The past few months have been some of the busiest ever encountered by the parks charity GreenSpace.
Since taking on the Green Flag Awards contract with BTCV and Encams — or Keep Britain Tidy — the organisation has been focusing on how to take the scheme forward.
Last week the consortium charged with running the scheme for Communities & Local Government delivered its business plan to the department.
The delivery coincided with GreenSpace's conference, Raising the Standard, which was an opportunity for parks managers and Green Flag judges to share best practice and examine how the scheme will develop over the next three years.
During the conference, held in Manchester on 29 September, GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill explained: "We want to see if we can make more out of Green Flag.
"Over the years there has been a huge untapped resource of good practice from the scheme. There are some parks that are continually improving — what can we learn from them?"
As well as the new mystery-shopper element of the judging, which means that parks scoring more than 70 per cent are subject only to spot-checks rather than full inspection, other changes include increasing the judges' training from one day to two days.
A major drive is also planned to attract more judges — up to at least 1,500 from 700 initially, then to 15,000 by 2020. This means that more community judging from parks users could well be on the cards — a strategy that underpins much of the revamp.
The training is to be moved from the autumn to February or March, which is closer to the time of actual judging.
"It will be fresh in judges' minds when they go on site," says Bramhill. "That will help, particularly any new judges."
Some "uncertainty" over what the mystery shopping will entail has led to it evolving into a "quality check", according to Bramhill. If issues are raised on the day, there will be a chance for a park to improve them leading to the Green Flag Award either being retained or taken away.
"That starts to lead us to what might be possible through engagement with the general public," he adds. "A possibility for the future could be that anyone could do that quality check."
One of the major criticisms of the scheme has been its elitist nature. By pouring effort and resources into parks applying for Green Flag, there is the danger that other green spaces in the local authority area are starved of funding.
But a pilot programme to introduce a new category of Green Flag Authority could ensure that that does not happen. Local authorities do not have to achieve Green Flag status in all of their parks, but the organisation must demonstrate considerable commitment to the scheme across its area.
GreenSpace is looking for 20 authorities to take part in the pilot, with a group expected to be formed by the end of October. "We've had a lot of interest already," says Bramhill. "We plan to develop the programme over the winter and spring."
The aim is to explore what could be looked at to ensure the quality of all sites. Piloting all of the changes will take place over the next two seasons to September 2011, with possible full implementation from October 2011 to February 2012.
"We are not saying we are going to get it right in year one," says Bramhill.
Green Flag Award scheme manager Paul Todd tells there is a "balance" to be struck because people are nervous about changes taking place.
"We have to get things moving but the changes will not all be happening at once," he explains.
Elements that local authorities would need to fulfil to meet such an expansive award would be to show a real commitment to promoting and celebrating Green Flag.
This is essential to raising the profile of a scheme that, while well-received within the parks sector, is virtually unknown to the general public.
Research carried out as part of the new consortium's review of Green Flag shows that a mere four per cent of people surveyed know about the scheme.
"We need to think of ways to get the message out," adds Bramhill. "That will be a fundamental shift."
The authorities could also be required to carry out a self-assessment of all their parks and green spaces, and must be "committed to engaging user views on a regular basis".
Crucially, the authority must explore community engagement opportunities that could exist in the assessment of parks, as well as showing a commitment to a range of judging approaches. This could include developing a larger judging base within the authority that can assess internally as well as externally, and exploring ways in which "friends" or other groups could contribute.
"I know people are worried that [a park] might get judged by particular groups who are going to say that nothing is ever good, but this is about understanding the role that communities can play," adds Bramhill.
With the scheme growing by around 20 per cent every year — around 1,000 parks achieved Green Flag status in 2009 — there is an urgent need to address issues of judging capacity, as well as variability.
"We need to make it relevant in a very demanding time, when we have to show how important green-space services are to our own colleagues, as well as the general public," urges Bramhill.
If GreenSpace, Encams and BTCV can get it right, the scheme could help become the funding lever for all parks, not just the ones with the flag pole.