Response from Friends of Westminster Park
The Friends of Westminster Park would like to offer the following contribution to public consultation regarding Brio Leisure and the recreation and leisure facilities provided or supervised by Cheshire West and Chester Council.
The Friends of Westminster Park were formed in 2001 and comprise representatives from all the main sports and recreation groups that meet in Westminster Park, local residents associations, and … private residents who pay an individual subscription. A full list is attached. Through these contacts, the Friends are in close touch with a wide range of interests and views of local residents and users of the park.
Westminster Park is a widely appreciated community outdoor recreational facility and is busy throughout the year especially at weekends, during school and public holidays, and in fine weather. It offers a wide range of organized and informal activities for all sections and age groups in the community and attracts many visitors.
The Friends of Westminster Park have actively supported many improvement projects over the years and have helped with obtaining substantial external funding. Since the Friends were formed over £1m has been spent on upgrading facilities and the generally high standard of the park has been recognized by successive Green Flag awards since 2009.
There is a high level of voluntary involvement by members of the local community through the various clubs and groups that meet in the park and there is scope for greater public participation if more activities can be suitably defined and structured. For example, there is no golf club or focal point for golf players such as can be found at the successful municipal golf course at Walton Hall in Warrington. Other possibilities are dedicated clubs for the BMX track, outdoor gym, and perhaps basketball or volleyball and hockey. The Friends have been and will continue to be active in organizing volunteer working parties for ad hoc tasks from time to time such as bulb and tree planting, making and installing bird boxes, and helping with park family fun days.
At various times the Friends have expressed willingness to participate more fully in direct management of the park but there has never been any constructive response when this has been raised. However, because of the size and nature of the park, voluntary participation is unlikely ever to extend to assuming full financial and management responsibility for the park and undertaking regular park maintenance and repairs to physical assets. The view of the Friends is that the park is essentially a major municipal facility shared by many sections of the community and has to be funded and managed as a single entity. This has not been the case for some time and responsibilities have been fragmented between several council departments (Greenspace, Streetscene, Property Services, Regulatory Services, Legal Services and probably others as well) and quasi independent entities (CADSART and Brio). The is no overall budget, no unified process for determining options and priorities, and no systematic framework for setting targets, managing tasks and monitoring progress. As a result, much the same list of issues rolls over from year to year and, where new external possibilities have been identified, for example, a new putting green, running the golf course or developing the café, they have been lost in a seemingly interminable rounds of council reorganizations and strategy reviews.
The Friends have heard from council officials on many occasions the desire for greater community participation in managing local facilities in the context of continuing constraints on public funding. The Friends are sympathetic to these issues and are willing to consider what possibilities might be feasible. However, unless and until the council are able to offer relevant data and models for consideration or are prepared to engage in exploratory discussions when the Friends put forward their thoughts, there is unlikely to be any progress.
When Brio Leisure was formed as a community interest company by Cheshire West and Chester Council in 2011, it assumed responsibility for running the nine hole golf course (but not maintaining it which remained the responsibility of Streetscene) and the café (but not the building which remained the responsibility of Property Services or the public toilets and changing room area).
For several years the Friends have been concerned about the deteriorating state and poor usage of the golf course, the very narrow and unimaginative offering of food and refreshments at the café, and the poor state of the public toilets. The Friends’ view has been that Westminster Park would benefit from the creation of an active and enterprising golf club along the lines of the other successful sports clubs in Westminster Park and that the central café building is capable of being developed into a much more attractive and popular focal point in the park. At the same time, the Friends have felt that if these facilities are allowed to decline any further, the point will be reached sooner rather than later when both facilities become unviable and at risk of closure in the face of continuing constraints on local government spending.
Despite initially positive intentions when Brio assumed responsibility for the golf course and café, it has been a matter of considerable disappointment that there have been no improvements in the quality and attractiveness of the golf course, no initiatives in promoting public participation and membership through fostering an active golf club with local competitions and coaching, and no improvements in the range of food and refreshments on offer at the café. Day to day service has been perfunctory and anything but friendly and welcoming. The contrast with other active and thriving organisations is Westminster Park is striking. In addition, Brio have shown no interest in co-operating with other aspects of park management such as collecting fees from the public tennis courts or potential new developments such as a putting green or supervising the public toilets which the public inevitably and rightly regard as being part of the central hub of the park.
