One of the last acts of the parks advisory body CABE Space, which is due to be wound up at the end of March, has been to publish a guide for parks managers on how to maintain their parks through the public spending squeeze now underway.
Local authorities receive an average of 53 per cent of funding from central Government, though the figure varies widely, and this component is likely to fall by at least a third over the next four years, according to the New Local Government Network (NLGN). Parks, being a non-statutory service, look particularly vulnerable and are listed by the NLGN among the services most at risk.
Parks consultant Sid Sullivan sat on the working group that developed the CABE Space guide recommendations. "There are harder times to come. There is a lag of a year to 18 months between revival in the private sector and more spending available in the public sector," he says. "It's not so bad now but the 2012-13 settlement will be horrible. Parks will have to justify and defend their patches."
The CABE guide, Managing Green Spaces: Seven Ingredients for Success, is aimed squarely at green space managers, corporate decision makers and advisers going through the process of deciding on the future of service provision right now. "Councils are testing different approaches to managing and financing public spaces. In many cases, service delivery will be radically restructured as a result," the guide's author notes.
Some of CABE Space's recommendations will be unsurprising, although they will be welcomed by some managers as objective evidence of what they have long suspected. "What matters is the strength of leadership - you have to get that right," says Sullivan. "Some departments will be moved, but what we found at CABE was that it doesn't matter where in the councils you are located."
With one exception. "Green space services are at risk of being neglected when part of a larger waste department," the report states. "Priorities and resources can be diverted because waste is a significant statutory responsibility for the local authority."
According to Sullivan: "'Streetscene' departments are largely concerned with waste disposal and are always looking to save - parks won't survive there. You get a lowest common denominator service from staff without skills or interest in horticulture."
He adds that having access to senior policy makers and budget holders ensures parks' case gets a fair hearing. "In deeper, more hierarchical structures, the green space service may end up buried," he says.
Such a case can be strengthened in two ways - collating hard data on park use and demonstrating the role of green space in the wider policy agenda. "Active partnership working is fundamental to success," says the report. "It is not just about internal partnerships. This is about ensuring that the green space service's delivery objectives are met with partners from national and local agencies and friends groups. Delivery in partnership with communities is critical."
As Sullivan puts it: "Parks will have less autonomy and will have to ally with other people with whom they may otherwise be in competition. But other sectors manage that okay." This draws on skills that may go beyond those traditionally associated with parks managers, he adds. "There are people with a range of backgrounds coming through in parks management. And a gap analysis can show you if you have the right skills at the right level. For example, you don't need marketing skills right at the top."
Commercial skills will be key to boosting parks' capacity to generate revenue. "The island of Guernsey manages to sell services such as landscaping directly to the public, where they compete directly with the private sector," says Sullivan. "They have just taken on three new apprentices."
This capacity will affect their appeal to other potential partners as the option of asset transfer becomes more attractive, he adds. "The better parks - those that can generate income from events - will be in demand among trusts and stakeholder groups," says Sullivan. "But there will always be spaces that councils have to manage - ones that don't inspire people to get involved but contribute to neighbourhoods."
Sullivan is currently collating a list of trusts with an interest in green space and hopes to provide a matchmaking service between them and parks managers. But he points out: "Using trusts can cost more initially and you need to do a lot of talking to people before you do it.
"There is a great deal of 'thinking outside the box' on parks management. But first you have to ask, is everything in the box already in place? People try innovative things but it falls apart when processes aren't all there."
The report's point about the importance of leadership reinforces what CABE Space found in an earlier study of exemplary authorities internationally, according to Paul Bramhill, chief executive at the charity GreenSpace.
"It found that it didn't matter where they were - they were all in different departments - but they all had champions at the top level and were linked into overall policy and strategy," he adds. "It's all down to management that's good at partnership, at getting out there, advocating and working across departments."
Bramhill agrees that this aspect of leadership is key. "Good managers don't necessarily come from within the sector - we are still seeing mid-career changers coming in," he says. "But while you can teach good management to some extent, personality is a factor. It will be harder for those who are less keen on engaging with people."
One bright spot he points to is the Localism Bill currently passing through Parliament that among other things transfers public health powers to councils. "We hope green space managers are talking to health boards, saying: 'Do you realise this is what we do?'" says Bramhill.
"This should get much easier and is another reason why they should be armed with facts and figures, starting with the simple things - the number of visitors, the cost per visitor, their diversity - so you have the data to back up what you're saying."
GreenSpace's GreenSTAT data collection system has already been used by more than 100 local authorities to monitor park use, he adds. "You should be monitoring change over time. Has your number of users or volunteers grown or fallen? You might expect people in a recession to visit their local park more, rather than drive off somewhere, but can you prove it?"
Other indicators such as Green Flags also provide objective data, he says. "If we'd had them when compulsory competitive tendering was introduced, we'd have been able to monitor quality of parks. If no-one is articulating these things, they can only decline."
Bramhill concludes: "Inevitably people will say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter, we'll still get cut.' But with the right approach the cuts won't be so hard."
- The guide can be viewed via the CABE website at www.cabe.org.uk
CABE SPACE'S SEVEN 'INGREDIENTS FOR SUCCESS'
- High-performing services depend on strong and motivational leadership.
- Unified management and maintenance functions matters.
- The location of a service, whether in a dedicated parks department or a larger department, is not the most important driver of performance.
- An active understanding of the policy and practice context is needed to stay responsive and relevant.
- Provide evidence to gain the support of leaders and partners.
- Transparent, legible structures are more effective for those using and delivering the service.
- Effective and targeted partnerships underpin successful services.
CABE's website, www.cabe.org.uk, operates as an archive from which guidance can be downloaded.
FAREWELL CABE SPACE, HELLO ...?
With the future role of CABE uncertain as a possible merger with the Design Council is discussed, other organisations are looking to fill the green space policy vacuum.
"The parks sector will now be thrown back on GreenSpace, the Institute of Horticulture, even the Institute of Groundsmanship," says parks consultant Sid Sullivan. "It's an enormous responsibility and will have to generate funds from members to meet a greater role."
GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill says: "We have created an expanded policy section at GreenSpace and we can only anticipate that increasing. We are being called on more to comment on Government consultations, often within a much shorter timescale."
He is keen for the sector not to lose its political momentum. "It's taken a lot of work, not just by CABE but also things such as National Audit Office reports to build up the evidence base and we will still want evidence in the future. And parks managers need to keep working collaboratively - for example, through regional forums rather than just hunkering down."
Read the CABE guide, Managing Green Spaces: Seven Ingredients for Success
For a collection of green space resource material including reports, surveys and guides from CABE and other organisations go to our Green Space Resources section.