Following the fiasco of the skate area which was erected and as quickly closed down at Aristotle Lane Recreation Ground (see Wrecking the Rec), Oxford City Council conducted a further survey as to what local people wanted for the Rec. Most wanted the same as they had wanted originally – for the field to be drained, some benches and some kick-about goals. The drainage was estimated to cost abut £50,000 (i.e. the same as had been thrown away on the skate area). Benches cost about £300 each, as does a kickabout goal.
Given the age of the existing equipment, it made sense to make incremental improvements or additions to the play equipment (on top of the goal and climbing frame provided in 2004), but I do not think that there was any serious demand for anything extravagant. Most local people would be content to have the drainage sorted out, particularly as fourteen other parks and play areas in Oxford are under threat for want of money to renovate them.
There is, however, a sort of dance which goes on between officers and residents when such questions arise. Officers encourage people to say what they would like. Residents scent that there is money about and start asking for things, throwing ideas around in response to the officers’ questioning. In no time, there appears to crystallise a set of demands which a council officer can reduce to a priority list. Councillors get the impression that votes may turn on meeting the requests. An artificially-generated demand becomes a politician’s goal.
Council officers do not much go for incremental improvement. Like routine maintenance, it is dull, routine stuff. They like spending money on projects, especially ones which look good on their CVs and give them the illusion that they are important. There was money available from funds contributed by developers which must be committed by October 2007 and must be spent in the area. Aristotle Lane and Jericho were earmarked as the beneficiaries of this largesse.
The officers looked around to make a project out of Aristotle Lane. The Agenda for the meeting of the North Area Committee for 5 July includes an item called “Aristotle Lane Recreation Ground improvements and funding”. The report behind that item recites the alleged outcome of the survey into user wishes – I say “alleged” partly because of the falsification of the outcome of the last such survey and partly because of the upward spiral of artificially-induced demand described above.
The budget summary at the end of the document includes the benches and kick-about goals at a total cost of £2,200. Six other pieces of equipment (why do we need six for God’s sake? – this is a small recreation ground not a bloody theme park) come to £44,800. Some fencing is £5,000 and there is £3,000 contingency, a total of £52,800. Oh yes, I nearly forgot to mention – £47,000 for a street sports site. The grand total is £102,000.
A street sports site is a hard area of tarmac on to which people can bring, inter alia, skate boards. Less than four years after having to demolish a skate area here and throw away £50,000, a council officer proposes to put down a skate area at a cost of £47,000.
This web site is not, in general, very tolerant of genus bureaucraticus, particularly the Oxford variety penpusherus vulgaris oxoniensis. This takes the biscuit though, doesn’t it?
It is not just the stupidity inherent in the proposal to repeat exactly the mistake made last time, nor is it just the pure waste of money simply because it is there – stupidity and waste are common defects of Oxford’s bureaucrats. It is the clumsy deception which offends me. Apart from a side reference to providing “more hard standing” there is no mention of a street sports site in the body of the report. It just turns up unexplained as the biggest item by far in the budget. The officer responsible is the same one who produced the false analysis of the 2001 survey which gave the councillor the lever he needed to dump the skate area here.
I will rattle quickly through the objections on top of the dishonesty of the recommendation:
There is no demand for any but a fraction of this equipment save for one artificially whipped up by council officers.
The Rec presently gives much pleasure – as the report acknowledges in terms – to a large number of people, so does not appear to need much enhancement.
That pleasure is spread through all age groups. One of the worst effects of the skate area was that non-users were driven out by the skating demographic, many of whom came from out of the area. A street sports area will do the same.
Grass is at a premium here. We are extremely lucky to have a safe area of plain grass which costs little to maintain and adapts to multiple uses.
The proposed equipment apart from the street sports site is excessive both as to cost and as to quantity – every piece removes more of the grass which is highly valued. It also costs money to maintain.
The noise and other implications of the street sport site will be identical to those experienced last time. The council will be in breach of a promise made to the Ombudsman not to build a similar facility here again.
The last incident caused a very deep breach of trust between local residents and the council. One consequence is that very few people bother to take part in consultations because they are bound to be conducted fraudulently and peoples’ true wishes ignored. This report, and particularly the underhand way in which the most objectionable feature is introduced, will reopen that mistrust.
That so much money should be spent on prosperous North Oxford whilst play areas are under threat of being closed elsewhere for want of funds is calculated to cause deep divisions, both social and political.
This proposal must be rejected. The officer should be sacked.