First lessons from Rethinking Parks

Trailblazers report back on progress of key pilot projects.

Bee cages: installed at the entrance to a meadow as part of Burnley Borough Council’s Go to the Park pilot project - image: Burnley Borough Council
Bee cages: installed at the entrance to a meadow as part of Burnley Borough Council’s Go to the Park pilot project - image: Burnley Borough Council

The 11 Rethinking Parks projects have had mixed results so far - but that is exactly the outcome Nesta expected, programme manager Lydia Ragoonanan has said.

She was speaking at Green Connect's parks conference in Bristol on 7 October, where seven of the 11 Rethinking Parks pilot projects were represented. The programme, supported by Nesta and the Heritage and Big Lottery Funds, is trialling new and innovative ways to fund parks.

"Some local authorities assume there will be one elegant answer to their problems," said Ragoonanan. "But there isn't one for our parks world and there won't be one model that fits everywhere."

Ragoonanan said the programme was not only about finding ways to make money, but for the industry to become better at innovating, facing challenges and "embracing opportunities" provided by change.

A financial analyst is now working with all 11 projects and looking at their financial forecasts to see if they are sustainable in the long-term. A full report on the pilot programme will be published in 2016. But early lessons include the need for a clear mandate, ensuring all stakeholders are on board and the difficulty of convincing the public to fund work they believe they have paid for through taxes.

One project saw Thames Chase Trust developing a business strategy for Eastbrookend Country Park to generate income through its assets. However, the group hit a wall after finding the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham wanted a quick fix and had no appetite for long-term investment.

Another project, the Bournemouth Parks Foundation, is an independent charity launched by Bournemouth Borough Council. It fundraises for parks capital works, for which Bournemouth has no money. Parks development manager Michael Rowland said the public object to donating for jobs that they feel councils should do, such as maintenance. The foundation is promoting its capital investment focus to overcome this objection.

In Sheffield, the Heeley Development Trust is trying to create a subscription society in a community-owned people's park, but has also run into problems.

The trust needs £45,000 annually for running costs. Although focus group research suggested around half of people would happily pay a £10 subscription fee needed each year to fund the park, just 27 people signed up.

They are on track to raise just £1,200 this year, which is "incredibly disappointing", said the trust's Andy Jackson. "Getting the message out has been massively more difficult than anticipated."

Groundwork London's Park Hack project, which resulted in the high-profile TreeXOffice, has been somewhat successful - although tenancy rates for the office space have been around 25 per cent. The group said it is now looking for a more steady income stream.


Case study - Burnley takes ecological route

Burnley Borough Council is one of the 11 groups involved in the Rethinking Parks programme.

Since 2003 its green-space budget has fallen from £2.5m to less than £1m by 2017. To cut costs and bring in income, Burnley is using a range of ecological and permaculture techniques, in a partnership with Offshoots Permaculture as well as local friends groups and community organisations.

The Rethinking Parks grant has let Burnley co-ordinate its efforts, buy machinery and pay a volunteer co-ordinator. The programme is saving the borough £120,000 per year. Head of green spaces and amenities Simon Goff explained that instead of spreading the maintenance budget ever thinner, the borough has turned some areas over to semi-natural management so formal heritage parks can be maintained.

Meadow management: Derelict sites and non-recreational grass areas are being turned into meadows, including a third of the historic 8ha Queens Park and seven of the 11ha at Burnwall Park. The parks are now "much more dynamic and interesting", said Goff. At Burnwall, a farmer cuts and removes the hay for free.

An Amazone hopper purchased through the grant allows cut-and-collect of long grass without leaving tyre marks, making it easier to mix formal and informal in the same park. Goff explained: "People are reassured that the park isn’t falling apart because it’s still neatly managed."

Bedding replacement: One-third of Burnley’s bedding budget has been spent on perennials this year, following a trend set by other boroughs, said Goff.

"We spend ages each year buying annual plants, clearing the ground, planting the bedding, flowers in summer, dies back and gets taken out and it’s an endless cycle of what you might call stupid horticulture," he said. "Anybody can do it but the process takes up considerable time and effort…and it’s not sustainable."

Volunteers: Offshoots is co-ordinating an extensive volunteer-training programme. Total volunteer hours are now worth around £20,000 per year.

Bee hives: Two bee cages have been installed at the entrance to a meadow. The design means that bees enter the hives at a safe overhead height, avoiding stings, while small holes let the public see inside. Honey is harvested by Offshoots, generating income.

Woodland management: Burnley planted one million trees around the turn of the millennium but cannot afford to thin them. The grant has paid for a forestry forwarder to extract timber, some of which is woodchipped for play areas, saving the borough up to £12,000 on its small playground budget.

Offshoots is taking the better-quality timber for its sawmill. Contractors are also being offered the option to manage packages of woodland and sell the thinnings as firewood.

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