SUPPORTERS of Dunorlan Park are waiting to hear who will run the volunteer workforce who make a vital contribution to its maintainance.
The concerns have been aired following the retirement of the park’s Head Gardener Tony Ewins after 13 years.
Mr Ewins stood down from the role last month. During his tenure the grounds were significantly upgraded and won numerous awards.
But perhaps his greatest achievement was to grow and nurture a team of volunteers to help him – and enrich their own lives in the process.
The anxiety stems from the potential decline of the much-loved attraction – and also what happens to the volunteers, most of whom come from vulnerable backgrounds.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has confirmed that the contractor Sodexo will be providing a replacement for Mr Ewins.
However, the services provider has said that it will not be able to help with the voluntary arrangements, leaving the future of these long-term helpers in doubt.
The Dunorlan Park assistants include neighbouring Oakley School on Pembury Road, which supports children with severe special educational needs.
Help has also come from members of Crossways Community, a charity in the town that provides residential care for adults with acute mental health issues.
Mr Ewins also liaised with the Kent High Weald Partnership (KHWP) based in Cranbrook, which is part-funded by the council.
They would identify the more strenuous projects which would require KHWP’s expertise, such as coppicing and bank revetement at the lake.
Task Days are identified in the calendar when this work can be carried out, but it is only a few days every year and does not cover the more menial tasks.
Mr Ewins arrived at Dunorlan in 2004 after working at Sheffield Park in East Sussex. In his time there the park won a Green Flag award, a Heritage grant and a Britain in Bloom accolade.
Upon his retirement he was presented with a specially commissioned portrait of the park painted by local artist Elaine Gill.
“The volunteers who work in the park are very important”
The new Chairman of the Friends of Dunorlan Park (FODP), Peter Russell, said of the volunteer group: “It’s something that Tony has supervised and been very good at.
“There were two levels; he gently supervises the guys who are happy to go in to work. But he also looks after the boys from Oakley School who need close supervision – for example they are not allowed to go near the lake.”
Mr Russell added: “In the short term, a member of the council will be present in the park one morning per week to manage the team of volunteers who are so valuable in helping to maintain it.”
But he warned: “Sodexo told us the volunteering was something that Tony took on in his own right. They said it was not part of their contract and it would need renegotiating.”
Ironically, ‘the world’s largest services company’ held a Volunteer Week from June 1-7, in which it ‘offered 500 volunteering opportunities across the UK throughout this summer’.
Cllr Jane March, the council’s Cabinet member with responsibility for Tourism, Leisure and Economic Development, said: “The volunteers who work in the park are very important but it is correct to say they are not the contractor’s responsibility.
“We are now looking at how we can continue to work with them for the ongoing benefit of the park.”
Regarding Mr Ewins’ replacement, she explained: “The position of head gardener was a requirement of the Heritage Lottery Fund project which TWBC stopped receiving funding for some years ago.
“While we don’t have influence regarding Tony’s replacement, we do have contractual expectations [with Sodexo] and we will make sure these are met.”
Outgoing FODP Chair Diana Lamb commented: “Sodexo have advised that it is not in their contract to ‘fund’ the organisation and supervision of volunteers.
“Therefore the replacement will not responsible for this vital element of our park’s management. The Friends are not optimistic about the outcome.”