Dudley Council has invested significant time and energy into transforming its local parks; working hard to increase the health and wellbeing of local residents. With visitor numbers and visitor satisfaction continuing to grow, APSE Direct spoke to Liz Stuffins, the Council’s Greenspaces Team Leader, about the progress the Council has made.
Dudley is perhaps best known for being an area of heavy industry and high density housing, but it also has an amazing wealth of green space gems, with over 1,300 hectares of it being publically accessible. The Borough is rich with geological and industrial heritage, and outdoor spaces merge to celebrate these two histories in a striking contrast that is both fascinating and beautiful. In addition to thousands of small areas of open space, Dudley has 59 parks and 28 of these are community parks located within a 15 minute walk of the people who live in the Borough.
Dudley Council’s parks service, like many other councils across the country, has been focused on improving parks infrastructure over the last 20 years. In 2003 a Government grant (The Liveability Fund) of £3.4m, gave a massive boost to the capacity of the team. Grant funding was available for two community development project officers for five years, parks masterplans as well as detailed consultations and seed funding for projects. 25 parks were improved as a result and the Dudley parks friends groups, made up of local volunteers, became well established.
Public Health England
A further Government grant of £4.5m was secured in 2009 – working in partnership with Public Health to engage local people in health and fitness programmes in parks - to reduce childhood obesity in the borough. The funding was another massive investment in the parks, providing dedicated staff on site. Park Keepers became Park Activators and are all funded by the Public Health budget. There are now four new park buildings from which community development work and physical activity programmes take place. They have become community hubs which have outdoor gyms, sign posted cycle ways and weekly programmes of activity. Visitors at last feel safe to exercise in their local park.
Alongside Central Government funding Dudley also took full advantage of the Lottery funding programme with five successful large scale Lottery projects at Leasowes Country Park, Wrens Nest National Nature Reserve, Priory Park, Mary Stevens Park and Stevens Park, Quarry Bank. The latter three projects under the Parks formPeople programme run by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Lottery has always provided very favourable terms for grant funding, requiring the Authority to find between 10 - 25% match funding for projects. Match funding is difficult to find during times of austerity, but through local tenacity and support, officers have located funding from various sources including the Authority’s own capital programme.
Priory Park Lottery project began 10 years ago and was completed in 2013. The park pavilion and toilets had suffered repeated vandalism and arson attacks, as had the 19th century hall on site which houses the registrars team. The project cost £2.6m and was an ideal park for a lottery grant as it contained a ruined 12th century priory and a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument, which becomes the backdrop to many wedding photos from the registry office. A programme of consolidation of the priory was developed along with interpretation of the ruins through planting of a herb garden, interpretation panels and art features. An underused pavilion was extended to provide a light airy classroom for environmental workshops and educational events. The park was improved for disability access, paths were upgraded and a rose avenue was introduced to restore the majesty of the original landscape design by Edward Mawson who developed the 1930’s vision for the Park.
As a result of the restoration programme, there was a 22% increase in visitor satisfaction from a baseline of 66% in 2009. The number of visitors increased by 49% to 417,000 per year. The park achieved Green Flag in 2014 and continues to maintain its Green Heritage award annually. A mobile phone app was also created to show people what was on offer at the park and to interpret the heritage of the park. More recently, the Council has converted the Green Classroom into a community café which is run by a local organization which provides events and activities on the park.
Mary Stevens Park
The Mary Stevens Park restoration project began in 2014 and was completed by summer 2017 at a cost of £3.1m. The service had learned a lot from the previous project at Priory Park. Mary Stevens Park is situated in a more affluent part of the Borough, so can sustain much more economically viable projects such as the Mary Stevens Coffee Lounge which has had a huge impact on the visitor experience in the park. There is also a considerable income from ice cream sales and other events and activities.
The park was gifted to the authority in the 1930’s along with several other parks by an enamelware manufacturer from Cradley, Ernest Stevens, in memorial to his wife Mary. There were some very fine wrought iron gates which were in desperate need of restoration and required a significant amount of investment. Dudley also restored a beautiful war memorial, the 1930’s bandstand and a circular walkway around the lake. Improvements to the bio-diversity of the lake and surrounding area were also delivered. In addition, the old water play feature was refurbished.
The visitor numbers have increased dramatically over 5 years by 42% to 1.4million, and visitor satisfaction has increased from 82% to 95%. The park is currently listed on Trip Advisor with a 94% rating from visitors. Engagement of volunteers was also an important part of the project and we currently have a regular gardening group and weekly health walk group. The Heritage Ranger also works with school groups, youth organisations and community groups to keep people involved
and excited about the heritage of the park. A book about the heritage of the park has been created by local residents and is on sale in local shops. A heritage audio trail has also been developed for mobile phones. The site also receives the Green Heritage Award each year from Green Flag, a video to show off the success of the project is available on YouTube.
Stevens Park in Quarry Bank, Dudley’s current Heritage Lottery project, lies in an area of deprivation in the borough. Here the Authority has partnered with the Emily Jordan Foundation, a CIC which works with people with learning difficulties, to provide horticultural training and bicycle refurbishments in an old Victorian farmhouse on the park. The £1.8m lottery funded programme will eventually see a café and increased community involvement through events and activities. When
work is completed in 2021, the house will be transferred to the charity through Dudley’s asset transfer process, further strengthening its sustainability for the future.
The Borough recently submitted the Priory Park and Mary Stevens Park projects to the Horticultural Week Custodian awards, and beat off stiff competition from other well established parks and gardens to pick up prizes for Best Heritage Park and Best Parks Restoration respectively. The Council was also highly commended for its work with Dudley Mind who have a service level agreement to work in the Borough’s redundant glasshouses and further develop plant collection.
The aim for Dudley has always been to provide high quality parks and open spaces at the lowest cost to the Borough’s residents. Dudley Council still prides itself on having one of the lowest council tax rates in the country. By getting community groups involved in the management and maintenance of these green spaces we can increase community buy in and develop new funding opportunities for our improvement plans. As a Council we have resisted implementing car parking charges or having fees to enter parks so that they can be enjoyed by local communities and visitors to our borough. It is therefore paramount that we continue to explore other sources of income and other ways to deliver existing and new services in our parks. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has been a consistent source of financial support in the last 10 years enabling Dudley to deliver on the quality which our residents deserve.
Despite the fiscal pressures faced in local government today, Dudley Council is finding a way to get the ‘green light’ on investment in its beautiful outdoor spaces. This work is bringing not only notoriety and accolades for the authority, but more importantly it is bringing communities together and protecting precious spaces for generations to come.
Liz Stuffins will deliver a presentation on the transformation of Dudley's parks at the APSE Refuse, Recycling, Streetscene, Grounds and Parks Seminar in Nottingham on 25 October. To book your place at the Seminar click here.