Park trusts, selling add-on services and working for neighbouring boroughs among funding solutions aired at parks event

The different business models modern parks departments are following to survive austerity have been highlighted at an APSE parks conference.

Paul Naylor speaking at the event. Image: APSE Events
Paul Naylor speaking at the event. Image: APSE Events

By 2020 the UK spend on local government as a share of GDP will be lower than at any point since 1948, delegates heard.

The average cut to budgets is between 21% and 30%, said APSE chief executive Paul O'Brien, leaving councils no choice but to increase income generation.

In its latest State of the Market Survey, APSE found that 89% of respondents were getting extra money from Section 106, 60% from the HLF, 59% from Friends of Parks groups, 51% grant funding from other sources, 48% from sponsorship, 18% from health budgets, sale of assets 29% and 12% were drawing in income from private sources.

Head of direct services at Eastleigh Borough Council, Paul Naylor, said he saw his department as "not just a parks service" but "facilities management".

It raised £975,000 last year from external income, 72% of the parks budget, with the rest coming from public funds. Naylor said that tree inspection services and pest control were both good sources of income. The trick is to sell services on the back of other council services, for example the council deals with £750,000 of trade waste a year.

"I say every time we sell to a trade body, I want a pest control contract. Every time you’ll see a trade bin, you’ll see a rat. You would be surprised how much money there is in pest control," he said.

Instead of outsourcing grounds maintenance, Eastleigh is working on getting more work for the in-house team, targeting other local authorities, parish councils, housing associations, business parks and developers. Naylor’s team gets involved at the planning stage, offering both maintenance and hard and soft landscaping to developers who build in the borough.

"If you externalise it’s saying you can’t manage it. It’s the same staff and the same equipment."

He said he was helped by a council leader who had "a clear sense of direction" and "a real commitment to in-house services".

The department also recently bought a distribution hub in Birmingham. "We’re buying it because it’s an asset with an existing sitting tenant. We own a significant amount of property in the borough. My view is that if we own it, we have to maintain it.

Newcastle City Council has also been keen to keep services in-house. But this meant that it was paying twice as much for grounds maintenance as some other authorities, according to assistant director: transformation, Tony Durcan. The council was also not making full use of its green space assets.

"The days when we charge thruppance for an event and then spend five times as much cleaning up – that’s got to stop."

He added: "We’re struggling to deliver statutory services."

Durcan gave an update on the city’s plans to turn 480 hectares of its green spaces over to a charitable trust, which would manage them on a 99-year-lease and trade as a social enterprise, with an "enhanced volunteer workforce" with staff supervising.

The current business plan, out to public consultation until next month, is that a £10 million endowment from the council would generate £250,000 annual income, with the expectation that the trust will break even in 10 years. The council would fund the trust £6m until then.

"I think we’ve got a business model that’s much better than I expected.

He said it takes a long time to get your house in order and it was important to agree the scope of transformation and justify it. Investing in internal and external stakeholder management as soon as possible was also important.

Durcan said that "a cautious estimate" was that the project, which has been supported by the National Trust and the HLF, will have spent £1m on development by the end of this year. "It’s quite a risk to the council if it doesn’t work," he said.

But he added: "We are doing something about it. It would be much easier to do nothing and allow it to decline. What would happen is we would have to shut the gates because parks would be unsafe."

The city’s cabinet is due to decide if the trust will go ahead in June.

Head of parks at Watford Borough Council, Paul Rabbitts asked if parks managers were a dying breed. Quoting articles in Horticulture Week and The Guardian, Rabbitts showed the concern voiced about the brain drain of people with park-specific skills over the past five years. He said the role had changed but his answer to his own question was an emphatic "are we extinct? No we definitely are not". 

However he said that parks managers were called a range of things, including environmental services client manager and public realm policy and projects manager and that had led to a watering down of the role. "We’re losing our identity". He said "parks people" should have the word parks in their job title. "It’s what we do".

But he said the modern parks manager needs a wider range of skills:  legal, business acumen, financial management, enforcement, leisure management, property and facilities management, grounds maintenance, commercial events, community and partnership development, volunteering and conservation and horticulture. "If we are the traditional parks managers we will not survive." 

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