New chairman of The Parks Alliance Matthew Bradbury has taken the helm of the group formed to stand up for parks at a crucial time for the sector and he believes this is the year it will make the national impact parks professionals crave.
Bradbury took the reins of the organisation in December during the Communities & Local Government Committee's parks inquiry, for which the alliance lobbied. He says the alliance is well-placed to form the "national centre of excellence" called for by several witnesses to the inquiry.
"We await the outcome of the inquiry with great interest. I'm anxious to meet with (minister responsible for parks) Andrew Percy to look at what that might mean and how we can support the Department for Communities & Local Government in that process." There are many talented past parks managers in the industry who could play a senior role or roles, he adds.
"We could be the hub but we could also be a partner to Government depending on the model that they want to put in place," he says, stressing a key priority is to ensure the alliance is at the forefront of pushing for adoption of any positive recommendations that form part of the committee's inquiry report due out within the next few weeks.
"The general public are much more aware of issues than they have been because of austerity. We hope that we will be able to position the alliance in terms of supporting the Government in what its plans are."
Building on existing work
The alliance can build on work already done by members to collate data and academic studies on parks and green space in a central repository, says Bradbury. It is working with universities on new studies and planning a major conference in July with the University of Leeds, all of which will cement its role as the first port of call for the Government on parks and green space matters.
"The Parks Alliance can be that vehicle for us if the Government want to listen," says Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman, pointing out that there is a real need to bridge the gap left between the sector and the Government after the demise of CABE Space and Greenspace.
He believes the Government wants to listen and understands messages coming from the parks sector. Furthermore, the alliance is trusted to be that representative. "I think the sector sees it as the voice of parks at Government. It has been criticised slightly for being London-centric. I'm not sure that's fully valid. It does speak for the industry as a whole."
"It's a very significant year for the alliance and for parks generally with the report being imminent," says Greenspace Scotland chief executive Julie Procter, an alliance board member. "We think it's a key role in responding to the recommendations and playing a leadership role, and really make sure that the report really is that positive turning point for parks that we are all looking for."
The alliance could also help play a role in moving any changes beyond the committee's England-only remit to the devolved countries, says Procter. Scotland is further ahead than other parts of the UK in this as Greenspace Scotland has been working with the Scottish Government to "hook in" parks to several policy areas, such as health, early years, regeneration, planning and housing.
"There's not a policy in Scotland we haven't got a green space hook in. With the alliance now we're reaching out to Wales and Northern Ireland." Wales' Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is an obvious starting point, she says. "It's about working cleverly across the UK in that leadership for parks. The hook is there." Greenspace Scotland has also, since December 2015, been running a parks managers forum that, alongside existing parks forums in the West Midlands and London, could form the basis of a UK-wide network, she suggests.
Sitting alongside the "centre of excellence" agenda for the alliance is, of course, the key question of how parks will be funded in the future - one of the original questions that the inquiry was set up to answer. Bradbury says he wants the alliance to be a key adviser to the Government in exploring parks improvement districts, the parks foundation model and the agenda around health. "If parks do become a statutory service we'll all be absolutely delighted. If it is done in the right way it will secure the base core funding for parks," he says.
"But I don't think it's a panacea. We need a hybrid approach with different types of funding. It does depend how it's set up. There is a huge amount of work to do to look at different models either within the local authority model or outside it. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. There are lots of different models. We hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund will take another opportunity to fund another Rethinking Parks round."
Bradbury took over from founding chairman Mark Camley, who he says created a solid foundation as well as successfully lobbying for the inquiry, which has provided more momentum. "It's amazing what Mark Camley did. He really got the thing up and running."
Structure Future business plan
The Parks Alliance is developing a business plan for its future structure that will put it on a secure footing for future challenges, says Bradbury. The plan hinges on further broadening the membership base to include more private companies, such as grounds maintenance contractors, and third-sector organisations.
"We think we are going to need to be at least a bit commercial to fund ourselves," he says "I don't think we can draw too heavily on the sector. Keep Britain Tidy and the Landscape Institute are examples of board members who would like to make sure that we are working with these types of organisations hand-in-glove." They can also help with providing staff hours and resources, he adds.
This is a key priority, says Procter. "It's really embracing everyone who has a role in creating, safeguarding, maintaining, using and improving our parks." Worman agrees with this approach, which he says echoes what is happening in the sector as a whole. "The future will be a mosaic of different providers and stakeholders - the more the merrier. There's no reason why people from all sectors from the green-space industry shouldn't come together. That's the only way for the future, to be fair."