The knowledge exchange involved in the Green Flag Awards is a key reason for the increasing number of parks winning the prestigious standard, scheme manager Paul Todd has said.
Of 1,640 applications this year, a record 1,582 gained accreditation, including around 100 that were new to the competition.
Todd said pass rates have gone up partly because judges, around 90 per cent of whom are employed in the parks sector, take home new ideas to improve their own parks, driving up standards.
Increasingly, applicants only apply when they know they are very close to the standard or want additional guidance on how to reach it, which they will receive through the feedback report post-judging, said Todd.
"We do occasionally get sites that are quite off the standard. Sometimes an organisation may have decided that they want to bring a site up to standard and part of starting off is to get a full assessment to get some direction," he said.
"One of the most important parts is the feedback report, which shares best practice and expertise. A judge may visit one site that has an issue they are trying to address. That judge may have seen a solution from another part of their judging or from their own park."
Application fees increase each year, with sites up to 20ha costing £312 and more than 20ha £363. The cost of maintaining parks to the required standard may be too much for some councils facing budget cuts. Several have pulled out of the competition or cut down on their Green Flag applications.
"There's certainly been a larger increase (in applications) in the south than in the north of England," said Todd. "Some of the large cities have had to make some difficult decisions around funding and that's had an impact."
But the Green Flag scheme also gives parks departments opportunities to share ideas on how to cope with fewer resources, he pointed out.
Keep Britain Tidy also runs the Love Parks campaign, which ties in well with Green Flag, he said. "Green Flag is based on ensuring that the parks deliver what communities want - and part of Love Parks is making sure that communities have the skills to campaign and support parks and green spaces to maintain to that standard. It's a case of saying: 'We're all in this together. What can we do to help?'"
Funding plans - Sponsorship deal revealed
Green Flag recently announced a sponsorship deal with packaging company DS Smith. Scheme manager Paul Todd said it has "very good environmental credentials". Each of the company's 60 offices or depots teams up with a local green space where staff volunteer time and help with fundraising.
"That's why we were very keen to work with them because they had made a commitment and they were already out there working, they were linked up with community groups and going out volunteering to raise the standard. It's a really nice partnership. Not only are they a company that cares about the environment but they are putting boots on the ground."
A programme aimed at making Green Flag a globally recognised standard is also still being piloted by the Department for Communities & Local Government. It would involve international license fees as a potential source of income.