Parks funding solutions for cash-strapped local authorities

When it comes to the much-debated future for public parks it is often said there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

This was aptly demonstrated at The Future of Parks: Policy, Practice & Research conference held at the British Academy on 13 July, when practitioners outlined solutions developed by local authorities, contractors and other models.

The ground-breaking conference was hosted by the University of Leeds and sponsored by Leeds Social Sciences Institute and idverde, with support from The Parks Alliance (TPA), Groundwork and Historic England. It succeeded in its aims to bring together researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to explore the role and value of public parks in the 21st century, to explore both academic research and on-the-ground experience and discuss the various ways the parks sector can and is coping with the funding crisis. It was also a valuable networking space and discussed where further research would be useful to the sector, rather than simply interesting.

Chair of the Communities & Local Government Committee Clive Betts MP was able to attend, having been re-elected the night before, even if he was unable to discuss the Government’s response to the committee’s parks inquiry report as planned because it was delayed by the snap general election.

He urged delegates to encourage people to lobby their MPs and get them to read the report. "Most of my colleagues didn’t read the parks inquiry report but what they do read is letters from their constituents," he said.

Getting as many policy-makers engaged in the issue as possible is crucial for the sector, whose biggest issue by far is funding, according to a recent survey by TPA. The second session, chaired by TPA chairman Matthew Bradbury, shared innovations and lessons from practice on maximising the value of parks.

Shared Assets co-founder Mark Walton outlined the emerging models for managing parks, from community partnerships with Friends or resident groups to asset transfer and parks improvement districts.

Asset transfer

The conference heard from three asset transfer examples. Wandle Valley Trust has brought in £1.4m in investment since 2014, said chief executive Sue Morgan, with developments including physical improvements, a new strategy, branding and the Get Active Wandle Valley programme, which attracted a three-year grant from Sport England.

Morgan said the trust’s 900ha of green space, 12 nature reserves and 15-mile Wandle Trail are "a significant tourist draw with both new and emerging heritage". It serves a population of 700,000 stretching across four councils and eight business improvement districts. "We’re not just looking at parks — we’re looking at green infrastructure, we’re looking at the spaces in between," she explained.

Morgan outlined three key stages:

  • Development — including vision limited core funding from four boroughs and the National Trust, and gaining charity status
  • Transitional — getting funding, needs analysis, business plan, securing assets and core income
  • Implementation — including developing a subregional delivery partnership to pool resources.

She is currently awaiting the results of several "hefty funding bids". She told the conference: "I’m not working with the local authority any more. What I’m doing is working with other asset managers."

Clare Olver’s mission at The Mersey Forest is to establish a "natural health service" by promoting the health and well-being benefits of trees and woodlands and working with health professionals to maximise the use of woodlands. She brought together a consortium of organisations and developed products targeted at specific conditions, such as health walks, mindful contact with nature, practical conservation and horticultural therapy.

"We might market health walks as something else — for example, history walks," she suggested. "It's health by stealth." Students from both the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University are studying the effects of the various products.

Assistant director at Newcastle City Council Tony Durcan also outlined his city’s plans to establish a trust to care for 502ha of green space across 118 sites with an initial endowment of £10m-£15m, in response to a 90% reduction in the council’s parks budget due to austerity. The city council has since given the go-ahead for the parks transformation team to work up detailed proposals ahead of a final decision in October.

Role for contractors

Meanwhile, conference sponsor and Europe’s largest green-space contractor idverde was keen to point out contractors can also manage transformation. Bromley in south London has delegated many functions, including allotments and sports facilities, to community management. It also delegated park management to idverde, its existing grounds maintenance provider. Sarah Hughes-Clarke, idverde strategic development director, says the decision saved the borough £1.1m in under three years.

"It doesn’t matter if parks are managed by the private sector or the public sector, just don’t put an artificial boundary between the people doing the work and the people using the parks," she said at the conference.  

This model includes employing a dedicated commercial manger to market park assets, on a 50:50 profit share agreement with the council. Bromley’s Environmental Education Centre (BEECHE) was losing £80,000 a year but will go into profit next year. "In our first year we made £150,000 from assets. In the previous year it was £12,000," said Hughes-Clarke.

"You can access private-sector thinking and behaviours without having to outsource. There are other models," she added. These include a joint venture with a private company, with staff working for the joint venture and a management contract with the private firm, a community interest company jointly owned by the council and a private firm, or something completely different.

She said lessons learned include recognising that volunteers need a lot of management input. "But if you invest in your volunteers, they will pay you back many times over." Also, income generation in parks requires sales and marketing skills, which a parks manager may not have. "If you can justify it, bring in a business manager, even if only part-time."

Tony Stringwell, senior project manager at Leeds City Council, explained that its transformation came from within, with officers developing an entrepreneurial mindset to develop innovation with "significant public and staff engagement". It is a continuing challenge that "requires continued innovation, enterprise and ambition".

The department has grown its gross income from £14m in 2010-11 to £21m now, allowing expenditure to stay level at £28m. It went from £0 to £350,000 from concession permits and brings in £300,000 in sponsorship.

At its Tropical World venue it researched its audience, created a development plan and invested in a refurbishment, better retail offer and spruced up marketing, as well as saving £25,000 a year by moving to biomass heating. As a result, visitor numbers are now at 380,000 per year, up 45%, with admissions income up from £631,000 to £1.2m and gross margins up by 127% from £448,000 to just over £1m.

Shop takings rose by 85% from £233,000 in 2012-13 to £430,000 in 2015-16 and the gross margin was up by 77% from £79,000 to £140,000. The Tropical World Café saw income go up by £195,000 to £419,000 in the same time period, with gross margin up to 164%.

Turnover is now £2m with additional positive revenue contribution of £713,000 — equivalent to almost 10% of the net cost of the city’s parks and countryside service.

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