unsuccessful.

2 Use of parks and open spaces in South Ashford

Who uses parks and open spaces, how often and for what

2.1      Victoria Park

Victoria Park is used by many people for all of the activities that would normally be expected in an urban park: walking, dog walking, children’s play, other forms of exercise and general relaxation. Some locations in the Park have become community hubs, where people meet, particularly some members of Ashford’s large Nepalese Community but also groups of young people.

The Park is used for regular activities by organisations including Parkrun and at least two fitness training organisations. The annual Create Music Festival, organised by ABC is held in the Park and occasionally fun fairs use the Park.

2.2      Watercress Fields

Watercress Fields is to an extent used as an extension to Victoria Park, and is considered by some to be part of the Park. The larger grass areas lend themselves to playing football including regular use by some informal groups. In the past marked pitches and fixed goal posts have been provided, which were used by organised groups. The youth group, Hang 10, which meets weekly, bases itself in Watercress Fields during summer months; this is aided by the provision of fixtures such as an outdoor table tennis table.

2.3      Transit Routes

The Stour Valley cycle/footpath runs along the River Great Stour from via Singleton Lake, located just outside of South Ashford, through Watercress Fields, Victoria Park and Bowens Field Wetlands to continue along the Green Corridor to Ashford Station and beyond. This is used by many as a route for commuting and leisure, both by cycle and on foot, from parts of South Ashford and beyond to the Station and other places in Ashford.

The route referred to as Jemmett Path runs to the East of Victoria Park. This is already a heavily used cycle/footway from South Ashford into the Town Centre and is planned to become more important as southern urban extensions to Ashford are created. A secondary connection to Jemmett Path runs from Hillbrow Road along the main avenue in Victoria Park, via the Hubert Fountain, connecting to Jemmett Path at the north-east access to the Park. This route, although not marked as a cycle route takes most of the cycle and foot traffic from Brookfield to the Town Centre.

Some users of these routes do break their journey in Victoria Park and Watercress Fields for relaxation or play.

2.4      Designated open spaces

The designated open spaces are used by those living for many of the same activities as Victoria Park and Watercress Fields. They benefit local residents in that there is less travel involved in using them thus making them suitable activities undertaken for shorter periods.

2.5      Non-designated open spaces

Being close to the homes, parents are able to supervise children playing in these areas from the home. Many are important substitutes for private garden space for families living in flats.

3 Contribution of parks to health and wellbeing

The contribution of parks to the health and well-being of communities

Parks and open spaces provide areas for exercise and relaxation. They encourage walking and cycling to destinations as they provide a pleasant alternative over walking alongside, cycling on roads. For children they provide space for running around, climbing on play equipment, boulders, cut tree stumps/fallen trees, hills and slopes. Which in addition to the general health benefits of the exercise, improves coordination, balance and core body strength. They also promote mental health as they provide a safe outdoor environment.

4 Impact of reductions in local authority budgets on parks

The impact of reductions in local authority budgets on parks

Over many years, spending on parks and open spaces in Ashford has failed to keep up with rising costs. As a result all of the parks and open spaces are much less well maintained than they once were.

Whilst there have been attempts over the years to make improvements to Victoria Park, Watercress Fields and Bowens Field, the changes made often fail to achieve the ambitions of those who planned them because areas affected have fallen into disrepair or become overgrown.

The situation is exacerbated by some members of the public who litter and dump rubbish in parks or cause damage to soft and hard landscaping and furniture. Whilst it is appreciated that there is a cost attached to clearing up after such people, the failure to do so creates an environment in which such behaviour is seen as acceptable and others are likely to follow suit.

Litter is cleared and grass is mowed regularly in Victoria Park but there is a lack of pro-active maintenance and management.

Designated and non-designated open spaces have in recent years suffered from reduced mowing cycles and lack of pro-active maintenance resulting in them looking untidy and rendering them unsuitable for some basic activities, such as ball games, and attracting many complaints.

5 Funding

What additional or alternative funding is available and what scope is there for local authorities to generate revenue from park users?

