Staffordshire County Council this week released Part 2 of its countryside estate review for consideration by the Prosperous Staffordshire Scrutiny Committee next Tuesday (24th May)

Following on from its decision to remove sale as an option for parts of the Countryside Estate after public condemnation throughout 2015 Staffordshire County Council have now released further information regarding the outcome of the consultation and the decision process ahead.

Some key points from the papers

  • The petition of nearly 12,000 people to oppose the sale or privatisation of Green Spaces in Staffordshire is misrepresented and dismissed as only 7,000 against the sale of Cannock Chase because only 555 people responding to their consultation. There is no reference to the full council debate and unanimous named vote to accept the petition.
  • Option A (to remain with the County Council) is overwhelmingly supported by the respondents with 77% agreeing or strongly agreeing, whilst the options the council are proceeding with for ALL sites are Option C (to establish partnership of landowners) and Option B (Transfer of management site by site) are the least supported options at 24% and 37%.
  • In the section on legal issues and key risks it clearly states “This may involve the transfer of County Assets (but not land) to an organisation…” It is not clear what these assets are.
  • The cabinet member wants delegated responsibility to make decisions on the final management proposals, unless there is significant change or impact on the public or the level of service, the criteria for this is not discussed.
  • There will be further public engagement on a site by site basis
  • 50 (Full Time Equivalent) staff will be affected by the proposals
  • Rights of way and path maintenance is not covered at all

Yet again we have to wait for the next stage for more specific details to emerge. Whilst we welcome the decision last year not to sell our Countryside in response to our campaign the devil remains in the detail which we are yet to see.

It is disappointing that we have a clear statement of support for the council to retain the management of the countryside estate which is just ignored in an attempt to push through a pre-determined course of action, ‘if we can’t sell it we will get volunteers to run it’. It is a flawed strategy delivered without imagination or the interests of Staffordshire residents

Again we have more questions than answers. Beyond the statement to drive all management to a partnership of landowners or transfer of management there is a continued lack of clarity on the details for any proposal. The priorities for each site in terms of both public amenity and ecological conservation are not explained in sufficient detail to facilitate accurate appraisal of the progress being made and this, accompanied by a preference for the cabinet member to be trusted with all decisions, is a worrying development in the face of such widespread public interest.

We seek to understand, as stated, which assets might be sold? What is the criteria for referral of decision making for oversight? To what extent will private organisations take on the partnership role? When will we see any kind of independent community impact assessment? Why have the council ignored the public desire to retain management in favour of other options not supported by the residents of Staffordshire? What is the emphasis for the scoring of the evaluation criteria for procurement options? How will public engagement proceed on a site-by-site basis? These and more questions will be asked of council leaders at the scrutiny committee next week.

Staffordshire County Council are considering options to change the management or ownership of up to 6000 acres of our Countryside across 18 locations in the County including beloved areas including Cannock Chase, Chasewater including Norton Bog and Apedale Community Country Park as well as many locally important picnic sites and similar. Options initially included the private sale and private management as well as industrial or commercial development or transfer to local community/third sector groups.

Campaigners have been working hard to raise the profile of this issue and are supported by over 11,700 signatories calling to ensure private business plays no part in the sale or management of the Countryside estate. This has been supported by a walk along the Cannock Chase Heritage Trail, a direct petition signing and promotion event weekend at each of the Country Parks under threat, a Thunderclap message to all councillors on the council scrutiny committee and a strong presence at the meeting in September as well as the cabinet meeting in October.

The petition ran for six months was presented to councillors to accept as part of their consultation in to the future of the Countryside. Whilst there have been repeated statements from council leaders that Cannock Chase would not be sold the fate of three small areas in the county was handed over to the Council’s Penda partnership to facilitate their sale. The sale option was removed from the consultation following earlier pressure from the campaign.

The date this is considered at Scrutiny is Tuesday 24th May, 10am at the County Buildings in Stafford. Again this is a meeting in public.

Full council papers

Medium Term Financial Strategy

The four options under consideration are:

A: Maintain council ownership and seek opportunities to increase income from existing sites by working with volunteers, community, third sector and private parties;

B: Transfer management on a site-by-site basis to local community or voluntary sector groups, such as parish councils;

C: Establish a partnership of landowners to manage all green spaces in a particular area;

D: Establish a not-for-profit trading company to run and develop parts of the estate.