The past year has been tough for the man who now wields the biggest influence on the future of the Green Flag Awards, scheme manager for Keep Britain Tidy Paul Todd. Just two months ago, the shock announcement by parks charity GreenSpace that it was to cease trading robbed the scheme at a stroke of both its international development partner and its training partner for developing the scheme's judges.
Both those crucial roles are now to be undertaken by Todd's group which is responsible for the overall management of the scheme.
Dwarfing this more recent challenge was the Government's drastic decision last year to cut Green Flag grant funding of around £1m to zero. That decision was followed by a much delayed and badly timed Department for Communities & Local Government re-licensing tender process that resulted in accusations of incompetence being levelled against the Government from then Institute of Horticulture president Sue Minter.
And all of this has taken place in an environment where for the past three years many parks departments have seen their budgets cut to the bone.
For the scheme to enjoy a secure future in such challenging conditions, said one industry watcher, it must "market to the public as a worthy and reliable benchmark that is sustainable and consistent."
Applications holding up
Away from the bad news, however, there has been one piece of very good news. The number of applications this year, 1,300, has almost matched last year's total in spite of significantly higher entry fees forced on the organisers by the loss of central government funding.
Todd says: "This is really encouraging - the industry has pulled together. The initiative is solely reliant on applications and is one of the few things there to protect our green spaces. The importance of Green Flag will grow because with the loss of GreenSpace it is one of the few things we have left to fight the industry's corner."
The initiative which was launched in 1996 as a benchmark national standard for parks and green spaces has faced what Nottingham City Council head of parks and open spaces Eddie Curry refers to as "mutterings about consistency" in the past couple of years.
"Sometimes the process doesn't happen as consistently as it should and you won't stop that overnight," he explains. "Part of the problem is a park in an urban core city is a bit different from a leafy suburban park. Much depends on the background of the judges and how they view the challenges met to reach the standard."
This is not a Green Flag raspberry, Curry maintains. "Industry uncertainty means there's still a huge role for it to play in continuing the journey of improvement and raising standards," he adds. "The sector has enjoyed a renaissance and improved dramatically. Without a nationally accredited standard we may become fragmented, start to slip back and see weaker standards."
Meanwhile parks consultant and former Green Flag judge, Russell McDonnell, argues that while he sees Green Flag as a powerful tool for engaging communities and supporting councils, the focus needs to be on driving up quality: "Too often a borderline pass remains borderline quality next year, he says.
McDonnell would also like to see 'mystery shopping' as a double check on quality and to avoid the 'wet-paint' element that comes with scheduled judges' visits, while training for judges should be backed up with accreditation by Lantra, he says.
Unfazed, Todd counters: "The big myth of Green Flag is inconsistency of judging. Applicants submit CVs and covering letters and at least 10 per cent will be unsuccessful. Those who get through are trained and mentored by experienced judges - and yes, we have failed a few applicants at this stage."
He continues: "But far from inconsistency, we find a reassuring consistency in judging standards. People who come through are experienced within the industry and have worked in or managed green spaces. They understand management plans and know what the standards should be. Part of the training is to help them apply their knowledge against the Green Flag criteria."
The key word with consistency when it comes to leafy suburbia verses inner city is "appropriateness", adds Todd. One inner-city park manager told him he would not put up the lavish interpretation boards he saw in more affluent areas because they would get vandalised. Instead, he runs educational programmes, and this year both parks fly flags.
Buckingham Palace garden, severely restricted on public access, nevertheless won a Green Flag last year because judges looked at what was appropriate. The garden cannot be open to the public 24 hours a day but engages the community with outreach work. It belongs to the seven per cent of eligible green spaces with a flag. In surface area, 29 per cent of parks have flags.
On borderline passes, Todd says: "If they are still achieving Green Flag standards, parks are crossing the threshold. Yes, we want them to drive up standards and will provide advice on how to do this. It is disappointing if people aren't looking for ways to improve but there's a balance on meeting the standard and saying: 'How about trying to get better year on year?'"
While sites will still be required to apply each year, the judging model is changing. Judging alternates yearly between an announced visit by two judges and a "mystery shopper" visit in year two. This should go some way to reducing the pressure, cited by parks consultant Sid Sullivan, that can be exerted by the host park service.
Parks may or may not be progressing, but Green Flag itself must progress to survive, warns Sullivan. "Paul Todd cares and works fantastically on a very slim budget, but Green Flag has come of age," Sullivan points out.
"A new approach is needed, less happy-clappy, more business-like and involving a plausible USP. At present, it's all about jam tomorrow. I support it but it will not succeed if it does not make changes to its raison d'etre."
International development is Todd's strong card. The Republic of Ireland is due to roll out Green Flag within a year, Germany has 12 parks up to standard thanks to close liaison with Keep Britain Tidy, while a UK team was due to fly out to Australia and New Zealand this month to train judges and agree an annual licence. Such agreements will raise desperately needed cash.
Social housing area
Meanwhile, Todd is working with the National Housing Federation on directing the award towards another potential growth area, social housing, and is teeing up eight pilot projects. In August, he aims to hold an event to encourage more universities to go Green Flag, and he will be helped by Michele Walde, who joined from GreenSpace to lead on judges and development.
Todd says: "The loss of GreenSpace as a national voice is really disappointing but the sector is pretty resilient and sometimes things like this help to galvanise and pull people together. When we put in our bid to run the licence last year, we said we would not reduce standards of the Green Flag Award, and that still applies.
"It's a challenging standard but achievable. We also said we would not reduce emphasis on the judging team. We felt it was very, very important to invest in training and development. We knew putting up fees was risky in this economic climate, but it was a risk we had to take because we weren't prepared to compromise on the scheme."
Green Flag Awards: facts and figures
Keep Britain Tidy manages the Green Flag licence on behalf of the Department for Communities & Local Government following a bidding process last year in which it won a five-year licence.
The team now includes the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens, which supports community groups, and the National Housing Federation, which is promoting the award to the social-housing sector.
Keep Scotland Beautiful, Keep Wales Tidy and Tidy Northern Ireland will manage applications, judging and publicity in their countries.
There is no Government funding for the Green Flag Awards. Costs therefore rose last year from £175 to £299 for sites under 20ha in size and from £225 to £349 for sites bigger than 20ha.
The overall goal of the Green Flag Awards is for everyone in an urban area to be within five minutes' walking distance of accessible, good-quality green space.