‘Gross overspend’ on Long Melford park criticised by councillor

Long Melford Open Spaces volunteers at work planting trees in the country park.

Long Melford Open Spaces volunteers at work planting trees in the country park. - Credit: Archant

A village park which the county council gifted to the local community three years ago has so far cost ratepayers £42,000 to maintain, it has been claimed.

Because of budget cuts, Suffolk County Council transferred ownership of the former Rodbridge picnic site and Rail Walk in Long Melford back to the village in May 2012.

It was renamed Long Melford Country Park and a volunteer group – Long Melford Open Spaces (LMOS) – was set up to manage it on behalf of the parish council, which took on the lease.

Management of the park has been a bone of contention between some parish councillors and wildlife enthusiasts who believe the site – which is a listed nature reserve – should be managed less intrusively to provide a habitat for native wildlife.

The original budget for the park was £5,000 per year over the first three years, but figures obtained by parish councillor Richard Michette show that £28,000 was spent between April 2012 and August 2014.

In addition, the county council gave £12,000 transitional funding to LMOS and the local county councillor contributed £2,000 from his locality budget.

Mr Michette said: “There has clearly been a gross overspend on the park, which amounts to each ratepayer in the village paying out £17 per year – or 19% of the parish precept.

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“This is compounded by the fact that although the majority of the parish councillors – including myself – support the volunteers, we are concerned that the management and guidance from the LMOS directors is not compatible with the requirements of the lease held by the parish council and Government legislation regarding the management of local nature reserves.”

Mr Michette said he had been “personally attacked” at parish council meetings and accused of trying to destroy LMOS. But he added: “That is not the case. I recognise that we need volunteers to run and manage these things. All I am asking is that they do the job properly and with the right guidance.”

Long Melford Parish Council chairman, Peter Turner, said the council was seeking expert advice to see if it could reduce costs and generate income from the park.

He said: “I have said publicly on many occasions that with the benefit of hindsight the parish council could have secured a more favourable financial settlement from Suffolk County Council when we assumed responsibility for both the country park and rail walk.

“At the time the county council seemed determined to divest itself of many community facilities and many villagers did not want to see us lose these valuable resources.

“There will of course be some costs that we cannot avoid and most importantly with public access we have to ensure the sites are as safe as they can be.”

The parish council has asked Suffolk Wildlife Trust to act as a ‘critical friend’ to comment and advise on the management of both sites.