The first year of swingeing public spending cuts saw many local authorities move to protect their higher-profile historic parks from the worst of the budget reductions facing green-space departments. But with a second year of cuts underway and more to come, even historic parks that have been afforded a degree of protection are under threat. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in particular is concerned that historic parks that have received hundreds of millions in lottery money could become neglected again.
So what can the HLF do to ensure that its expenditure on historic parks has not been in vain and what options are open to cash-strapped local authorities that need funding to maintain their historic parks to the required standard?
Peter Wilkinson, a director at green-space consultancy the Next Field, says historic parks are particularly vulnerable to local authority budget cuts because they are more costly to maintain. "Historic parks are more expensive per square metre because there is a greater proportion of historic infrastructure, such as railings, boundaries, walls and fountains," he explains. He adds that his local park in Weston-super-Mare has recently lost "good-quality spring and summer bedding" and hanging baskets due to budget cuts.
According to Wilkinson, thanks to initiatives such as the HLF's Parks for People programme, local authorities "better understand the importance of historic parks and gardens". Yet despite this, he warns, the requirement for local authorities to make further cuts means that assets such as historic parks, which may initially have been protected from earlier rounds of cuts, are now being affected.
Wilkinson says the HLF is reminding local authority managers that parks are as important as statutory services, an argument that he says is "well rehearsed", most recently in a report published in June by charity Groundwork calling for a dedicated act of Parliament to protect parks and green spaces from neglect, funding crunches and closure.
Due to concerns about its investment in historic parks potentially being wasted, the HLF announced at the launch of its new strategic framework for 2012-18 that it intends to take a "greater leadership role" with regard to "exploring and sharing new practices in order to protect and add value to our investment in the heritage projects we support".
Chief executive Carole Souter has said the organisation is keen to ensure that lottery investment in public parks is "protected for local people" for the long term. To this end, she said in July that the HLF had included public cemeteries in the Parks for People programme from 2013. In addition, she reiterated that HLF-funded projects are required to apply for the Green Flag standard and be maintained for the duration of a grantee's contract with the HLF.
However, since then the Green Flag Awards have been thrown into controversy. The Government shocked industry leaders with a snap call for tenders to run the scheme with no funding and only one month to firm up detailed bids. The announcement immediately angered green-space professionals, who blamed the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) for dithering for months on the future of the awards, only to throw up a deadline that they insist was all but impossible to meet.
The present contract held by Keep Britain Tidy expired in August but the Government, which promised to launch a new procurement process six months ago, has been criticised for failing to hint at a new time frame. Parks consultant Sid Sullivan says the short notice gave potential bidders for the Green Flag Awards insufficient time to assess the commercial potential of the scheme or possible sponsorship opportunities.
He adds that it would be difficult to "reconcile the risk of the awards" because there is no data to support the DCLG's assertion that the awards present commercial opportunities. In response to the controversy, a HLF spokeswoman said the organisation supports the continuation of the awards and added that it would "await the outcome of the current procurement process and look forward to working with whoever is awarded the license from November onwards".
The HLF's new strategic framework includes provision for £375m of funding per year for the next five years to help the heritage sector "respond in new ways to the conditions it now faces". Of this funding, this financial year the HLF will provide £20m for parks in England and £4m in total for parks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A HLF spokeswoman says the funding earmarked outside England is an "indicative budget". She adds: "If we have good applications (that exceed the budget), it could be increased." The strategic framework outlines proposals for skills development and professional mentoring as well as transition funding for heritage projects struggling with cuts. The HLF will also offer financial support of up to £100,000 for heritage sites in private ownership providing public access is increased. Souter says the HLF will announce more about its plans to support historic parks later this year.
Mac Greenspace Solutions director Russell McDonnell says if councils that have received HLF funding for historic parks are failing to maintain them to the agreed standard they should be forced to repay some of the money. By way of background, the Parks for People programme - a joint venture between the HLF and the Big Lottery Fund - has awarded £232m to public parks across the UK during the period 2006-12.
Applicants to the Parks for People programme provide a management and maintenance plan as part of their second-round application. Once all capital and activity works are completed, the HLF requires funded works to be maintained for the duration of the legal contract and in accordance with an agreed management and maintenance plan, which runs for 10 years after completion of the capital works.
McDonnell also believes that councils struggling to finance the upkeep of historic parks should sell off some of their assets to raise cash. Expressing a view that he says could be controversial, he suggests that local authorities could sell off artwork in public museums. "Councils may need to sell off the family silver - it could be that, for example, 10,000 people will look at paintings, but maybe one million people will go to the park," he explains.
Alternatively, McDonnell says councils could make greater use of section 106 agreements or the community infrastructure levy to secure funding for historic parks. As an example, he points out that councils often exempt very small developments of five or ten homes from section 106 agreements. He argues that section 106 deals should be applied to even the smallest developments to raise funding for historic parks. "If someone puts an extension on their house there should be a section 106 contribution," he maintains.
Meanwhile, according to McDonnell, all parks managers should develop an "asset register" - using GIS mapping - that includes information such as the number of benches in each park, their current condition, when they will need to be replaced and how much they will cost to replace. "This will enable them to gather the evidence to build a costed management plan," he says. "Park managers will be able to say we need this much to refurbish benches and bins, for example, and, if there is the possibility of their funding being cut, they can say: 'This is how many places where we can't guarantee there will be places for people to sit if we do lose funding.'"
David Lambert, parks consultant and expert adviser to the 1999 town and country parks inquiry of the Commons environment, transport and regional affairs committee, says the benefits of high-quality parks are numerous. "Parks have an impact on economic regeneration - good parks raise property prices - and there are public health benefits through healthy walking programmes, for example," he explains.
But Lambert adds that, with the disappearance of CABE Space, the "national debate" regarding parks has stopped. He insists part of the problem is that local authorities are losing power rather than gaining it as a result of the Government's "localism" agenda. "They say it's a local matter and wash their hands of it. But local authorities are being asked to dismantle themselves by being asked to contract out. It's privatisation not localisation."
He says there is no evidence that parks will flourish if they are sold off by local authorities. "The benefit of selling parks has not been demonstrated. Parks don't make money so how can they be run as a business? They have to be subsidised."