Calls for more funds to mow Blackpool’s green spaces more often have been kicked into the long grass.
Town hall chiefs have confirmed there will be no extra cash for cutting grass in the resort’s parks and other public spaces after years of shrinking budgets.
But Blackpool Council, which last year came under fire after a controversial scheme to prioritise areas like Stanley Park left other areas neglected, has insisted its mowers will be able to cover almost twice as much ground this year – even without any additional funding.
John Blackledge, Blackpool Council’s director for community and environmental services, said: “For many more areas this year the grass will be cut more regularly.”
As well as looking ‘unsightly’, there are claims overgrown grass will continue to pose a threat to health – arguably leaving youngsters with fewer places to enjoy their summer.
Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservative opposition at Blackpool Council, said the axing of the authority’s green bin collection service last year has created a surplus of £35,000.
He said that money should now be spent on cutting the grass across the town, and said town hall bosses should ‘think outside the box’ following budget cuts handed down by the government.
“There are dangers to leaving grass long,” he said. “Some people with pets don’t pick up after them in long grass, as we saw last year.
“It looks unsightly but there are health risks, in terms of the dog mess and other things like kids playing and cutting themselves on broken glass.”
Although general election rules mean the council cannot be seen to comment on political matters until voters go to the polls in June, leading councillors last year accused the government of forcing town hall chiefs to prioritise its services by taking £400m ‘off the people of Blackpool’.
“The grass that can’t be tended to has become overgrown and unsightly and people have every right to be angry about this,” the councillor then responsible, Graham Cain, said.
“I am equally annoyed that we have to make decisions like this, however that is the reality that this town faces over the next few years as our budgets continue to shrink.”
John Blackledge, the council’s director for community and environmental services, said the authority’s three mowers will be more efficient this summer because staff now know some areas don’t need to be done as often - leaving them free to cut the grass elsewhere.
He said: “While grass cutting continues to take place on a priority-led basis, our experience from last year means we will be able to cut the grass at 75 per cent.
“It is important to remind people that grass is always most difficult to cut at this time of year due to the speed it grows in the warm and damp weather. The wet condition of the ground hampers when we can use the machines but for many more areas this year the grass will be cut more regularly.”
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Blackpool Council, which has 94 parks and open spaces, the majority of which are maintained by the authority, said it ‘cannot continue to maintain’ them to the same standard as it could before.
It said the parks department has had to cut its ‘operational capacity’ after losing £631,000 in funding over a three-year period, which has seen a number of staff leave.
In documents, the council said it would prioritise spaces in this order: Cemeteries; Stanley Park and the Promenade; sports pitches, including football, bowling, rugby, and cricket areas; the town’s other parks; grass verges; and general amenity grass.
It said ‘given the sensitivity for relatives and friends, and as a matter of respect, cemeteries will be maintained to the highest possible standard’.
Stanley Park will also be maintained to the same standards, though the introduction of a giant orange bin as part of a trial last summer sparked concern, while the same applies to grass along the Prom, which was described as a ‘key local and tourist attraction’.
Sports pitches must be ‘maintained to a suitable standard’ because of the wider benefits physical activity has on health, while other parks will still be cut, just less frequently.
Grass verges will also be cut less often, and will be in a form of a one-metre strip beside the road, in order to keep drivers’ lines of sight open.
Other grass areas will ‘not be mown where it is safe to do so’, however. Walkways could be cut through large areas for people to walk through, but that’s it.
“Where residents, community groups, or business organisations are engaged, options to explore wild-flower meadow planting schemes, tree/shrub clusters, and community gardens can be introduced,” the council papers added.
SO WHOSE FAULT IS ALL THIS?
Not surprisingly, the answer depends on who you ask.
The Labour-led council has blamed the Conservative-run government for cutting its funding year-on-year, which has seen a number of services and jobs go, and for forcing its hand.
On the flip-side, Tory politicians have accused the council of failing to budget properly or to spend the money it does get wisely enough.
Hundreds of jobs have been lost at the town hall in recent years, and millions of pounds of savings have had to be made, including an estimated £18.7m in 2017 alone.
Last year, Simon Blackburn said around £400m has ‘been taken off the people of Blackpool by the government since 2010’, while council papers revealed £631,000 had been taken out the parks and open spaces budget since 2013.
