Friends up for the fight

Millhouses Park, January 2012: Phil Mellor and daughter Lily (15 mths) on the playground roadway
Millhouses Park, January 2012: Phil Mellor and daughter Lily (15 mths) on the playground roadway

“LOOK at this. And it’s January,” said John Brighton last Sunday.

Dozens of young people on scooters, roller skates and bicycles were rolling around Millhouses Park junior and senior skate parks. Several parents were joining in too.

Millhouses Park, January 2012: Sheffield Ship Model Society members at the boating lake

Millhouses Park, January 2012: Sheffield Ship Model Society members at the boating lake

John is secretary of the Friends of Millhouses Park, who raised £127,000 last year for new facilities in the park. The Friends formed in the 1990s to deal with the “dereliction of the park” at the time, John said. “Gangs, graffiti and glass,” is how he remembers it.

Local people got together to see what could be done. It was, he said wryly, the Big Society but 10 to 20 years ago.

The Friends have since helped transform the park along with the city council, other local groups, and sponsors including the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Viridor Credits, Sheffield Town Trust, the South West Community Assembly and local companies ranging from Cliffhanger and Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative to Pullins Entertainments and the Pudding Ladies Cafe.

There’s now a sensory garden, playgrounds and water play areas, two skate and bike parks, a fish pass round the weirs, an outdoor gym, as well as the boating lake, tennis courts, River Sheaf and more.

“Millhouses Park is now a destination park for the city of Sheffield, like it used to be in the past,” said John.

A Friends’ survey last year found that people travelled to Millhouses along the city’s bus routes, from as far as Tinsley.

Long-term Friends’ plans include improving the Sheaf Valley walking and cycling trail and even pushing for a tram extension to Dore Station, which, said John, could be done with private finance and would improve congestion and pollution across the south-west of the city.

He feels a lot of pride for the achievements at Millhouses but news of the inevitable tightening of the parks section purse strings is on his mind. “If you didn’t know these cuts were coming, I’m afraid you were living in La La Land,” he said.

One problem for the Friends is the maintenance of facilities. Charitable grants for play and recreational areas often only cover capital, not maintenance. “Unfortunately things break, get broken and wear out.”

The Friends have asked the council to make representations on such grant stipulations to the Government but there has been no movement as yet.

Another worry is that the maintenance of parks will suffer as a result of cutbacks. One council suggestion is that a small charge will be made for car parking and money raised will go directly towards maintenance of the park in question.

John accepts this will probably be necessary, as long as the money goes into maintaining the park. He’s worried there will be an effect on local roads and parking on the main road and is worried about danger to the many “mums with toddlers, buggies and dogs” who visit the park and may have to cross between a row of parked cars.

Ken Brothwell, of Sheffield Ship Model Society, is concerned for his members, who provide another of park tourist attractions at the boating lake every week.

“It might drive visitors to park on the main road and that will hit the guys here because a lot of the models are quite big and you need to park here near the lake to bring them in. You can’t bring these here on a bus.”

Many visitors appear to accept a parking charge. An informal Friends’ survey showed a 50/50 split between those who thought the idea reasonable and those who worried about problems on side roads.

“It’s inevitable. It wouldn’t put me off coming here,” said Leanne Taylor-Sturdy, who visits many city park playgrounds with her children. “This park is beautiful, it’s got to such a lovely standard and it would be a shame if the standards started slipping because of lack of resources. I think people would rather pay parking charges than see anything happen to the parks.”

“I feel quite strongly that the Government should be maintaining skate parks and things that children are really into doing rather than complain they’re getting fat and lazy by sitting at their computers all day,” said Emma Welsh, as her son sped up and down on his scooter.

“This is a great park, it is moving with the times and I would pay to use the car park if I thought the paths were being maintained and the park was maybe staffed more.”

John Brighton believes Friends groups are becoming even more important but stressed that the council needs to improve its support and communication. He’s impressed with the current leadership of the council’s parks section but says the Friends of Millhouses Park are often frustrated by delays and communications difficulties with council staff.

Sometimes, he said, “it’s like dragging a dead elephant up a mountain”.

Paul Billington, the council’s director of environment and culture, said: “Friends groups play a major part in regenerating parks and their contribution is invaluable. We’re now looking at how we can work together to face up to the major budget reductions over the coming years.”

The unelephantine Mr Billington added that with over 80 groups across the city, the council can’t always respond with a ‘yes’ to requests. “However, we’re working hard to make sure that once we’ve agreed we’ll do something, we sort things as quickly as possible.”

There are effective Friends groups in all parts of Sheffield, John said, and as long as they’re supported by the council, there may even be positive community benefits as locals get more involved in their parks. “You can either sit down at the side and cry or get in there and fight,” he said.

lIn search of new buds: page 12.