Parks departments are bracing themselves for budget talks in the coming weeks, with many expecting another bruising round of savings.
Local authority parks managers are desperately balancing options for making cuts without compromising grounds care. While formal proposals have yet to be drawn up, some are looking at asset transfers, while others are rumoured to be lining up redundancies. One council parks head fears it may lose its budget altogether.
Islington Council was forced on the defensive after news of a 150-page strategic document called Future Shape to 2018 was reported to include possible cuts to park staff, meaning the borough's green spaces would be left open 24 hours a day.
Other threats included the closure of an ecology centre in Gillespie Park and the disbanding of the borough's nature-conservation teams. The park's friends group insisted it would fight the threats, which could include charging locals to pay for green-waste collection, "tooth and nail".
But a council spokesman said: "No decisions have been made about anything in the budget for next year. The idea that the ecology centre has been axed is not right. There is a long list of possible options for discussion."
Newcastle City Council, which had a 60 per cent cut imposed on parks two years ago, is facing more anguish, said principal manager for parks and countryside and community sport and leisure services Su Cumming.
Cumming, who fears the budget could go completely in the next two years, said: "Cuts could mean minimum grass cutting and probably the removal of bedding. Asset transfer is an option. Reducing money spent on park buildings would free up funds for the parks."
Bury Council parks and countryside manager Mike Bent said the authority has to save £16m this year and £16m next year, and parks are likely to take a hit because they are a non-statutory service. At best, the team is "hoping for nothing" in terms of budget cuts.
"We are looking at self management and asset transfer of bowling greens, allotments and football pitches but not parks - that's a little too much but the idea has been mentioned by the community," he said. "We will look at all options. Community group Incredible Edible might take on a few sites."
Monmouthshire County Council operations manager Nigel Leaworthy said: "The council will engage with the public in early October but we expect ongoing pressures on maintenance of fine-turf areas and will continue to look at managing open spaces sustainably.
"This could include using a pollinator policy to support the Welsh Government's plan to halt the decline in pollinator species. This enables us to allow some verges to remain uncut for longer and to save money by reducing watering and fertiliser use."
But Woodburn Nursery manager Mark Riddle, whose Darlington operation supplies 1.2 million bedding plants a year to 27 councils, said orders are holding up. A few are £200 or £300 less, but not the £5,000 or £6,000 in past years, he added.
"Councils seem to be holding their own on bedding budgets. Reductions are usually seen in the variety of plants chosen, reflecting the price difference between say pansies and wall flowers. But other than a few hundred pounds here and there, there are no massive savings."
Parks consultant Sid Sullivan said: "Budgets will continue to come under stress. I do not see an easing of budgetary restraint per se. However, focusing on health, obesity and other local health agendas could make budgetary issues more arguable.
He continued: "For those that use this approach and get involved in bidding for Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), the same applies. The Government recently confirmed to The Parks Alliance that the CIL is available for both revenue and capital spending projects."
Case study - No further scope for savings
The parks team at Hyndburn Borough Council in Lancashire has an annual budget of around £1m for parks and £1m for cemeteries. The team consists of 14 horticultural staff and seven office workers, with 10 staff tackling cemeteries.
Parks and open spaces manager Craig Haraben said: "We've been told to aim for savings of about 10 per cent, similar to previous years. But we have nothing left to save so will almost definitely lose staff. Last year we offered to get rid of hanging baskets and flower towers but councillors rejected this, so we had to make other efficiency savings such as asking suppliers to hold prices."
He added: "We got rid of old machinery such as a flail mower and our second stand-by tractor. But there are no more efficiency savings we can make. We will have to stop certain services or lose staff."