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Agenda item

Scrutiny Review Witnesses - Garden Class Room & Octupus Network

Minutes:

Marnie Rose, Director of Strategy & New Programmes of The Garden Classroom, and Julie Parish and Anita Gracie of Octopus Network, informed Members of the work carried out by their organisations, its challenges and future plans.

 

During discussion the following main points were made.

 

·         Julie Parish informed the meeting that Octopus Network, a small charity, initially carried out most of its activities in community centres, offering and hosting a range of services and events. Over the years, however, it has expanded into the use of open spaces and parks. Julie Parish welcomed the support provided by the Parks Department.

·         The meeting was informed that Octopus Network had received more than £900,000 external funding over a number of years, which enables it carry out a range of activities across the borough. It supports residents in designing gardens and open spaces, growing food to eat and running workshops in community centres for residents. One of the notable and successful activities is the Environmental Summer Schools, which are run in partnership with Islington Green Space for Children, from ages 5-11, and their families.

·         The “Trail Blazer”, which is run in partnership with Islington Community Hubs Network, aims to create unique living/learning spaces that provide new outdoor learning environments for local communities to develop, design learning activities, manage and enjoy.

·         In response to a question about promoting “Urban Wild Places” in parks, the meeting was advised that, with the support of Islington Parks, Octopus would endeavour to establish an area within the park where wildlife could thrive, so that young children could visit, observe and learn about bees, butterflies, frogs, etc.

·         The Garden Classroom (TGC) comprises volunteers who help deliver high-quality hands-on sessions in green spaces across Islington. TGC works with individuals who have an understanding of outdoor life and have a passion for nature and the outdoors.

·         TGC works in partnership with Islington Council, and other councils, community gardens, schools and businesses, to bring real benefits to the community, which it believes will boost staff morale, and engage client or customer bases. Members were advised that TGC works with schools to deliver its curriculum through outdoor learning in parks and gardens.

·         The meeting was informed that more than 62,000 children had been engaged in various outdoor activities over the years, which accounts for 28.5% of what TGC provides. Since there is a recognition that city dwellers experiencing myriad challenges, such as overdevelopment, pollution and insufficient open spaces, are missing out on outdoor activities, TGC also engages with disadvantaged children and visits schools.

·         Although TGC works with other departments, it currently has a positive working relationship with Public Realm: it helps to deliver more than 200 hours of activities in the Ecological Centre, instead of the 60-70 hours agreed in the service-level agreement.

·         Challenges include lack of shelter and toilet facilities for schoolchildren in the park. Anti-social behaviour and dog fouling is an issue in some of the parks, there is a noticeable decrease in such activities particularly after community engagement in the space.

·         With regard to community engagement of residents on housing estates, the meeting was informed that Urban Wild Places had been able to organise workshops on both the Harvist and Bemerton Estates. Residents had been encouraged to grow their own vegetables and set up garden clubs. The meeting was also informed of the particular success of planting activities on the Andover Estate, but that the commencement of the new-build programmes had resulted in activities being suspended.

·         TGC and Octopus agreed that a Biodiversity Action Plan, together with a budget, would be welcomed and would help to deliver and promote diversity in the borough. In addition, it would be beneficial when funding was sought. In response, the Head of Green Space and Leisure Spaces acknowledged that, although none currently exists, a concise briefing paper that would focus on habitat was currently being drafted.

·         Meeting was advised that the Council’s Nature Conservation Team continues to ensure that Islington has integrated parks. Members were reminded that a balance needs to be struck between residents who prefer well-manicured parks and those who want wild life to be promoted.

·         TGC and Octopus Network continue to welcome the support and recognition of ward councillors since this gives small charities credibility with external funders when applying for financial support.

·         On the criteria for identifying which housing estates to work with, members were informed that organisations work with Community Development Officers and the Housing Communities team to identify where to run activities. The level of support varies from estate to estate because some already have garden clubs in place whereas others look for assistance in setting them up.

·         On the question of longevity and sustainability, both TGC and Octopus acknowledged the future challenges: since their existence as small charities relies on external funding, their model was based on being facilitators.

·         No financial support is provided to community centres or any of their activities, but support would include providing advice about the design of gardens, or planting of seeds to grow food. Members were informed that the essence of any support is to ensure that it provides a living space for its residents to go on and develop their space. In addition, it provides an environment in which skills are cascaded and enables residents to identify areas of interest.

·         Cllr Champion informed the meeting that the Committee would like to enquire further on how the third-party sector engages with hard-to-reach groups, and how it could communicate its projects with these groups at a future meeting.
In response, both TGC and Octopus Network representatives welcomed a visit by the Committee to observe their projects.

The Chair thanked Marnie Rose, Director of Strategy & New Programmes of The Garden Classroom, and Julie Parish and Anita Gracie of Octopus Network, for sharing their experiences with the committee.