Ashford Borough Council does not generally charge organisations for use of parks, with the exception of funfairs, which pay a nominal fee. We believe there is scope for charging for organised activities in the parks. Some discretion should be applied where the organisers are non-profit making.

Provision of revenue raising activities in parks would need to be approached with great care, there is a risk that the relaxed atmosphere could be lost if excessive commercial activity was undertaken in parks.

In adopting the Victoria Park and Watercress Fields Masterplan referred to in 1.4.3 above, Ashford Borough Council has assumed that some money will be available from contributions from developers of new residential development in the vicinity. This income will be used to make the improvements proposed but will not be available for maintenance of the Park.

As noted, an application for funds to HLF was also made but was unsuccessful. Whilst grants could be sought to offset the reduction in expenditure by local authorities, many grant funding bodies prefer to see funds spent on new capital works or identifiable enhancements rather than operation and maintenance. There is also a limit to grant funding available, which could result in too many parks chasing the same funds.

6 Community Involvement

There are local examples of community involvement in parks and pen spaces that could be extended or used as models:

6.1      Friends of Singleton Lake

Singleton Lake and Buxford Meadow is an open space in the Parish of Great Chart with Singleton, to the immediate north-west of South Ashford. It is owned by Kent County Council but they had little involvement in its upkeep. The Great Stour, a main river for which the Environment Agency has responsibility runs through the site and feeds the Lake. It is a designated open space in the Ashford Local Plan and part of the Green Corridor. ABC employs Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to advise and undertake some maintenance along the Green Corridor. Following a public meeting in March 2015, a management plan was created, as part of which, Great Chart with Singleton Parish Council agreed to oversee the formation of a community group. The group

  • acts as a pressure group to get things done
  • does some practical work to improve the area.
  • raises funds for improvements.
  • engages other local people.

As a result community cohesion is increased, the community have a voice in the management of the space and appreciation and respect for the area is increased among the local community.

It has proved difficult to engender community engagement in South Ashford but we believe there is scope for a ‘friends’ group for Victoria Park and Watercress Fields. A successful group could lead to formation of groups for other open spaces.

6.2      KCC Countryside Access Wardens

KCC employs volunteers to help keep the public rights of way network open. They:

  • Fix waymarker discs where paths change direction
  • Attach path-end number signs where paths leave the road
  • Spot vegetation clearance around furniture and choke points’
  • Maintain gate hinges to ensure proper closure
  • Report more significant faults via an online form or telephone
  • Report work completed no less than 10 times per year
  • Carry out basic inspections & photographing evidence for obstruction of PROWs by private landowners

KCC provide training, tools and insurance to Countryside Access Wardens.

We would like to see a similar system of volunteers used to carry out some basic maintenance in parks and open spaces. This could be beneficial where small tasks are undertaken that would involve excessive administration or travel and transport when undertaken by Council employees.

6.3      Ashford Oaks Primary School: Project Purple

Working in partnership with staff from the Aspire community group and Kent Wildlife Trust, pupils of Ashford Oaks Primary School have created a welcoming place where residents can socialise within a non-designated open space in South Ashford. The project has proceeded over a number of years with different year 6 pupils. Last year the children:

  • tended the flower planters,
  • managed the area to prevent litter and broken glass,
  • constructed more benches for people to sit and come together.
  • constructed a set of small goal posts as part of a play area.

The project was started after some pupils had has given children an appreciation of the environment and a sense of ownership for their community and pride for where they live.

Similar projects could be created to engender such responsibility for open spaces among local residents.

6.4      Victoria Park Youth Sculpture Trail

Three local schools worked with an artist to create the sculptures and engage in the natural heritage of Victoria Park. Together they made site visits, tree rubbings, and engaged in woodland craft workshops to create an oak sculpture trail across the park. The project was funded from receipts from plastic carrier bag charges by a supermarket.

This project engaged young people and their families in the local park and engendered a sense of ownership.

Such schemes may be more attractive to funders than direct approaches by local authorities but as stated in 5 above, we don’t believe that grant funding offers a complete solution. We do believe there is scope for community involvement in the management and maintenance of parks which might relieve some pressure on local authority budgets but would not provide sufficient funds or resources to fully support parks and open spaces.