Parkies make a comeback

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The Independent Online
THE PEAKED cap has gone, the walkie-talkie has been replaced by a mobile phone and, for the new generation of park keepers, customer service is more important than keeping people off the grass.

After two decades of neglect and decline, local authorities are finally responding to the widespread public perception of parks as squalid and dangerous places, and a new breed of parkie is reclaiming urban Britain's open spaces.

The revival began in Oldham, but since the New Year "parkies" have been spotted in the London borough of Camden, and they are about to don new uniforms in Birmingham.

In the heyday of the public parks movement, the "green lungs" of the city were at the forefront of urban development and a focus for civic pride, while park keepers were sworn in as special constables.

By the Seventies, however, open spaces had slumped to the bottom of the political agenda and were among the first casualties when local government came under pressure from Whitehall to cut its spending.

The decline of urban parks was intensified by the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) by the Conservative government in 1988, which required local authorities to award contracts for park maintenance and other services to the lowest bidder, leading to the virtual extinction of on-site staff.

Oldham was one of the first councils to acknowledge the problems. "The contract staff would go into a park, blitz everything and then disappear," said Steve Smith, Oldham's parks and countryside manager.

What is now providing the catalyst for the return of park keepers on a wider scale is the Government's Best Value legislation, currently going through Parliament. It scraps CCT in favour of contracts that provide the best value, as defined through consultations with residents, rather than simply in financial terms.

Camden Council, one of the 37 authorities piloting the scheme, has introduced four park keepers and 10 site-based gardeners since January.

According to Martin Stanton, the council's head of parks and open spaces, the park keepers, with their instantly recognisable uniform of green blazer and tie, white shirt and grey trousers, have already made a big impact.

"The old park keepers performed a social role - looking after people who were visibly ill and contacting social services if the regulars didn't turn up for a few days - and their loss was felt quite strongly," he said.

It's not quite Lithuania, where there is strict enforcement of the rule that allows people to lie on the grass but not to fall asleep on it, but, for the estimated eight million Britons who use a park everyday, the grass is looking distinctly greener.