When the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE) published its report on the real value of park assets last year, it was an indictment of the broken link between green spaces and finance.
Not only did the paper - Making the Invisible Visible: the real value of parks assets - find that many local authorities give a £1 value to their public parks, but this lack of evidence is detrimental to capital and revenue funding.
It is a trend that some local authorities are ferociously attacking. As reported in HW last week, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has embarked on the ambitious task of creating an asset management plan covering every one of its parks.
The aim is to create a borough-wide document drilling down into the value of all its green space assets. The values will be outlined with the associated costs of maintenance to achieve high levels of satisfaction from park users.
Parks development manager Rob Kelly explains: "It is all about evidence. It allows you to go to those setting budgets and tell them that this is our asset base and you can't maintain an asset base of that size with that budget. We need to know how we can forecast our capital investment and at the moment it is very ad hoc."
The asset management plan is derived from work that already takes place in New Zealand, after the Government made the creation of plans mandatory through its Local Government Act 2002.
Although most local authorities will have "some sort of asset system" for managing grounds maintenance contracts, "mostly it doesn't get used to its full potential", adds Kelly.
Hammersmith and Fulham has already employed a project manager, Brendan Dillon, to carry out the work, which he hopes will be completed in March 2011.
Condition surveys of every element in each park - including bedding displays, benches and bins - will be done before costs are worked out for ongoing maintenance and any capital work required.
Dillon says: "The true value of assets and the full life cycle management is what we are trying to reach. It makes good business sense because it is a projection of what we are trying to achieve."
In CABE's report, Highbury Fields in Islington and Sefton Park in Liverpool are used as case studies for a similar process. The publication outlines a framework of valuing assets for the first time. In it, Sefton Park was valued at £105m, with Highbury Fields at £49m.
However, it is still unusual for a local authority to undertake the work borough-wide because it is such an "all-encompassing project", adds Dillon. He plans to examine elements as far-reaching as local demographics and population change to work out the long-term needs.
Creating an accurate record of park assets is "an absolute must", the London Borough of Haringey's head of parks and bereavement Andrew Gill tells HW. His team has been working on a similar plan over the past two years.
"I don't see how you can make the case to continue with the revenue or capital funding unless you have got this information," he argues. "We are not exempt from the usual targets and pressures, but our plan allows us to make a very convincing argument to the accountants. If you don't provide the investment, it is going to cost more to replace assets long term."
Gill says that in his last bid for capital investment of £1m, the budget holders agreed to £500,000. "That is not bad," he points out. "It really helps when we ask for money because we have got all the data. We can show, if we get half the money we ask for, exactly what we can do with it."
CABE's report argues that by lacking critical evidence on the quantity and condition of the assets in parks, it is much more difficult to advance well evidenced strong arguments for adequate funding, plan over different time periods, anticipate future expenditure, negotiate confidently in a climate of tightening budgets and compete with other local authority services.
The commission's head of sustainable and inclusive design, Ed Hobson, explains: "One of the problems facing the green space sector is a lack of information and how we build up a good convincing argument about investing. The benefit of an asset management approach is that it is quite practical."
Building up a clear picture of all the elements of value involved in a park is critical for Sheffield City Council's director of parks and countryside Mary Bagley. She believes that asset management can be expanded to help leverage funding from outside the local authority as well as from within.
"It is more than repairing the benches and the paths," she explains. "If you start to show the real value of the assets you can draw in other money that will greatly enhance your service."
The parks department is working closely with the University of Sheffield on research combining health benefits with green space values. "We want to assess how much we save the NHS through parks as a preventative health service," says Bagley. "It is an asset value in a different way."
The department already partners with the local primary care trust, which provides health walk rangers and allotment rangers to the service. "We need to crunch the numbers to influence people," she urges. "But there are not many (parks services) cracking that nut."
Despite the problems associated with developing plans on time scales that do not necessarily fit in with fouror five-year political cycles, it can be possible to overcome them by developing strong open space strategies to run in tandem, Hobson insists. "By being prepared now, (parks departments) will be better ahead of the game," he maintains.