Published: 21 January, 2011
by PETER GRUNER
AN award-winning ecology centre is under threat this week in the latest round of cuts.
At least two members of staff at the centre in seven-acre Gillespie Park in Highbury are facing redundancy or redeployment elsewhere in the borough.
A question mark hangs over the future of the centre’s biodiversity officer.
Islington Council hopes that volunteers will replace regular staff but critics fear the cuts will mean Gillespie Park, along with other managed wildlife sites such as Parkland Walk and Barnsbury Wood, will be plagued by drug addicts and people exercising dangerous dogs.
Former Green councillor Katie Dawson said workers at Gillespie Park not only provided an excellent environmental service to the public and schools, but their presence made the park feel safe.
“Gillespie Park is the second biggest green space in Islington,” she added. “But as soon as people feel there is less staff around they will stop going. The more people use the site, the safer it becomes.”
Ms Dawson, who represented Highbury West for four years until last year’s local election, accused the Labour-run council of picking on the easiest targets.
“They can’t pick on the top officers in the council because they are the people councillors meet with to discuss the cuts. How do you look an officer in the eye and say: ‘Sorry mate, your £150,000 job is being cut.’
“It’s easier to go for a park-keeper or an ecology officer or someone on a low salary. But these people actually make an important difference to our lives.”
The Islington Gardeners website has said members are saddened by the proposed cuts.
One member, named only as Sue, wrote: “Many years of experience and expertise in our local natural environment are going to disappear when this handful of people leave.
“The spaces they look after will inevitably become less biodiverse and we as a community will lose knowledge of the borough’s nature.”
Other contributors to the website ask what will happen to the extensive programme of nature education provided for schoolchildren, vulnerable adults and residents.
“It has been shown that it is the most deprived people who benefit most from contact with nature,” one says.
Wildlife enthusiasts are asking who is going to monitor species, essential for any knowledge of the area’s biodiversity. They also wonder who will implement the biodiversity action plan for the borough.
Labour environment chief Councillor Paul Smith said the centre would remain open and manned despite the cuts.
“These cuts are being forced on us by the government,” he added.
“We hope that, whatever happens, the ecology centre will continue its work, although we do hope more members of the community will step forward and offer to help.”