It is proposed that maintenance and management of 33 of the city’s parks and allotments, more than 400 hectares of land, would be placed in a charitable trust with a trading social enterprise wing which could bring in revenue to pay for the service.
The parks would continue to be owned by the council, which will look at whether an endowment could be put in place to support the trust.
The department, run by assistant director, transformation, Tony Durcan, lost 70% of its funding since 2010 and was only able to keep going through £3m of mitigation payments from the city’s public health department, which has given it £1m a year, but only until April 2018.
The council has today launched an online consultation on the plans, which can be seen here, which runs until 21 April.
Newcastle was also the only city visited by members of the Communities and Local Government Committee during its recent parks inquiry. In its report, published on Saturday, the committee called on minister for parks Andrew Percy to make good on his inquiry pledge to announce a small amount of additional funding for local authority service transformation, which he said would be made "in the next couple of weeks".
Durcan said transitional funding was "hugely important" as local authorities struggle with austerity. "It’s very expensive doing this. We are trying to keep our parks estate knowing that’s not financially viable and find capacity and money to work through a new model. That’s really difficult."
Newcastle City Council applied for the HLF money last year and was successful, Durcan thinks, partly because his department is happy to formulate a model that others can base their own transformations on. The National Trust (NT) has been advising the council on the issue, donating staff expertise, having shifted its focus from a similar exercise in Sheffield - one of the Rethinking Parks projects - which has not gone ahead.
"You don’t know for sure that this will work out," Durcan said. "It’s a lot of work and it’s going to be expensive. We need detailed legal advice on tax and leasing. Is it one lease or 33 leases? If we can come up with a model, they [other local authorities] will have to do their own due diligence, but they won’t have to go through such detailed research. This is a big help for us."
The HLF and the Big Lottery Fund have invested more than £12 million to restore and upgrade Newcastle’s historic parks.
HLF chief executive Ros Kerslake said: "This National Lottery investment is giving Newcastle City Council the tools to explore a creative approach to securing its parks for everyone."
Newcastle cabinet member for culture and communities Kim McGuinness said: "We’re committed in Newcastle to moving with the times and modernising. This is a pioneering opportunity for the city as we seek to create a charitable trust model to run and protect our parks and ensure they remain in public ownership at a time when austerity has made our current operating model unsustainable."
The NT estimates that its investment, in kind, is on a similar level to that of the HLF.
NT director of the north Harry Bowell said: "We are lending our experience and skills to help ensure the proposals for the new independent charity are financially sustainable and practical whilst also protecting free public access and the wider benefits parks currently deliver to local communities."