A modified endowment fund is Liverpool's best chance at saving its parks from ruin, according to a report set to be published next month. That conclusion is the result of a two-year strategic review, carried out in the face of devastating funding cuts. Liverpool is forecast to have insufficient money to fund even its statutory services by 2018. Its annual £2.5m parks maintenance budget will be one of the first to disappear.
Anticipating that parks could soon lose all their funding, in 2014 mayor Joe Anderson formed a Strategic Green & Open Spaces Review Board, headed by environmental activist and former Brookside actor Simon O'Brien. The board had two purposes - to work out how Liverpool's parks could be funded and look at where more green space is needed in the city (see box).
The final recommendation has been narrowed down from a wide range of options, outlined in an interim report published in November. It advised two possible courses of action - a £4.50 per head council tax per annum to cover all maintenance costs and the use of development levies to help create green corridors across the city.
However, after feedback from residents and bigger stakeholders, the board has concluded that a combined endowment and income-generating model is the best option. An endowment big enough to fund maintenance for all the city's parks would cost around £100m, which O'Brien said is unrealistic. But he believes if the city's biggest and best parks are put into a trust they could be funded by a more reasonable £20m-£25m.
Those large parks would generate income that would be used over time to draw all Liverpool's other parks and green spaces, large and small, into the trust. Sports grounds, which can raise their own funds relatively easily, are not included in his calculations. The parks would still belong to the council but would eventually all be put into a 999-year lease and protected in perpetuity.
O'Brien has spent the past year attending parks conferences up and down the country, as well as cycling round the city and mapping every one of its green and open spaces. He said he was struck by the fact that the best-quality and most secure parks are held in trust, particularly in Nene Valley and Milton Keynes as well as Healey Park in Sheffield.
Parks trusts must be able to ringfence spaces and protect them from development, he said. "As you get pressure from cash-strapped councils to find money, they look around at their assets and say: 'What do we own and how do we capitalise on it?' There is enormous pressure all over the country to build. In the north it's to find money. In the south it's to find space for housing."
But protection is difficult, he added. "I've seen covenants, deeds of gift, purchases by a corporation on behalf of Liverpool and others - and they aren't worth the paper they're written on. If any council or any institution wishes to sell the assets it owns, no matter how they're given, they can get round it and do it."
Only when the parks are held in a charitable trust do they gain the legal protection they need, said O'Brien. The emphasis now is on talking to groups that could be willing to contribute to an endowment in some way, such as health and water bodies, the council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust.
"The clinical commissioning group is very forward-thinking and we've had very close discussions of how they would buy into the parks trust model," he added. "I'm also having discussions with United Utilities, the water body responsible for making sure storm drains don't flood. They sent me a map of problem areas in Liverpool - clusters where one fix could help out in a lot of spots. Of the 16 areas, 14 traverse a green space."
Parks-based sustainable drainage solutions are far preferable to the utility company than putting storm tanks in urban areas because they are accessible for maintenance and less disruptive to build, O'Brien explained.
While other groups may not able to contribute funds to the endowment they can help in other ways. For example, the University of Liverpool has identified two parks that are strategically important because they are heavily used by students. The university is looking at whether its own maintenance team could tend those parks for free, in return for the benefit of using them as educational facilities for horticulture and wildlife studies.
O'Brien also has plans to ask the Treasury directly for help with the endowment fund. Crucially, he believes only groups with a vested interest in parks, such as health and water bodies, are worth approaching. He has firmly dismissed suggestions that Liverpool could find philanthropists and big companies willing to pay for parks the way they often do in America.
"CSV (corporate social venturing) doesn't exist in this country," he said. "I hate to tell everyone but I have not yet seen in all my travels one single example where a big hitter has stood up to the plate and said 'we'll look after that park'. I don't think that culture exists (here)."
Mayor Anderson, who was re-elected last week, must now convince the rest of the council that the endowment model is the way forward, followed by seeking stakeholder funding. The report is set to be published in early June.
Deprived areas - Green and open spaces review included in local plan
The review board is not only looking for parks funding models. It has also identified areas that need more public green space, with a green and open spaces review included in the city’s local plan.
O’Brien found a serious lack of green space in the more deprived north and east of Liverpool. However, thanks to the city’s economic decline in the 1970s, there is plenty of naturally regenerated brownfield land across Liverpool. O’Brien is now identifying key areas where parks and woodland could be created.
For example, a student alerted O’Brien to a mature birch woodland that has grown up alongside an abandoned railway line. This could easily be made more accessible and made into public woodland.
The head of planning has also been brought on board with the idea of slowly creating a green infrastructure corridor throughout the city, using development levies to build up the network over time.
This corridor has now been included in the city’s draft local plan.