Labour said that it would look again at proposed cuts to the council’s rangers after a protest and deputation this afternoon (Tuesday 19 January).
More than 60 rangers volunteers from 13 voluntary groups held a protest outside Portslade Town Hall before a meeting of a council committee.
The number of rangers, who look after wildlife and green spaces, was to be cut from nine to three by Brighton and Hove City Council.
Councillor Gill Mitchell, who chairs the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee, thanked the deputation of Cityparks Rangers volunteers.
At Portslade Town Hall she told Cliff Munn, the retired BT employee who led the deputation: “Unfortunately as most people know the council is being forced to close a £68 million spending gap.”
Councillor Mitchell said that this was due in large part to the government reducing its grant to the council to almost zero.
But she said: “We will look again at these proposals.”
She said that the Labour administration would try to save staff as well as saving money in the council’s budget which is due to be agreed next month.
She praised the collaboration between the rangers and volunteers and added: “We want to build on that collaboration.”
Green spokesman Councillor Pete West applauded the volunteers who took part in the protest before the meeting and said that he supported Mr Munn’s deputation.
The strength of the rangers team was critical to the existence of the voluntary groups, he said, adding: “You don’t go about that by cutting the skills base at the first moment. It’s a most appalling suggestion.”
He added that he had spent four years having officers coming to him suggesting that he cut the rangers service but had always refused.
Conservative councillor Tony Janio said: “My group would like to find the money to save all the rangers.”
He said that the service had been set up by his colleague Councillor Geoffrey Theobald and added: “They leverage so much good.”
Councillor Theobald, now the leader of the opposition Conservative group, said that having introduced the rangers he had a very close affinity with what they do.
“They do need professional assistance and professional direction,” he said, adding: “My party passionately supports the community and voluntary sector.”
Mr Munn told councillors: “Over the last few years we have collectively given time every week to working with Cityparks Rangers in support of the council’s objectives for our city.
“What’s inspired up our deputation today is the news that the council is considering a 60 per cent cut in ranger numbers, effectively reducing their number from nine to three.
“Our objective is to increase your understanding and appreciation of their role, together with the value add they provide.
“I really hope after hearing from us, you will look again at these proposed reductions, which we feel are disproportionate compared to other areas.
“All of us supporting this deputation are long-term and proud city residents. We express this pride by telling friends and family what an amazing place it is.
“My strapline is, ‘we have a fabulous blend of environments – a vibrant city, the sea and easy access to amazing urban and downland green spaces.’
“We really do live in a world-class environment and one now with Unesco Biosphere Reserve status.
“Where else can you jump on a bus in a city centre and in 15 minutes be enjoying internationally important landscapes?
“One of my volunteer roles is as one of our 120-plus conservation grazing sheep ‘lookerers’ (shepherds).
“We’ve been conservation grazing for some years now from Benfield Valley to Beacon Hill – around 20 sites.
“These sites are all within our city boundary and are designated as nationally and internationally important landscapes.
“In terms of biodiversity our city’s chalk downland is as rich as the tropical rain forests.
“As well as these sites being wonderful to visit and enjoy, they are also used as a source of chalk downland wild flower seeds.
“Volunteers are engaged to harvest these seeds and then plant them out on newly created butterfly banks and verges, thus bringing downland flowers and wildlife right into the city.
“One of our sites has even been used as a collection point by the UK Millennium Seedbank for representative chalk downland wild flower seeds.
“All of this grazing and harvesting and planting activity is managed by our nine rangers, supported by us volunteers.
“It’s also been cleverly financed, using English Nature cash rather than council tax income.
“Green spaces don’t look after themselves. There’s a comprehensive strategy to care for them, to improve them and to make them accessible to all – and it’s our rangers that deliver this strategy.
“They can’t physically do it all themselves but they are extremely good at mobilising volunteers like us – and keeping us engaged.
“They also work with local community groups, local businesses and engage resources from Community Payback and South Downs National Park.
“I’m involved with three volunteer groups myself but there are numerous others across our city that the rangers co-ordinate.
“Left alone, most of these groups would probably cease to function. Volunteers need a safe workplace, they can’t afford insurance and don’t have the means to access, repair and store tools or get them to the sites on volunteer days.
“Not only do our rangers ensure volunteer activity is aligned to a strategy, their presence and practical experience is indispensable.
“We are really worried that the proposed 60 per cent cut to this already very small team will have profound consequences.
“For example, if we stop managing our downland spaces, they will over grow, return to scrub and years of investment will be lost.
“We’re concerned too that in a rush to make cutbacks, imaginative ways of making the ranger service more commercial have not been explored. We have considered some ideas.
“Going back to the pride we have in our city, we strongly believe our green spaces are one of the three key ingredients that make Brighton and Hove so special – and that these green spaces are hugely dependent on a small but very effective and dedicated team of rangers, working alongside the community.
“We really hope this committee can find a way forward which will enable them to continue delivering well into the future.”
Before the meeting Councillor Theobald, who introduced the park rangers when he was cabinet member for the environment in 2009, said: “These proposed cuts to the park ranger service are a false economy and threaten all the great work that has been achieved in recent years in terms of conservation and improving the city’s highly valued parks and green spaces.
“We urge the Labour administration to seriously rethink their plans ahead of the budget council meeting next month.”
Councillor Tony Janio, the Tory spokesman on environment, transport and sustainability, said: “Without a properly staffed park ranger service the army of wonderful conservation volunteers that we have in the city will simply not be able to carry on with all the excellent work they currently do, particularly around protecting our internationally important chalk grassland habitat.
“They are one of the main reasons Brighton and Hove managed to secure the prestigious Unesco biosphere status and to put that at risk would be sheer folly.”