Historic England parks funding report "challenges political direction"

Taxation to fund parks is one of the historic precedents explored in Katy Layton-Jones' report on historic funding models for public parks, which has now been published by Historic England.

Historian and consultant on historic parks and gardens Layton-Jones' History of Public Park Funding and Management (1820–2010) report contains some findings that she said "many people will find surprising and challenges the romantic view we have of Victorian philanthropists like Peel.

"It challenges the current political direction and so is unlikely to be championed by government agencies."

Historic England natural landscape adviser Jenifer White said: "Her research findings show a long history of funding problems but also the important role of local authorities in developing, and often rescuing parks, and delivering public parks for all over 170 years. We are now sharing this report as Historic England's contribution to the [Parks] inquiry, as in looking for new solutions, we also need to understand why funding issues have arisen. The research report will also be of interest to local authority portfolio holders, parks teams, friends groups and urban historians."

In her summary of findings, Layton-Jones said:

"Many of the most radical models for funding green space are more easily applied to when sites are being created; providing endowments and trusts retrospectively is complex and potentially financially unrealistic. However, it is existing green spaces that are most in need of investment and protection. Local authorities, national government and independent bodies should be discouraged from neglecting the greater challenges presented by historic parks in order to win easier battles.

"New green spaces should not be created at the expense of the nation’s portfolio of historic parks and gardens and they are not valid substitutes for existing, historical parks, which continue to perform a practical function as well as constituting valuable heritage assets."

She said on philanthropy "there is little historical precedent for using large donations to secure ongoing maintenance budgets or an endowment for existing public parks. For the year 2010/11, only three per cent of all charitable donations in the UK went to environmental causes.

She added: "HLF’s State of UK Public Parks records that friends groups have been raising £30m per year for parks which is commendable but a tiny proportion of fund raising or sums required. Milton Keynes Parks Trust indicates that body alone currently expends £6.78 million per annum on the maintenance and management of parks.

"The historical record suggests that philanthropic donation is not a sustainable model for funding existing parks. Developments of the 21st-century such as crowd funding and more volunteering offer new philanthropic donation approaches and may present a more socially inclusive and economically sustainable model for modern communities. However, the scale of funding raising may be a challenge." 

On Donation of Land and Transferal of Existing Parks, she said: "Original covenants placed on land by donors as early as the 1840s may still present an obstacle to new land uses and revenue-generating schemes." She added that 45 per cent of local authorities that were considering disposing of some green spaces, rather than looking to be gifted them.

On the historic Subscription model, she said: "Successful modern membership organisations typically hold a large portfolio of sites distributed across the country and the jewels in the crown of membership organisations tend to be ‘destination’ sites, attracting visitors from significant distances. The park ‘product’ on offer had to be seen to have a unique attraction above and beyond comparable free locations. This committed the management to continual innovation and improvement which ultimately led to the financial collapse of many pleasure gardens."

On Taxation, she said: "Funding via taxation has provided the most secure and sustainable model for British parks."

She added: The historical record provides evidence that increasing the powers afforded to local authorities to raise revenues locally has historically increased park budgets, without increasing central government spending. This was the strategy employed in 1875 and which led to the longest period in financial stability across the sector."

On Grants, Layton-Jones said: "The model of relying on grants for capital projects dates back to Peel’s initial, albeit it insufficient, national fund of £10,000 (which would equate to approximately £770,000 in today's real price value). They have commonly provided injections of cash for capital investments that can completely transform the long-term performance and sustainability of parks. Competition for grants can also encourage best practice.

"There is evidence that grant competitions have sometimes forced managers of multiple parks to privilege one park at the expense of others, thus actually condemning some sites to further dereliction. Nevertheless, in the absence of any other programme of funding, grants can provide the only means of funding comprehensive restoration projects."

On Loans, she said: "To be sustainable, loans are most effectively invested in revenue-creating schemes. For trusts, this can work well as they can ring-fence the subsequent return for use in parks, but such protection is essential."

On Speculative Development, she said: "The sale of building plots would therefore potentially deliver proportionately higher, albeit finite, sums to fund parks. However, as the greatest challenge currently lies in funding existing parks, focusing on speculative development misdirects attention away from the most pressing problem.

She said the historical reality is "that the sums raised by speculative development have proved insufficient for park creation, let alone ongoing maintenance".

On Endowment, she said: "A diverse and large portfolio of assets used to support parks is essential for financial resilience. Therefore, the endowment model is more reliable when economies of scale can be exploited. Endowments are potentially more vulnerable when liabilities and assets are limited to only a few sites and investments. Given the current trend towards a fragmentation of the sector, and pressure to transfer assets to small, individual communities, local authorities may need to act sooner rather than later if they wish to adopt this model. 

On Revenue Creation within Parks, Layton-Jones said: "Certain forms of commercial activities are particularly suited to historic parks" But she says the events damage parks and compromise public access. While there may be scope to charge for one-off events and possibly small areas of a park, for example a walled garden that was kept to the very highest standard, this may not make much difference to financial sustainability of a large site."

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