The Government has shocked industry leaders with a snap call for tenders to run the Green Flag Awards with no funding and only one month to firm up a detailed bid.
Communities & Local Government (CLG) posted a scant two-page notice on Tenders Electronic Daily on Monday. It invited bids for a five-year contract with no central funding other than a small amount of transitional cash. The deadline is 28 August, and the department did not comment.
The announcement immediately angered green-space professionals, who blame CLG for dithering for months on the future of the award, only to throw up a deadline that they insist is all but impossible to meet.
The present contract held by Keep Britain Tidy expires in August but the Government, which promised to launch a new procurement process six months ago consistently failed to deliver or hint at a new timeframe.
Consultant Russell McDonnell, a long-serving Green Flag judge, said he had now abandoned thoughts of a bid because the loss of around £800,000 of Government funding would make administration too crippling a cost.
"It's a huge undertaking and the loss of that money will have serious implications. Contractors who were interested, and still are, will drive up entry costs if they have no funding - entry can already amount to around £1,000 for a large park," he said.
"This will filter out a lot of entries. Liverpool recently quit because it couldn't afford it and this will seriously knock back the award at a time when they should be putting the pound into parks not taking it out. I think that the scheme will collapse."
McDonnell said a consortium of groups such as the Land Trust, Natural England and the Association for Public Service Excellence might have been interested in running Green Flag but none would have the time to pull together a bid. Meanwhile, lack of funding would kill off any interest.
A Land Trust spokeswoman said: "We are interested in the award but the money issue makes it a little less convincing and suggests that the Government isn't as committed to setting standards in green spaces as it once was. It is disappointing."
Ken McAnespie, who co-founded the scheme in 1995, said: "With no funding I can't see the award continuing. You would need to spend time developing a business model based on sponsorship but we are in recession and that would be very difficult."
RHS community horticulture manager Stephanie Eynon was surprised that the process had not been deferred but said the RHS was interested in involvement. However, details on the invitation to tender, such as financial ability, were too scarce to commit.
"It's a very short turnaround time, especially when many people are on holiday. I'm not in a position to say we would bid and don't know whether we would have the capacity to deliver over a five-year period."
But she added: "There is a link with aspects of Green Flag and what we do in terms of community emphasis. We were in talks long before anyone had an inking of what they were going to do with the contract on how we could work together in a mutually beneficial way."
Paul Todd, Green Flag Award scheme manager at Keep Britain Tidy said: "We have only just seen the notice and can't comment until the procurement process is over on whether we will go for it, what happens if we don't get it and what the impact could be on us or the scheme."
The news of the tender came just weeks after award managers announced a record number of Green Flags had been awarded this year.
Sid Sullivan, parks consultant
"It will be impossible to undertake due diligence or assessment of the current Green Flag systems and staffing. Without government funding the scheme requires a worrying degree of reliance on sponsors and marketing. This could result in price increases, a much slimmer judging cohort and reduced frequencies, such as every two or three years. It is not good that such an important award is being shoehorned into such a short time line."