Matt Clinch, presenter and producer of Greenwich borough news podcast In The Meantime, gives his take on the latest developments surrounding the Maryon Wilson Park animal centre.
The current situation
Despite the News Shopper declaring the centre had been given a year’s reprieve, this is in fact not true. The park was never due to be cut this year and its funding was always due to be finishing in April 2012 if a solution cannot be found. Tim Anderson – the Chair of the Friends of Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks discussed this back in January on In the Meantime and an online press release on the FMMWP website states the same.
The budget was passed on 2 March which set the ball rolling to find a solution to help fund the centre outside the council’s budget. Council leader Chris Roberts said in his budget speech: “We don’t want to see the animal park close next March, and I don’t believe it will.”
What Councillor Brooks had to say
Our radio show encourages the public to send questions so we can then pose them to studio guests. Tim Anderson took this opportunity to ask how the park can be saved if the funding is to be cut.
Cllr Brooks replied: “We have to make these cuts to protect frontline services – we’re looking at ways for people to help fund it …or to maybe move it. As a local authority we can make sure that this is a practice that carries on working… but works differently… and is not purely funded by tax payers’ money.”
One solution he details is in Thamesmead. A proposed urban farm has been touted by Bexley and Greenwich councils since 2009. Trust Thamesmead and Growing Greenwich are the two groups involved. This would be a place for animals where they can be petted (like Maryon Wilson Park) as well as a space to grow crops. However, the economic downturn has threatened to stifle this idea before it gets off the ground.
The royal charter
Back in January on ITM, Tim Anderson told us about the royal charter that was in place on the park. “A royal charter exists, signed by Henry VIII, stating the deer must remain. It could well be the deer are protected along with the rural nature of the park,“ he said.
It strikes me as odd that no-one seems to have actually seen this royal charter and can confirm it exists. Cllr Brooks was also unsure of what the charter detailed but said: “most royal charters work in a perimeter not a place”.
This could mean that there’s a radius of several miles around Maryon Wilson park that the charter accounts for. Thus, it could cover the movement of the deer to places such as Thamesmead or even over to the deer pen at Greenwich park.
It seems to me that from the local community’s point of view, if the animal centre moves to Thamesmead it might as well be moving to the Thames Valley. The schools and children’s groups it currently serves will have to travel by coach to get there – but at what cost?
The Friends group says: “If the council are to save the animal care centre it would be to find a way of keep funding the children’s petting zoo in Maryon Wilson Park, not just to save the animals from being culled or to move them.”
What’s important to note as well is that the unique location of Maryon Wilson Park, in its valley setting, unlike normal farm land or parks, enables children and families to see the animals with uninterrupted sight lines.
The rather dubious back-up plan
I admit I’m probably clutching at straws here and probably still a little vague with the technicalities. Under the coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ (love it or hate it) they have a localism bill. If and when this bill is passed into law it will give power to local communities to trigger referendums with petitions:
“The Bill includes a number of measures to allow the public to influence local decision-making through local referendums. Anyone registered to vote in the local elections will be able to vote in a triggered referendum. A referendum can be triggered by 5% of the local electorate signing a petition within a 6 month timescale, however a council can accept a petition and trigger a vote even if the petition gets fewer signatures, if it wants to. A referendum can also be triggered by a council member requesting one. People signing the petition must include their name, address, signature and the date.”
This means that a petition signed by around 5,000 people who live in Greenwich borough will trigger a vote. This vote will then go towards a decision made by the council whether to keep the care centre where it is, with the funding it currently has. Now hopefully this won’t be needed but let’s look at possible outcomes.
If the whole of Greenwich were to go to the polls on this issue, the chances are the only people that turn up at the ballot box are the ones that are voting to keep it how it is. The council will then be forced to decide once again what will happen with the centre. You may think nothing will change and the council will still plough ahead. However, by this point it might have drawn people’s attention from a wider audience. Could this be the localism bill’s poster child? The first referendum of its kind? Could kicking up such a fuss have any impact on the future of the centre? It might be worth finding out. Keep your eye on that bill.
I asked Cllr Brooks about this bill, although we still don’t know whether it will be passed. He accepted that this could happen but then added: “It’s what else goes, do we [then] have a referendum on whether we have bin collections every fortnight instead of weekly – it’s the frontline services that people want.”
What are the reasons why the council might be adding the animal care centre to its list of cuts? Could there be an ulterior motive? Let’s explore the speculation:
1) They’re daft?!
You may laugh but North Ayrshire council in Scotland recently put forward an idea to just have a 4-day week in schools! They were then attacked by unions for just trying to look as if they were busy seeking solutions and not actually wanting to carry through with the cut. Yeah, they’re only kids they don’t need a whole week of school! I think if I lived in North Ayrshire I would sell up and move on safe in the knowledge that the council were stark raving bonkers!
This differs from our cut though as North Ayrshire councillors never backed the 4-day week and I don’t think it ever reached even the scrutiny stage.
2) They’re seeing if someone might take it of their hands.
Maybe there is a secret piggy bank waiting to fund the centre after all? But in the interim could they be dangling a fishing rod over the edge to see what big fish bite? It’s a popular and well-loved place, could a rich benefactor be found in twelve months? However, think of the anguish this is causing people. Is the council losing respect by using this method to sell off one of its possessions?
3) They’re playing the blame game.
You may have heard this one before. “Labour council heaps blame onto coaltion government by cutting well loved events and animal care centre.” We then march through the streets of London moaning that they shouldn’t be forcing councils to frontload and hitting local services hard.
Although remember, if the localism bill tactic does work and the coalition government’s legislation saves the centre, then would the blame game have backfired?
4) They simply need to make a saving somewhere.
This obviously being the most realistic. They need to make a saving, like the rest of the savings they’ve made. They all add up, even if they’re small savings, they add up in fact to £63.5 million. But as one resident writes on the petition, “The savings are too small and the benefits too great for the Centre to be lost.”
Here’s a vox-pop I made at the animal care centre back in December asking locals what they thought of the proposed cut.
We’ll keep you updated with further developments.