Amenity: Keeping up standards

Lottery-funded parks have to ensure continuing maintenance standards. But will tighter budgets put these in jeopardy?

Oldham's Alexandra Park: received nearly £2.4m from the HLF towards its fund restoration six years ago. Image: HW
Oldham's Alexandra Park: received nearly £2.4m from the HLF towards its fund restoration six years ago. Image: HW

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which marks its 15th anniversary this month, has transformed Britain's parks stock, awarding more than £500m in grants across more than 500 parks.

Key to this funding has been the provision made in all awards that parks should be maintained to agreed standards for 10 years, with the ultimate sanction that funding may have to be repaid if these are not met. Fortunately, this has yet to happen.

But with the ten-year mark approaching for some of the first wave of park restorations - and public spending likely to be squeezed on all sides for some time to come - fears are mounting that maintenance standards at restored parks will slip.

Oldham's Alexandra Park typifies the sort of parks restoration the HLF money has brought about. The 29ha mid-Victorian park, which contains nine listed buildings, received nearly £2.4m to fund restoration six years ago.

But according to Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council head of parks Steve Smith, vigilance has been required since then to keep standards high.

"The park is in tip-top condition," he says. "The landscape hasn't been an issue but there have been a few hiccups with building repair and maintenance. I have had to remind members of their obligation under the management plan that we are signed up to, which is key to the whole thing. It can take the leader of the council to crack a few heads together."

This has more to do with staff turnover than conscious neglect, he says. "Members and officers move on. You need to refresh people's awareness of the plan, otherwise it can sit on the shelf."

Smith would also like to see full audits being carried out as a matter of course as parks reach the 10th anniversary of their restoration. "The danger is that after year 10, the good work could be lost to a change of personnel or a lack of budget," he warns.

"We have a fabulous park in great nick, which should be imprinted on the minds of the people of the town," That alone, he says, should deter any attempt to slacken off on its maintenance.

The London borough of Camden has also benefited from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) cash to restore several of its parks. "We have done very well out of the lottery and it's a great credit to Camden that standards have been maintained," says head of parks and open spaces Shaun Kiddell.

"You have to keep on top of things like vandalism and graffiti, which can be difficult when budgets are under fire. But it's not always about funding - contractor knowledge and monitoring are vital."

One of the borough's most prominent green spaces, Russell Square, was restored seven years ago. "In summer you can't see the grass it's so busy, but increased use also increases the challenge," he says.

The central London square holds a green flag - one of the obligations under more recent lottery awards. "Green flags, particularly where they are retained over a number of years, are an indication that investment is being maintained, though there are some (green flag-awarded parks) you can find fault in," says Kiddell.

But one professional gardener, speaking anonymously, is highly critical of the standards of even some recent HLF-backed green spaces in the capital.

"It's all about the detail. Often parks look threadbare," he says. "Even those restored in the past five years are often falling apart at the seams. I'm desperately disappointed in some of them.

"Lottery money has been thrown at projects, but where is the money to pay for the horticultural skills needed to maintain them? Often the contractors just aren't up to scratch. They cut corners to win bids."

Standards of horticulture and presentation should be benchmarked against the gardens of English Heritage or the National Trust, he believes.

But according to an HLF representative: "It would be extremely short-sighted of a local authority to make a major capital investment in a park restoration and to then withdraw maintenance to let the cycle of decline begin all over again.

"We ask for a 10-year park maintenance and management plan (MMP) but the majority of park restoration contracts are of 25 year duration depending on the project's date and size. Our contract with the grantee requires that our investment is kept in good condition throughout the life of the contract.

"MMPs are supposed to be working documents that are reviewed and updated so we would hope that most parks would continue to review and update their MMPs well beyond the 10-year shelf life."

Although HLF sits on the green flag strategic advisory group, a substantial number of lottery-funded parks do not hold green flags, he says, adding: "We will be focusing on those parks, which will become the focus of mystery shopping visits."

One outcome of the original HLF Urban Parks Programme was the creation of the voluntary Urban Parks Forum, which has since become parks advisory body GreenSpace.

Its chief executive Paul Bramhill is among those concerned for the future of parks maintenance. "There will be huge pressure on budgets," he forecasts. "It hasn't hit yet - the major impact has yet to happen."

When it does, he says: "There will be a need for better engagement with the public. Local authority officers can't campaign, but they can work with friends groups and city-wide forums such as Birmingham Open Spaces Forum, which can campaign on their behalf. And managers will have to look at alternative ways of funding."

Bramhill points to the example of Preston, whose GreenSpace Fund is attempting to leverage funding for parks from the private sector, as a model that other local authorities may be obliged to adopt.

"This has to be seen against the background of declining skills, which we are losing as people retire," he says. "In fact, people might take early retirement if they see that what they have worked towards is likely to be cut. But they will have a role as mentors for younger managers, who will need as much help as possible."

CABE Space is another body with a stake in the success of restored public parks. Director Sarah Gaventa sits on the lottery's advisory board and CABE Space advisers also support some councils seeking HLF funding for parks investment, as well as assisting with developing management plans.

Head of public space Peter Neal, while "very supportive" of HLF assistance for parks, is also worried about their maintenance. "It's a major concern and a recurring one," he laments.

"Capital investment in parks works on a cycle and we want to break that. The problem of lack of investment compounds itself year-on-year - it gets more and more expensive the longer you leave it.

"You have to look at additional resources to address it. A good open space strategy will address both capital and revenue, and remember local friends and user groups who can lobby on your behalf."

CABE has also published advice for parks managers on diversifying funding, which Neal sees as increasingly important. "Councils need to be more ambidextrous, using a cross-section of models to pay for parks," he maintains.

"But if they are going to seek further HLF funding, they must look after what they have already got. Parks are central to communities and we hope the HLF will continue to invest in them. But it would be a disgrace if we got parks up to a high standard and then turned our backs on that investment."

 

USING IT, NOT LOSING IT

The People's Park in Halifax, West Yorkshire, was one of the earliest to benefit from lottery funding, which made up half of the £2.3m that was put into its restoration in 1998.

Key to the continued success of the park, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007, has been a regular stream of events to bring in a diverse public, says Calderdale Council's Mid Valley area manager Peter Oddy.

"The park hosts a variety of events throughout the year. These are really well attended by all Calderdale's communities and have really helped improve community cohesion in the area."

As well as the People's Park Festival in July, the park hosts brass band concerts, a boat race, Easter egg hunt, historical walks and a monthly gardening club.

Oddy adds: "Several local schools use the park for environmental education lessons and also use the allotments to grow produce for school dinners."


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