The Gazette asked the council how much money was slashed from the same budget in the past 12 months, and whether any staff have gone, but had not received an answer by the time of going to print.
Coun Williams has previously said town hall waste, as much as government cuts, is at the route of the issue.
He pointed to the Devonshire Road car park – built to accommodate Blackpool Council’s town centre staff but used infrequently – as one example.
Demolishing The Syndicate nightclub, in Church Street, and turning it into a car park cost an estimated £1.3m too.
“You cannot just blame cuts,” Coun Williams said. “There is a huge amount of waste going on – £250,000 for a disused car park.”
IF WE CAN AFFORD A NEW TRAM TERMINAL, CONFERENCE CENTRE, AND POSH HOTEL, SURELY WE CAN AFFORD TO CUT THE GRASS?
It’s not quite as simple as that, because council projects are funded from a variety of sources.
The new tramway linking the Promenade track to Blackpool North train station, for example, has funding allocated from the Department of Transport that cannot be spent on any other project.
And alongside the 142-bedroom four star hotel also planned for Bickerstaffe Square, the proposed tram terminal will cost £23m plus £7.8m already spent on buying the Wilkinson’s site in Talbot Road – where the new facilities would be built.
But £17.5m will be borrowed, and repaid using earnings from the hotel, with the remaining £5.5m coming from a income from businesses already based in the Talbot Gateway, and cash left over from building it, it is understood.
The £25m conference centre, planned for the Winter Gardens, was announced by the government as part of a wider £556m cash boost for the so-called Northern Powerhouse. Most will come from two separate pots of government cash, but the council will lend around £7.5m towards the scheme.
It’s worth noting that it can only borrow money when it can put forward a viable business plan that shows how it will be repaid - which means it would not be able to pay for grass cutting - or other services - that way.
Speaking in December, Coun Blackburn said the council needed to invest in the town because ‘no-one else is going to do it’.
“We will get that investment money back,” he said. “Where there has been high quality investment in Blackpool in the past it has worked. Just look at the Big Blue Hotel.”
It’s not the first time town hall officials have looked at spending money to make money. In February, councillors were asked to increase its loan fund to £100m.
That will see the authority borrow money at low interest rates and lend it back out at slightly higher rates, but at better rates than the banks can offer.
Coun Blackburn said: “These loans will not only help companies to expand, but the repayments will help support our own budget and maintain our services.”
WHAT IMPACT DOES LONGER GRASS HAVE ON HEALTH?
Last October, Janet Duckworth was left devastated after her healthy four-year-old Border Collie Connie died after being bitten by a tick, while on her daily walk through the long grass on Highfield Road, South Shore.
Mrs Duckworth and her tiler husband David removed the parasite, but Connie died several days later from tick bite paralysis, which occurs when a female tick releases a potent toxin into the bloodstream of its victim, causing vomiting, high blood pressure, unsteadiness, and in some cases death.
Ticks commonly lurk in long grass, and can crawl into a dog’s coat as it walks past, and they can also harm people.
Dr Tim Brooks, head of the Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory said cases of Lyme disease – the most serious infection spread to humans by infected ticks – has increased from around 200 in the late 90s to 1,200 in 2013.
There are also fears dog mess could be left in tall grass, which could pose a threat of blindness should it find its way into a child’s eye, as well as other objects like glass.
And then there’s the worry over youngsters playing in the street because the grass is too long elsewhere, as well as worry for those who suffer from hay fever.
WHAT HAVE READERS SAID?
Although it may still be too early in the year to notice grass growing at length, the swift growth last summer saw The Gazette inundated with comments from readers.
Some expressed anger, while others came up with novel ideas for a solution.
Laura Myers said: “Can’t the local prisons provide people to cut the grass? Surely it beats sitting in a cell all day. Kirkham would be ideal.”
Mike Bennett asked: “I understand there is less money due to budget cuts, but by not tending to the grass they are causing Blackpool to look dirty and even more in repair than it is.
“Are people going to want to come here when the whole place looks like a jungle?”
And Steve McMe blasted: “Longer grass means fewer people picking up dog mess, and more litter being left in it.
“It’s only a matter of time before a child gets injured on discarded glass, which means compensation claims.”