Can self-funding strategies deliver a secure future for parks?

Parks services are turning to increasingly radical measures to cope with rapidly diminishing budgets.

Netham Park, Bristol. Image: Andrew Bennett/Flickr
Netham Park, Bristol. Image: Andrew Bennett/Flickr

Newcastle City Council has warned that it will run out of money for discretionary services completely by 2020 and is investigating moving maintenance and management of 33 of the city’s parks and allotments, more than 400ha of land, into a charitable trust. The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded the council £237,500 to help develop the model.

Liverpool's Strategic Green & Open Spaces Review Board has recommended the city's parks be put into a "blended finance" endowment trust to protect them as the city faces the loss of all its Government funding.

Now Bristol City Council has decided that it will cut its parks budget completely by the 2019-20 financial year and suggested the city will find ways for its parks to be self-funding by then. Cuts outlined in its current budget, passed on 21 February, include cutting £425,000 in 2017-18, £632,000 in 2018-19 and £2.86m in 2019-20.  

But how achievable is this and what do local authorities need to do to go down this path?

Nottingham City Council head parks and open spaces Eddie Curry and his team have been aiming to free themselves from the uncertainty of council budgets for six years and have made it to a 90% income verses 10% council funding ratio, with a plan to hit 100% by 2020. But they started from an already commercial footing — 50% of their £5.5m annual budget.  

Curry says: "We’ve had a commercial approach for quite a long time now. It’s not something you can turn on overnight. There’s a longstanding requirement to have the right portfolio to make it happen. Small sums from each of them make a contribution to the bottom line."

He adds that while all parks departments have opportunities to make money from their estate, some have greater opportunities than others. For example, Curry’s portfolio includes a 180-berth marina on the Trent River.

The Parks Alliance chairman Matthew Bradbury agrees. "Nottingham has had a much longer period of time, it’s not just this quick hit. It also depends on your estate. Some parks have plenty of commercial opportunities and others very few. It can’t be one-size-fits-all."

Curry has nearly reached his target by a combination of raising income, driving down costs and working in partnership with commercial operators. For example, artificial grass company Showcase Greens invested £250,000 in new adventure golf facilities and pays Nottingham an annual rent on a long-term lease to operate them.

Despite its success, Curry says "there are still some real challenges" for Nottingham. "There are no easy solutions," he adds, pointing out that that cost-cutting can reduce a department’s ability to be entrepreneurial. "It’s a vicious circle for some authorities."

He expresses doubts about Bristol, or any city’s, ability to achieve results in just three years. "They need to be more realistic about what’s achievable based on a commercial assessment of the assets and what’s needed to be invested in it.

He also warns: "You can’t commercialise everything and there will always be a need to cross-subsidise."

Bradbury says a primary concern is that level of commercialisation might damage the very thing that any local authority parks department would be keen to protect. "My personal point of view is that this would be impossible to do that quickly unless they’ve already identified a commercial programme. It’s a huge amount of money that’s got to be created as profit on commercial activity."

He adds that typically park-related commercial activity will deliver a five-to-10% profit, which would mean Bristol's parks department would need to generate a massive £39m to £78m turnover to make back its current £3.9m annual council subsidy.

Nene Park Trust in Cambridgeshire, where Bradbury is chief executive, sees about a 4% return on its endowment fund.  

Parks consultant Peter Neal, whose in-depth State of UK Public Parks reports for the Heritage Lottery Fund outline the extent of cuts and commercial enterprises around the country, says Bristol is facing similar challenges to many other cities in funding its parks service in the future.

"Aiming to be self-funded is ambitious and requires significant change in the way parks are managed, income is generated, the organisation is structured and new partnerships are formed, and this can take considerable time," he says.

"Central to this is the need to account for both revenue and capital funding and the danger in this process is that future capital needs are overlooked or undervalued. Establishing some form of endowment is one measure that can help add confidence and safeguard the fabric of the city’s parks in the future.

"So the Bristol Parks Forum, who have championed Bristol’s parks and green spaces for many years, are right to challenge the process to ensure it is both robust and well considered, and the model is sustainable in the long term."        

Bradbury also welcomes the forum’s challenge of the plans. "It needs to be reviewed," he says. "The Parks Alliance will put pressure and continue to put pressure on the Department for Communities & Local Government to publish its response to the parks inquiry report and continue to support local authorities to explore other ways of funding parks, which will almost certainly be blended funding models."

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