Staff have faced uncertainty over the future of the ranger service for a number of years since Staffordshire County Council announced savings plans. A service “restructure” was taking place in early 2020, but had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now Councillor Sue Woodward has said she would like to see a review of the restructuring process. Her comments were made as the council’s corporate review committee scrutinised the recent Cabinet decision to approve conservation plans for Cannock Chase.
The county ranger service is not part of the proposals put forward by Cannock Chase Special Area of Conservation (SAC), the meeting heard. The aim is to put these measures in place alongside the ranger service however.
Councillor Woodward said the rangers had been busy during the pandemic period.
“They’ve had this threat of redundancy hanging over their head for 12 months now – it’s been so unfair and they’ve also had these extra pressures just down the line”, she added. “Restructure we know often means redundancies. We are not oversupplied with rangers; there are three in the north and six in the south of the county.
“On Cannock Chase we only have three full-time rangers and two part-time rangers. Over this Covid period, certainly during the summer months, they were completely overstretched.
“They undertake a whole range of jobs, from ecological and environmental management to deer management across the whole county. And yet they have been overloaded over recent months by litter picking and policing car parking. No-one has really taken into consideration the role of the ranger service.
“I would ask the question who is going to lead on conservation and education? Who is going to organise the volunteers as they do now on the Chase and Chasewater? Who is going to police the proposals?
“From my perspective it all comes back down to the ranger service which is already massively overstretched. The plans are only as good as their weakest link and it seems to me although we have got a very strong and professional ranger service there is not the capacity to make sure these proposals are delivered.
“There are decades of experience in managing the site and much of that rests with our ranger service. Who is going to do (improved servicing of routes and signposting) unless we bolster our much valued but hard-pressed ranger service over this next period?”
Councillor Charlotte Atkins asked about future plans for the ranger service on Cannock Chase at Thursday’s full council meeting.
She said: “I think they should be at the heart of conservation work, but they are undergoing their fourth restructuring in just seven years. I don’t know how they can maintain their work ethic and morale with the threat of redundancy hanging over them.
“I hope the cabinet member can reassure us that she will be strengthening the ranger service and that the rangers who are so popular with users of Cannock Chase can be secure in their jobs and will get additional support.”
In response Councillor Victoria Wilson, cabinet member for communities and culture, said: “The SAC proposals that have been agreed by cabinet are separately funded, and therefore there are resources within this funding for their delivery.
“In 2016, Rural County committed to MTFS (Medium Term Financial Strategy) savings of £786,000, which were to be spread over a five-year period. To date, £446,160 – 57 per cent of that sum – have been delivered. This has been achieved through the management review, with the remainder being achieved through holding vacancies, halting non-essential spend and deferring duties where possible.
“In 2019/20 a restructure of the service commenced and the consultation was completed in January and February of last year with trade unions and staff. Feedback from the consultation highlighted concerns over capacity, particularly the front line, and the potential impacts this could have on staff safety and welfare.
“In March last year all restructures had to be put on hold due to coronavirus. When the reorganisation resumes the proposals will be revised and informed by the experience and impacts of Covid-19 and the recent feedback by key stakeholders, partners and the wider workforce. This has meant across Families and Communities we have re-profiled the MTFS and the actual saving required of Rural County will now be reduced.
“There were not four restructures in seven years, as was quoted last Friday at the call-in, but there has been uncertainty for that period. They were initially included in discussions for Infrastructure Plus, and since then we have been faced with MTFS pressures – all of which we recognise has been very unsettling for staff.”