Friday, 1 March 2013

Viewpoints Column about Mersey Valley Wardens

This is the article I wrote for the Manchester Evening News earlier this week:

"In Manchester we are so lucky to have miles of open green space either side of the River Mersey. The Mersey Valley forms the lungs of south Manchester and allows hundreds of thousands of residents to enjoy nature on their doorstep; not to mention providing a haven for local wildlife. This has been made possible by the hard work of the Mersey Valley Wardens who manage the area for Manchester and Trafford Councils. Council cuts are putting these wardens and our ability to enjoy the valley under threat.

Manchester City Council is proposing to cut a massive 75% (or £150,000) from their contribution and Trafford are proposing to withdraw their £92,000 contribution entirely. If these cuts are accepted then it is very likely the Warden Service would be disbanded. In Manchester the proposal is to manage the vast open areas in Chorlton, Didsbury and Northenden as part of the Neighbourhood Teams which already look after Manchester parks. The Warden Service does a great job despite already being cut down to its bare bones over many years. We have seen the impact this has had such as a reduction of biodiversity in some areas. It’s worrying what damaging impact further cuts will have.

The Neighbourhood Teams do good work in urban parks, but they are not experienced in looking after countryside sites and they won’t be able to maintain the sites to levels people expect. The Wardens have built up decades of expert skills and knowledge to ensure people can safely and freely use the natural spaces in the valley and their specialist knowledge is required to manage the local biodiversity. For example the wardens have been critical in: maintaining nature reserves, providing education to members of the public and local schools, maintaining life saving equipment, working with local friends groups and managing flood risks. In Chorlton the wardens regularly assist a youth group by picking up canoes from Debdale Park and manning a safety boat which allows them to safely go out on the lake at Chorlton Water Park. Without this help these local young people would not be able to enjoy the valley in this way. The loss of the wardens would be a false economy. The valley provides huge enjoyment to those who use it and is vitally important for public health. It has enormous environmental value too by providing an area that wildlife and vegetation can flourish; helping us to tackle climate change.

Part of the Wardens’ responsibilities is to patrol the area and enforce laws and regulations. By removing the wardens there is a real threat of lawlessness. In the past the Mersey Valley has suffered from a variety of types of anti-social behaviour, including off-road motorbikes, fly-tipping, vandalism and attacks on birds and animals. It took a lot of work by the wardens and police to make the area safe for residents to enjoy (especially for families and children) and the proposals make no mention of how this will be maintained. Greater Manchester Police are unlikely to have resources to ensure the area is regularly patrolled and as result we could see a rise in crimes being committed in the valley which is bound to put people off using it.

I’m worried that Manchester Council are making a short sighted decision that could hurt this natural environment and our ability to enjoy it yet won’t save as much as predicted. If the Neighbourhood Teams take on the responsibilities the cost is still likely to be around £80,000. Once the Council realises all the statutory responsibilities it would be responsible for this could be significantly more. The Wardens’ expertise ensures the valley is managed in a cost-effective way.

There is strong opposition to the Councils’ proposals in the local area and residents are actively campaigning to save the wardens. My colleagues and I have handed in a petition of around a thousand signatures against the proposed cut and we are working to save the wardens. The Liberal Democrat alternative budget which was submitted last week includes proposals to retain funding for the Mersey Valley Warden Service. This means every single Manchester City Councillor will be given the opportunity to vote to save the Wardens when the budget is brought before full Council.

Please let your local Councillor know what you think about the proposals and how it will impact on you; and if you live in Manchester encourage them to vote to Save the Wardens!"

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