We were surprised to receive from Southwark Council, a copy of a protocol for relations between friends of parks and the Council, which we are evidently supposed to sign, alongside the Council, as if it were a contract.
There is much in this document that is laudable. Southwark here declares a commitment to operate in a fair and democratic fashion, whilst assisting friends groups to do the same.
We certainly endorse the spirit of this protocol, with its stress upon democracy, accountability and transparency, as a set of constructive guidelines.
We do not, however, consider it appropriate to sign it.
Signing this document, we believe, would bring us rather too close to recognising a right of councils to de facto licence, supervise and, presumably, should they wish, disqualify civic societies (in this case, friends of parks). Given that such bodies perform an essential watch dog role, acting, at times, in opposition to councils when they fail to fulfil their responsibilities, this
is potentially problematic, if not invidious.
Southwark is apparently concerned that friends of parks and open spaces may operate unconstitutionally and fail to represent the public in their areas. As a formally constituted body which has itself, repeatedly, expressed strong concerns about societies that fail to represent or consult the full diversity of the local community, the Friends of Belair Park welcome and encourage Southwark’s statements. What they mean in practice, however, is another matter, and this has, perhaps, not been thought through to its logical conclusions.
We highlight one aspect of this protocol. Item 17 states that: “Friends groups will recognise the importance of developing good practice in organisational governance and ensure that sound policies and procedures are in place to protect and promote the interests of members. This will notably be from being constituted.”
Who will be the arbiter of whether policies and procedures are “sound”? Any prospect of council officers reviewing or approving the constitutions of local societies would make us no less uneasy than the idea of societies that operate contrary to the principles of inclusiveness.
In any case, what powers will the council have with regard to defaulting societies and what powers will friends groups have to enforce council compliance with this contract?
The Friends of Belair Park presently enjoy an excellent relationship with Southwark, which we hope will continue to develop into yet more positive forms. However, we face a future in which the pressure on public open space from transport schemes, housing developments and other forms of infill, will very probably continue to increase. Missing from the protocol, sadly, is any
commitment from Southwark to preserve every open space as sacrosanct and immune from infill, the context within which there might be a truly definitive shift from antagonism and distrust into cooperation between friends of parks and the Council.
The Committee, Friends of Belair Park:
firstname.lastname@example.org Tel. 020 8670 8924