The Level

The Argus :

There are 2 avenues of trees which, running from North to South, border the full length of Brighton’s Level. Pigeons, blackbirds and increasing numbers of doves, nest and feed there, unmolested.

The rest of the Level was once as pleasant, but no longer. When my husband suggests we walk the dog or run there, I can raise no enthusiasm.

We used to take our daughter to the Level when she was little. She splashed in the paddling pool, made sandcastles in the sandpit and when she was a little older played on the climbing frame. But, even then it was unsafe and over the years has become far worse.

As time has passed, graffiti has covered every surface, while the open spaces intended for young children are dominated by older teenage and adult males.

Now, it seems, the Council is growing increasingly concerned about safety on the Level. The Argus reported last week that neighbours have complained of the area “becoming a haven for drug addicts and alcoholics” alleging it is “littered with needles”.

Recently, serious threats were made against park attendants who were subsequently recalled by Brighton & Hove Council. They were reinstated, but only once the Police had committed 2 police community support officers (PCSOs) to safeguard them.

In the late 1980s, when I was a very new Brighton Borough councillor, I remember getting into trouble with colleagues when, with others, I voted against a council proposal to cut Parks Police.

Those who protested were told that budgets were stretched and that anyway the day of the old-fashioned parks police was over. New mobile ‘countryside rangers’ would replace the parks police and would do a better and more efficient job for our open spaces.

We argued parks would deteriorate and safety inevitably be compromised. Council could, we said, afford to retain these relatively low paid posts if it avoided implementation of or scaled down other more fashionable initiatives.

In the event, we lost the argument and the vote. Countryside rangers were appointed and still flourish, mostly in Brighton’s rural parks – maintaining paths and equipment and engaging in educational and community activities.

Five mobile urban rangers now oversee all Brighton and Hove’s inner city parks with 2 park attendants, 1 for Queens Park and the other – working in summer months only – for the Level.

I spoke with a long serving senior manager within the City Parks department, who recalled that in the 1970s, the old Brighton Borough Council employed between 20 – 25 parks police. In his view the worst cuts in the service resulted from the then Government’s policy of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT), introduced with a view to privatising what had hitherto been public municipal services.

He is right. The major damage to services was done by CCT. But the fact remains that, in Brighton & Hove, the process of cutting manual and developing professional posts began before CCT was introduced and has outlasted it.

The Council has expanded ‘progressive’ white collar and professional jobs – an example in this context fraught with irony is the Community Safety Unit – while at the same time contracting traditional manual posts likely to preserve safety and good order in public services.

In the past there was a culture of respect for “the Parkie”. Generally, park keepers were older experienced staff who knew the byelaws, their parks and generations of families who used them.

They had the personal authority to move unaccompanied adults from areas where children congregated and could and did prevent teenagers from bullying smaller children.

Now, however, the situation is different. Mobile, and in some cases temporary, staff have little local knowledge and less authority. They are likely to act inconsistently and cannot easily be held accountable.

The manager to whom I spoke complained that a culture of disrespect for rules and byelaws had developed within which it had become, he said “increasingly difficult to enforce rules and byelaws”.

Without the support of a park keeper, gardening staff are now forbidden to confront even relatively minor breaches of the rules. Consequently, in places such as Preston Park, they watch impotently as bowling greens they have lovingly tended are damaged by young men who now regularly use them as football pitches.

A series of poor decisions in respect of the Level has made the situation there even worse than in other parks. It did great damage to build a skateboard park inside a designated children’s play area.

The development would have made perfect sense if it had been earmarked for the use of younger children wishing to learn to skateboard or cycle. However, no age restrictions were put in place.

This is despite the fact that a little-known byelaw exists banning people over 15 from the children’s play area on the Level – unless they accompany a child.

As a consequence, the skateboard area has become the exclusive domain of older boys and significant numbers of young men, some in their early twenties. It has become a ‘no go’ area for females and young children, and to a great extent has driven away elderly people who traditionally sat in the adjacent Rose Walk. The noise is often overwhelming.

There is no doubt that some adult skateboarders have conducted themselves responsibly. However, many have not. Over the past few years I have witnessed young men breaking down the hedge, skating through and by the children’s paddling-pool, using the adjacent children’s lavatories, drinking alcohol, swearing at and bullying children, yelling obscenities, scrawling graffiti on children’s play equipment, twisting up the swings so children of an appropriate age cannot reach them, harassing young women, and smoking cannabis and cigarettes near children.

Protests have seemed of little avail. Councillors and officials who are well aware of the byelaw restricting older people from the area choose to ignore it, preferring to accommodate the needs of older and adult skateboarders before those of families with young children who have little option but to use their local park.

In a similar fashion officials and elected members have equivocated about the graffiti which scars the area, refusing to effectively challenge so-called ‘graffiti artists’ who encourage and carry out illegal tagging. They will not admit that the explosion of graffiti in the play area and beyond is linked to and has been given cultural legitimacy by the presence of older skateboarders.

In this atmosphere of disorder it is hardly surprising that abusive behaviour on the Level has become more widespread. Or that it is now being used by addicts and alcoholics displaced by the public drinking bans in adjacent areas and attracted by the many drugs outlets in the London Road area.

It is equally unsurprising that for many years now unaccompanied paedophiles have been able to sit with impunity watching children wading in the paddling pool.

My husband and I admitted defeat and stopped visiting the Level for pleasure some 7 years ago. Every visit was marred by observed abuses or our own attempts to control them. Park attendants seemed never to be there or if they were appeared unable or unwilling to challenge abusive behaviour.

Over the years our frequent protests to councillors and officials were met by a refusal to accept that the dangers were as great as they were. The constant refrain was that there were “plans afoot” to improve matters.

It is the council’s responsibility – not that of the police – to ensure good order in parks. Yet for many years the Council’s strategy appears to have relied on police input and landscaping. There currently no plans to expand the numbers of park attendants. And yet this is essential if our parks are ever to be safe.

We need to demand of the Council that it enforce the age restriction, move the skateboard park to a more appropriate site (or restrict its use to younger children), consult with young children and their parents about the kind of equipment and service they want and – above all – , reinstate a full park keeping service, in all our parks.

In years to come I want to sit with the other pensioners in the sun on the Rose Walk and listen to the laughter of children – not the cursing of drunks and the banging of skateboards. Surely this is not too much to ask.

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