Survey reveals latest trends in parks income

Fairgrounds, Go Ape treetop adventures, car park charges and allotment fees are up as ways to bring income into parks, while cash from outdoor weddings, tree inspections and hiring out sports pitches are becoming less common, according to the latest State of the Market survey from the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE).

APSE principal parks adviser Wayne Priestley - image: APSE
APSE principal parks adviser Wayne Priestley - image: APSE

The survey, which is run annually, aims to take a snapshot of how local authorities are faring - particularly in the face of hefty and ongoing budget cuts. Its results show that "no one is standing still", said APSE's principal parks adviser Wayne Priestley.

"Everyone has accepted things have to change," said Priestley, speaking at APSE's parks conference held at Tatton Park in Knutsford on 17 March.

He said he is constantly amazed by the creative and myriad ways that parks managers bring in income, from grazing animals to wood fuel, cafes and allotments.

Despite the importance of statutory services such as education and welfare, "there is a growing recognition that parks are critical to the health and well-being of the nation", said Priestley. "You would basically assume we'd won the argument...but parks are still non-statutory and on the whole they are not a political priority, so they are an easy target for budget cuts."

Worryingly, "they are also saleable assets", he pointed out. "Nobody yet has sold a full park but bits are getting nibbled away at." In addition, the money made from parks too often also goes back into a central pot.

That is borne out by the survey's results, which show almost four out of five respondents felt parks were being squeezed unfairly compared to other services. Some 86 per cent said reductions in funding have resulted in a withdrawal of maintenance from some land and an increase in unmaintained land - up from 75 per cent last year.

The survey also found an increase in concerns about the impact of lack of investment in parks on public health and an increasing feeling that volunteers, while extremely valuable, can only contribute to green space maintenance in a limited capacity. Almost 69 per cent expect capital expenditure to fall over the next year and 90 per cent expect revenue to fall. However, 10 per cent of parks managers expect funding to increase by up to five per cent over the next five years, compared to just 1.4 per cent of managers in 2015.

Nine out of 10 have undertaken or plan to undertake a service review and most of these will involve a service redesign. One in four expect a decrease in the number of formal parks or playgrounds in their local authority over the next year, with around one in 50 expecting that decrease to be significant. Almost 28 per cent of respondents said their council has transferred at least one parks asset into community management or ownership over the past two years, and another 30 per cent are considering doing so. Playing fields and buildings were most likely to be transferred, followed by allotments and play areas. No parks have been moved over as yet.

Compulsory redundancy is expected to fall this year, but around 50 per cent of respondents expect voluntary redundancies. Worryingly, those leaving are likely to be the people with the most expertise and skills, exacerbating the skills shortage and potentially having long-term implications for the parks management skills base. Staff absence levels are also increasing, which Priestley said is unsurprising because it is "possibly a morale issue".

The APSE survey will also feed into the Heritage Lottery Fund's (HLF) second State of UK Public Parks report, due out in late summer. HLF head of landscape Drew Bennellick said using the APSE survey data will help ensure the whole country is represented. The new report aims to get "really good examples of the impact that cuts are having" and gather "a considerable body of evidence" of the state of parks. Green-space consultants Peter Neal and Ian Baggott have been commissioned to carry out the research and write the report. The survey will go live after April.

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