Cash crisis triggers park sell-offs

A strategic approach is essential if parks are to be sold

Parks: local authorities strongly advised to audit quality and quantity of all green spaces before deciding to sell - image: HW
Parks: local authorities strongly advised to audit quality and quantity of all green spaces before deciding to sell - image: HW

Selling parks to fund grounds maintenance is a difficult call but could be the right move in some circumstances, according to green-infrastructure expert Julia Thrift. But Thrift, who is head of projects and events at the Town & Country Planning Association and heads up the Green Infrastructure Partnership, warned that councils must carefully audit the green space in their boroughs before coming to any decision.

Her comments follow the London Borough of Bexley's move to sell off four local parks as part of a requirement to make savings of £56m by 2019-20. The council claims that without selling the parks it cannot continue funding maintenance of other parks across the borough. Bexley is far from alone in deciding to dispose of green space. The Heritage Lottery Fund's 2014 park manager survey found 45 per cent of local authorities were considering doing the same.

Thrift could not comment on Bexley's specific case but offered some advice for councils facing similar choices. "Obviously it's a very unfair situation to be in," she said. "We all need to make a very strong case for new sources of funding for parks and green spaces. If local authorities are in a situation where they think they have to sell, we urge them to take a strategic look at the distribution and functionality of the green space they have in their area." That includes the quantity, quality and accessibility of parks as well as a consideration of all the purposes they serve.

"Although parks and green spaces are primarily there for leisure, they also play an enormous range of other roles in terms of ecosystem services from cooling to biodiversity and active transport, and they are a huge public health resource."

Selling a space may not always be the wrong decision, providing there is not already a shortage of green space such as that faced by many inner-London boroughs, said Thrift. But selections must be driven by a green-infrastructure strategy rather than by which spaces would bring in the most cash and the money raised must be ring-fenced in perpetuity for parks, she added.

Bexley's decision, made in a cabinet meeting on 12 April, allows for the sale of four open spaces for housing development, covering some 1.8ha. The borough council aims to complete the sales in 2017 and expects them to bring in at least £6m. It intends to use this money to reduce its borrowing, generating revenue savings of around £710,000 that will be used to offset a further reduction in its grounds maintenance bill. Bexley currently spends £2.2m a year on maintaining grounds at cemeteries, highways, parks and open spaces.

Twenty-seven sites were initially investigated for sale, following an assessment of their quantity, quality and whether other open space was within walking distance. Of those, another 22 are still being considered for sale. In total, a council spokesperson told Horticulture Week, the sites were valued at around £10m in 2014.

More than 600 objections to the sales were received, ranging from complaints about the loss of recreational space, health and well-being, impacts on wildlife and community cohesion. Most related to Old Farm Park in Sidcup, where the sale of around 40 per cent of the site is expected to net more than £3m.

In their reports to councillors, officers argued the net good for the borough would outweigh the adverse effects of the sales. For example, while the impact of reduced green space on community cohesion was acknowledged, they argued that poor maintenance of parks would have a worse effect on antisocial behaviour.

Dave Morris, chair of the London Green Spaces Friends Groups Network and National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces, urged those local authorities facing stark choices about parks funding to work in partnership with friends groups to protect green spaces.

"The solution to chronic underfunding of parks services is to reverse the current caps at a national level and ensure that park managers have the resources that they need to run our parks and public spaces," he said. "We're calling for a national inquiry about the growing underfunding crisis faced by all councils. Green spaces should receive statutory recognition and protection."

Bexley - stark choice offered to locals in its public consultation

Bexley residents were given a stark choice — sell these four parks and some 22 other green spaces or see all parks neglected and eventually lose playgrounds across the borough. As part of a full consultation they were asked to pick from one of the following alternative options should they not support the sales:

? Council tax rise of more than 1.99 per cent (subject to a local referendum) 57.98% (705 respondents)
? A £1m reduction per year in spending on other council services 31.99% (389 respondents)
? Substantial reductions in grounds maintenance that would result in unmaintained parks, the removal of children’s playgrounds and the loss of sports pitches 10.03% (122 respondents)

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