Financial constraints could hinder ambition for public parks

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Protecting open space and promoting its parks and paths is at the heart of the latest policy decision taken by Falkirk Council.

The strategy first put forward in 2010 as a result of the Scottish Government’s instruction to all councils to take a positive long term approach to managing the open space in their areas was followed in 2014 with the formation of a policy development panel given the responsibility to review the progress of the Falkirk Council Open Space Strategy and Parks Development Plan.

That led to draft proposals being presented to the executive last October and agreement they be published to allow public consultation on the document to start.

One year on, issues raised from the hundreds of responses received and the observations made by national and local organisations have been taken on board, amendments made and the finalised document approved and adopted as official council policy.

Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland and RSPB Scotland were asked their views. Community groups Friends of Dollar Park, Communities Along The Carron Association and Polmont Woodlands Group volunteered theirs. Community Councils, Airth Parish, Avonbridge and Standburn, Banknock, Haggs and Longcroft, Bonnybridge, Brightons and Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood all made a contribution.

The final strategy is an impressive and detailed piece of work that runs to over 60 pages.

It sets out proposals and schedules for investment and improvements which will protect the value of the district’s parks and open spaces for future generations to enjoy.

They are promoted as being “vital” to the quality of the urban environment and the physical and mental health of Falkirk district residents and “extremely valuable” as areas for recreation and exercise.

Rhona Geisler, director of development services, told members of the executive: “The council has delivered an investment programme over the last five years guided by the Open Space Strategy and Parks Development Plan that has focussed on setting up Falkirk Community Trust to manage our high profile parks, creating and establishing the Falkirk Helix, improving the quality of the seven Core Parks previously identified, improving the quality of the poorest quality play areas and installing Multi Use Games Areas at several locations. The quality of open space across the district has significanlty improved.”

On the future she said: “From the programme of consultation four important themes emerged which were considered to be important to guide the direction of the strategy and deliver the greatest environmental benefit.

“Our parks and open spaces will be high quality, well used and well connected and provide a modern, sustainable and diverse resource which will improve the health and enrich the lives of our communities at the heart of them, be of significant ecological value and help mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Councillors were warned there are financial challenges to be met if its ambitious Open Space Strategy and Parks Development Plan is to be delivered.

Between 2010 and 2015 the council and its partners invested over £55 million, mainly on creating the Helix Park, but also “significantly improving” the quality of other open space across the district.

Delivering the ‘vision’ outlined in Rhona Geisler’s report will likely cost many millions more.

She said: “All in all the report has been a massive piece of work, but the consultation produced a huge amount of feedback providing an insight into which projects identified within the various area strategies were top local priorities.

“This will prove very useful when programming the implementation of the strategy in future years. There is an opportunity to showcase our plans to attract external funding”

Councillor Adrian Mahoney said: “It’s important we build on the success of the parks and paths networks we have.”

SNP Councillor Tom Coleman said: “We want to have parks and open spaces of the highest quality and have a laudable list of things we want to do, but lack the finance to carry them out.

“We’re probably not going to be able to deliver the bulk of what is being proposed, however its a hare and tortoise situation, not a race, and this is a long term programme.”

Councillor Robert Spears on the Non Aligned Independent Group said: “We have to go back to the original plan and create walkways that will join communities. We have to build on the original Helix idea.”

The director told him: “I think we have the best footpath network in the country. We are not finished with the Helix and continue to seek additional funding.”