Representing the Core Cities Group, Nottingham City Council head of parks and open spaces Eddie Curry and Nesta senior programme manager Lynda Ragoonanan, who led the Rethinking Parks project, both told MPs that alternatives have their part to play but could not be relied on to completely replace public funding.
Curry, whose own service is due to become self-funding by 2020, said there are many examples of innovation prompted by parks cuts but the challenge is to have the capacity and skills in-house to deliver those projects. "We really are at the edge of making more small-scale investment funding opportunities. Certainly the shift over the next three years, as the budget reduction continues to drive forward more cuts to our services, will be the big challenge for us. That is where the real support and investment are needed to help services make that big change over the next few years."
Referring to Rethinking Parks, Ragoonanan admitted that none of the models trialled would completely meet the cost of running parks. "Having said that, many of them would take a really good step in addressing the gap," she added.
Committee chair Clive Betts MP was not sure. Referring to one project, he said: "It is great that people in Bournemouth made a contribution, but it is £40,000. In reality, it hardly buys the tulips and the daffodils, does it? It is that sort of scale. It is not going to take over and deliver the sorts of funding that parks need in the absence of the local authority funding that has been cut."
Ragoonanan said the point is that parks need to diversify. "It is a matter of having lots of different layers of funding. Public contributions will be part of that. Some sort of contribution from public entities will be part of that, and volunteering."
But Betts questioned whether such initiatives would really make up for the cuts. Curry said it is not possible at the moment. Sheffield's work looking into establishing a parks trust, for example, would need a capital investment of somewhere in the region of £100m to get going. "Assembling that level of capital investment to put into a trust fund to pay the perpetuity of the parks' maintenance is a real uphill challenge for any authority," he said.
Helen Hayes MP pointed out that "there has been an enormous failure to quantify the benefits that parks provide". Curry agreed that there is a lack of quality benchmarking standards, saying that while the parks sector has done a lot of work on natural capital, looking at aspects such as health and biodiversity, there is a lack of any real evidence.
Ragoonanan said only one Rethinking Parks project has been a fully-tested alternative to the current system, and involved giving the local community control. This "was not without difficulties", she added, and while there is "a real appetite to contribute", volunteers need professional expertise to achieve the required level of effort and skill.
Curry added that it is relatively easy to get people to volunteer to look after a heritage park but "those small, gritty open spaces in the middle of a council estate where it is just about picking up the litter on a Tuesday morning in February" are a less exciting option. Finding capacity in cash-strapped councils for estates management, asset transfer and producing legal lease documentation is also an issue, he said.
On the other side, If parks are kept in-house he said there is "a fine line in what is acceptable with the local community and over-commercialising a park. It is often a bit of a challenge and a bit of a rub with the local community."
MPs were keen to hear how challenges have been overcome in Milton Keynes when questioning Parks Trust chief executive David Foster, sitting on the second witness panel. He told them the biggest barrier to establishing parks trusts is not actually finding the capital to set them up but getting local politicians to "set parks free".