Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
The "transition guy"
He sees himself as a ‘transition guy', grounded in the old tradition and yet able to hold his own in the brave new world of local authorities post-1974. While at Lancashire, he had been introduced to the technique of Work Study, imported to the public sector from industry, which taught him about management by objectives.
The introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) in 1988, which aimed to force down costs by making the council's own workforce compete for work with external contractors, was another threat to the quality of parks. The focus on routine maintenance undermined the long-term vision needed to keep parks in peak condition.
At this point, Alan discovered Quality Assurance, another technique which, like Work Study, had been developed in industry and made its way into the public sector. He organised a quality management system for Bristol parks that helped with the introduction of CCT.
Putting the emphasis on parks as places for people, Alan also forged links with the Civic Society and Avon Wildlife Trust, encouraged Friends groups and greatly increased the number of events taking place in the city's parks. Under him, the council was the first in the country to appoint a community initiatives officer to encourage volunteer involvement.
Despite these achievements, the battle for adequate funding for parks was never-ending. The crunch for Alan came over a programme for the management of Bristol's 300 hectares of ageing urban woodland, which included the woodland gorge of the Blaise Castle Estate. A detailed 20-year plan, developed by a number of experts over the previous five years, was put to a meeting of the council.
Unfortunately, the council was being forced to make cuts, and axing the entire woodland initiative allowed them to shave £150,000 off the budget at a stroke with the loss of just five jobs.
‘To find that all that could be scuppered in a night was heart-breaking,' says Alan grimly. ‘The debate raged for hours, but I was powerless. I got home at 10pm and I was still crying at 2am.'
Nonetheless, Alan doesn't blame local politicians for their savagery: ‘Their backs were against the wall and they had to cut budgets,' he says simply. ‘At the end of the day it's the system that's wrong. Whitehall controls what local authorities do: they don't have a proper taxation base. Parks are very vulnerable because they're not a statutory service. When councils are under pressure, they claw back money from things like leisure and recreation.'