The big event in the council chamber last Tuesday was
the petition to save
Old Manor Way Playground and although everyone knows of the successful outcome
by now, the path to that success may be less well known to those who weren’t there or
didn’t follow the webcast very carefully indeed.
The petitioners undoubtedly did a good job and won the support of their local councillors and the right to have their on-line petition hosted on the council’s website. The Splash Park campaigners were not so favoured.
I had hoped that the Old Manor Way group would spend a few minutes outside the Civic Offices and afford a photo opportunity but they chose instead to take their seats early. The main seating area was full and they overflowed to both sides of the chamber.
Their speaker was Lauran Allam who had most certainly done her homework and presented her case in a most professional manner without the nervousness which is sometimes apparent at these events.
Five minutes are allowed for speakers but chairman Melvin Seymour said he would be relaxed about the limit as long as it was not extended unreasonably. That is a first in my experience.
Ms. Allam began by reminding everyone that the playground had been on its present site since 1939 and briefly covered the history of the houses in that area, however she soon got down to hard facts.
The playground area suffered ground instability problems which is why it wasn’t built on when the surrounding houses were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. There were dene holes there along with medieval tunnels and chalk mines. Thames Water has confirmed their presence and they mitigate the flood risk.
The Environment Agency has confirmed that the playground site is at medium to high risk of flooding. The playground plays its part in reducing that risk.
The present playground is securely fenced and a safe environment for children, the proposed alternative site is secluded and hidden and potentially more risky and maybe more likely to suffer a similar fate to Lesnes Abbey.
Old Manor Way is more than a playground, it is a community space where everyone can come together and relax. Bexley’s Strategy Report speaks of promoting social cohesion and closing the park would put up yet another barrier to achieving that aim. The council also aims to promote exercise and the outdoor life. Park closure makes both difficult to achieve. The borough’s obesity problem did not go unmentioned. The time allocated for Lauran’s speech was exceeded by no more than a few seconds.
Councillors are allowed 15 minutes for questions and comment. John Davey was the first to speak and made a plea for cabinet member Peter Craske to take the petition fully into account when making his decision; presumably in recognition of the fact that all previous petitions to Bexley council have been ignored.
Councillor Howard Marriner then took what turned out to be the lead role in support of the park which falls within his ward. He said he had just the one point but it was important. It was a reference to the dim and distant past.
He said that the earliest reference to the playground was in 1935 when it was proposed by Crayford Urban District Council’s Open Spaces Committee. Rather than repeat what Howard said it may be easier to show an extract from the minutes of that meeting.
Click image to see more of the 1935 Council Minutes.
A year later the council accepted the land as a gift with a covenant
stipulating that it should remain a playground “for all time”. This, it was noted
by several speakers, is different from ‘in perpetuity’ which is subject to a legal definition and expiry date.
With a final flourish councillor Marriner produced the Deed of Covenant dated 3rd May 1939, “restricting use of the land to that of a Playing Field and Children’s Playground”.
“Our predecessors will be looking down on us now saying don’t you dare change it.”
Council officer Antonia Ainge acknowledged that the subterranean problems had been discovered during her technical studies made following the sale proposal. Councillor Betts appeared to confirm the situation when he said that the house developer was not renowned for giving away good building land. The underground problems will reduce its value.
Councillor Gareth Bacon thought the council should survey the number of people using the park to check Ms. Allam’s assertion that it was well used, the only negative voice to challenge the petitioners.
The chairman acknowledged the efforts of the three ward councillors, Hurt, Marriner and Pallen and it then fell to cabinet member Craske to say his piece.
Craske, as is his way, could not continue without first taking a swipe at someone, this time it was other campaign groups who might want to emulate “the constructive approach” of Ms. Allam and her supporters.
Throwing some cold water in the direction of Ms. Allam, councillor Craske said “if you remove that proposal another one has to be found. It doesn’t solve the problem it just moves the problem somewhere else”.
He then dropped his little bombshell which has been reported already. “The technical evaluation backed up what has been said” and “on that the decision must be based”. He was “wary of on-line petitions“ they can be “signed by people living outside the area. The decision must be based on the technical evaluation” but he had received that report “last Friday and I’m quite happy to say what my decision is going to be”.
The playground was given its reprieve to plentiful applause.
Obviously Bexley council and councillor Craske will make the most of their apparent generosity but a careful study of what was said reveals only too clearly that the petitioners, thoroughly good as their own and councillor backed research was, may not have been the deciding factor in Craske’s decision. It was the technical report specifying what the ground problems were which had persuaded Craske of which way to jump several days earlier.
Bearing in mind what councilor Craske is currently saying in connection with the Splash Park, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Bexley may have become the “Listening council”.