Plans to change how the Green Flag Awards are run may damage the scheme's integrity and see a more costly version pricing out all but a "rump" of rich parks, green space leaders have said.
Their fears were voiced at a meeting held by the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), which is reviewing operation of the award (HW, 9 December). The current arrangement ends next August and the DCLG is drawing up a new licence.
DCLG deputy director of overarching policy for Big Society Hulua Mustafa said: "The aim of the licence is to move it away from central Government and public control. We want to retain the branding but see the running more arms-length."
Last week's meeting was attended by English Heritage, GreenSpace, Play England and the RHS. Many groups were worried about the details of the licence, the possible involvement of private companies and plans for sponsorship.
London Parks & Green Spaces Forum development manager Alexandra Rook said: "Local authorities don't have enough staff, time and money. If Green Flag goes over to a privately-run licence it might become more expensive to apply for."
Countryside Council for Wales senior urban and partnerships officer Peter Frost agreed. "We are concerned that the cost of the scheme doesn't increase drastically because local authorities that want to enter may have to reduce staff or other services.
"If this is going out to licence we want it to expand the scheme rather than make it become an award for a rump of rich parks that can afford the entrance fee. We also want the licence to be able to attract sponsorship but are concerned any sponsor is ethically acceptable."
For the Heritage Lottery Fund, head of parks Drew Bennellick said: "Who takes on the licence is important - we would have issues paying money to a private company. The scheme is both a quality and progressive thing - it's about improving the standard not just awarding a licence."
BTCV group operations director Ron Fern said: "There's a trend to price, not quality, with competitive tendering. We need to enshrine a quality incentive. It also takes time to set up a decent sponsorship deal and building it in to a procurement process may cause problems."
He added: "Judges give a lot of time and effort and if you let the licence under a competitive system you may get them thinking: 'You are raking in x amount of money from this, why should I give my time for free?' That may cause a dilemma."
"We want to see the scheme sustained in some form. We have considered options with less Government funding or the same funding. Options included licensing, mutualisation or running it with partners. The Government wants to step back from the scheme and let someone else come forward and run it. But we want to maintain the integrity and success year on year."
Jonathon Cartwright, community green spaces policy manager, Department for communities & local government