Sadly, it has become increasingly evident that Brio have no real interest or commitment in the Westminster Park aspects of their activities and it is desirable to find an alternative and more promising way forward as soon as possible in order to avoid further deterioration.
The Friends are aware that a ‘soft marketing’ exercise has been undertaken by the Wirral and Cheshire West and Chester Councils for their eight municipal golf courses including Westminster Park. The outcome of that exercise is not known but present arrangements with Brio are clearly unsatisfactory.
Immediate issues which have been outstanding for some time include the following:
The golf tees are in very poor condition and signage and measurements of distances to holes are seriously deficient
Gaps in the perimeter hedging around the golf course have not been filled and this has been exploited by users to obtain access without paying course fees
The present physical configuration of the golf service counter and café means that there is no view or oversight of the golf course and people playing on it.
Maintenance of the golf course is determined and managed entirely separately (by Streetscene) from issuing tickets for play (by Brio). The golf course is not seen or managed as a holist whole and there is no focal point of interest in developing a golf club with its own competitions and coaching to attract and encourage local players
The central café block is in a poor state of repair with leaks in the roof and catering facilities that do not meet standards for environmental health. These deficiencies have been allowed to emerge while the facilities have been in council ownership and any potential arrangements with new third parties must take a realistic view of the state of the assets and not set unreasonable expectations for financial contributions and leasing terms on the part of potential new operators.
Based on information and local knowledge and judgements available so far, the views of the Friends may be summarized as follows:
The best prospect for Westminster Park is that it is managed as a single, integrated entity with a dedicated management and budget and that it actively fosters the creation and development of sports and recreation clubs based in the park which can engage more voluntary participation through membership drawn from the local community and can have access to dedicated funding from relevant regional and national sports associations.
A more assured future for the golf course is likely to involve strong local participation and the formation of an active and enterprising golf club comparable to other sports clubs in the park.
The Friends are aware of at least two local expressions of interest in this area and these should be pursued as an immediate priority rather than waiting another year for the outcome of a renewed contract with Brio Leisure or a composite solution involving all eight local municipal golf courses.
With regard to the central café block, there is considerable scope for developing the café as a more attractive and popular venue offering a much wider range of food and refreshments and a more congenial meeting place for visitors to the park.
As with the golf course, the café is likely to benefit from strong local participation and canvassing third party interest should be pursued without delay.
Combining the golf course and café within a single within a single out-sourcing framework, as has been the case with Brio Leisure, is unlikely to be successful as the focus, skills and experience that are needed are fundamentally different.
The central café block forms the physical hub of the park and careful thought needs to be given as to how the café might operate in relation to other central functions such as first aid for accidents (several of which have happened on the BMX track), supervision of the public toilets and collecting fees from users of the golf course, public tennis courts and a potential new putting course.
When Brio Leisure was formed it took on a rag-bag of activities from Cheshire West and Chester Council in addition to the main flagship leisure centres. Starting from scratch, it was understandable that Brio would need time to assess what facilities they had acquired and to draw up credible plans for how they would be managed and developed. That stage is now passed and any future contract with Brio should be tested for realistic business plans for those assets that Brio may continue to manage so that marginal activities, as they may regard them, such as Westminster Park, are not allowed to drop off the edge in a renewed contract.
Sadly, Brio’s involvement in Westminster Park has been a huge disappointment as none of the initial expectations have materialized.
As it seems unlikely Brio will wish to continue with their involvement, no further time should be lost in pursuing other credible candidates to operate the golf course and café who have already registered an interest and any others that might be forthcoming.
If the council is serious in looking for greater local participation in running and developing community facilities such as Westminster Park, it must start to engage in a constructive way with relevant local organisations and be ready to define and explore potential models for organisational structure and funding.
David Guyton / Norman Trott
Chairman / Secretary
27 August 2014
Friends of Westminster Park
Sports & Recreation Groups in Westminster Park
Chester Croquet Club
Chester Road Runners
Glan Aber Tennis Club
Westminster Park Bowls Club
Westminster Park Cricket Club
Westminster Park Junior Football Club
Westminster Park Walking Group
Local Residents Associations
Curzon Park Residents Association
Hough Green Residents Association
Kensington Green Residents Association
Westminster Park Residents Association
Private residents who pay an individual subscription