How parks can capitalise on popularity

With budget cuts coming, parks managers are finding new ways to generate income, Magda Ibrahim finds.

Richmond Terrace Gardens. Image: HW
Richmond Terrace Gardens. Image: HW

According to a warning issued by chancellor Alistair Darling in last week's budget, the next spending round will be the "toughest for decades".Public spending will be slashed by £20bn by 2012/13 - meaning very few services will escape the guillotine over the coming months and years.

Last week also saw the publication of CABE's report Urban Green Nation, which highlights the value of parks and green spaces as an election tool. However, some cuts are inevitable and local authorities are already reporting reductions in budgets, with experts including parks consultant Sid Sullivan predicting up to 25 per cent cuts.

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Against this backdrop, last week's Association for Public Service Excellence conference - Managing Parks in the Age of Financial Austerity - was a timely exploration of the difficulties ahead. According to assistant chief executive Mark Bramah, the challenge will be to "maximise public support" for parks.

"Undoubtedly, in the pecking order, parks will be down there," he warns. "We need to make sure that parks do not become less of a political priority in difficult economic times."

With parks repeatedly cited in resident satisfaction surveys, and with 87 per cent of people using local spaces, CABE's report argues that politicians need to use such data in the election battle. CABE chief executive Richard Simmons explains: "'If I were a councillor fighting for votes, I'd commit to invest in what makes local residents happy."

While it is naive to believe that budgets will not shrink, there are ways to safeguard services, minimise cuts and raise income.

At Nottingham City Council, head of parks and open spaces Eddie Curry and his team have secured thousands of pounds of extra cash each year through In Bloom sponsorship deals. Firms sponsor elements of the campaign, such as traffic island displays.

The team's work has also meant that councillors have committed investment into the service, and an extra 30 apprentices have been employed through funding from CABE and the Communities and Local Government department's Working Neighbourhoods fund.

At Preston City Council, head of parks and open spaces Matt Kelly has been working on a green space fund to attract private investment into the service. After two years, it is close to launching.

The local authority's corporate director of environment Mick Lovatt says: "Our parks development team has raised £8m investment over the past five years and will raise a further £8m over the next five. It has levered in external investment, which shows there are opportunities for funding out there."

Partnership working has played a key role, he adds, highlighting the need to engage with friends' groups, as well as the wider community, to raise parks' profiles and tap into funding streams not available to local government.

"There are clearly tough times ahead, but there are opportunities - regional development agencies are told to spend, and contractors' prices are low at present," he says.

Sheffield City Council director of parks and countryside Mary Bagley notes that engaging with the city's 76 friends' groups has been invaluable. "They are all out there raising money for us," she says - one group raised more than £1m for its local green space.

Sometimes new ways of working can help raise income, says London Borough of Richmond head of parks and open spaces David Allister, who is part of a group of local authorities in the capital sharing ideas for events

"Why can't we be a bit more business-like?" he asks, adding that a good events policy will "make things easier".

He reveals that Richmond had previously found itself lumbered with £20,000 in costs after putting on a community event. "Remember it is a business," he says. "Think about catering concessions - you can make quite a bit of money from them - and events such as film locations or providing a space for hot-air balloon take-offs."

Ultimately, robust evidence of the benefits parks bring councils - economically as well as socially and environmentally - is the key, says Bramah. "We have to point to performance indicators and make the case to politicians about parks' value," he insists.

Weathering the storm - Halton Borough Council

In January 2009, consultants were called in to Halton Borough Council to review its structure and identify where £5m could be saved. Green spaces in the borough were put under scrutiny and the council's open space services division manager Paul Wright had to fight for his budget.

He believes that one of the reasons for his success in minimising cuts to the service - seven managerial staff lost their jobs, but front-line staff were retained - was a programme of profile-raising that began in 2001.

"I realised we needed to improve our profile and develop a relationship with the service users," he explains. "We became far more vocal and connected to the local communities, as well as being more active in talking to elected members."

The team began to submit data for performance reviews so it could demonstrate its productivity and made inroads into improving playgrounds.

"Because of the work we had done selling our service earlier, a number of people, including councillors, the local authority chief executive and friends' groups, spoke up for us," he said.

Although privatisation had been suggested by the consultants, the strong support for the service meant that it was kept in-house.

"There was going to be some pain," admitted Wright. "We had to cut £500,000, which came from staff reductions and other efficiencies, but we haven't cut front-line staff.

"I know that many other service managers in our authority are very nervous because they have never been exposed to the competitive elements we have been and they are at a loss to defend themselves. Some of them may well be externalised."

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