Analysis: Parks management in an age of austerity

Tools that could help to protect parks' budgets are already being used by some services, Jack Sidders finds.

Public servants could be forgiven for having austerity fatigue after nearly two years of constant talk about tightening purse strings. But while the banks last week returned to bulging profits, there are more than two months to go before the Government's all-important spending review is finally unveiled.

With this in mind, the recent Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) conference for parks professionals, in Windsor, sought to arm delegates with the weapons they will need to help defend their limited resources.

While many messages were familiar - build relationships with decision makers, know the value of your assets - the real world examples on offer showed that talk of saving services need not necessarily prove pie in the sky. Of the many strong presentations - ranging in focus from strategic commissioning to partnership working - two jumped out as particularly prescient.

Halton Borough Council open space services division manager Paul Wright gave a fascinating insight into his authority's experience of an efficiency review, underlining the key weapons parks managers will need to protect themselves from the worst of the cuts.

Meanwhile, London borough of Richmond head of parks and open spaces David Allister showed how authorities can make money from parks, rather than just save on them.


Last year, a £5m black hole in the budgets of Merseyside authority Halton Borough Council saw external consultants brought in. Auditors were told to look at the council's structure, focusing on management, administration and IT, initially ignoring service provision.

But as Wright explains, parks soon found themselves in the crosshairs. "Our parks were probably in as a good a condition as they had been for 50 years. We have 12 Green Flags and most of the good news the council got came from parks. But because section 106 funds had dried up, the council had a financial problem and it was decided that green space should be looked at because it was the strongest service."

Parks and open spaces, allotments, street scene, cemeteries and rangers were all in the scope of the cuts. Asked to look at the service value, cost-effectiveness, quality and ability to be carried out differently, the consultants leant towards privatisation. "I would say they had a bias to externalisation," claims Wright. "They wanted to package us up and sell us to the private sector."

It was there, he explains, that APSE's performance networks data proved invaluable, as the team was able to show how it compared to other authorities. "I got the feeling the consultants were not best pleased with all this evidence being thrown at them," adds Wright. "Secondly, we had member support. They were vociferous about us and they wanted us to stay. The same was true of senior management. Without that, it might have been another story."

The council's operations director and local community groups stood up for the green space team and, together with a solid evidence base showing a good quality and value for money service, they helped limit the damage in the final recommendations.

Together with minor structural changes, the consultants suggested savings of £500,000 could be made, derived from a combination of staff reductions, increased charges to schools and "other efficiencies".

This figure grew to £550,000 but, crucially, it was in street scene and not parks where savings were made. However, as a parting warning, Wright told delegates that ongoing problems have forced the council to reopen the process and parks could once again be on the cutting agenda.


Not every authority will enjoy the same income opportunities as Richmond, Allister acknowledges. But, he argues, there is scope for reappraisal in such times and parks should stop gearing themselves to say "no" whenever approached to host an event and instead start actively encouraging them.

"I think traditional events policies are quite negative and maybe that needs to change," he explains. "Think about substituting the word 'park' for the word 'venue' - we need to start aiming higher than the traditional types of events. Big screens for sporting events, film locations, hot air balloon take offs - not all of them will work in every park, but we are in difficult times so be proactive."

Partnerships are the key to making events work, according to Allister, who advocates getting the local community on board to help win over councillors. Residents may be reluctant to see events hosted locally, but friends' groups might be more understanding if they see their financial value, he claims.

"Get internal departments like licensing and environmental health involved at the earliest possible opportunity. Work with event organisers - tell them your priorities." Allister urged delegates to borrow ideas from business to market, manage and price events, warning that public assets often have a reputation for inefficiency.

"Set up your website so that when someone Googles event locations in your area they will find you," he adds. "The private sector will charge a huge amount for marquee hire, so don't undersell yourself. Get a cut of the gate receipt where possible." Finally, he says managers should start small, picking a couple of parks that are well-suited to events. "Make them look nice," he adds. "And make sure your contractor knows - you are trying to sell the park."

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