Industry figures baulk at volunteer model suggestion for parks services facing cuts

Green space specialists have reacted with concern to a suggestion from the new Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA) head Rob Whiteman that parks services facing radical cuts could be delivered via a more volunteer-oriented model like the National Trust.

Speaking to the Guardian last week about council services including parks, Whiteman said: "Running things is probably going to be more like the National Trust, where we rely on interested parties, volunteers and communities rather than employing everybody."

He argued that there was a need for greater localism in the delivery of all services. Explicitly addressing how that might apply to parks, he said: "We could have a London Trust that runs our parks and open spaces and would be accountable to local government, which would set it up but would capture the involvement of communities in being able to run their own parks.

"We're going to see new models developed where local councils join together to create vehicles for the community to run their own services - where people say: 'We'll run that now on a voluntary basis.'"

But his comments were greeted with scepticism by parks consultants. Sid Sullivan said: "The view of a 'third sector' or public interest in running all parks is naive and defies experience. The public do not want to, do not have the experience and would be unable to achieve much on the likely budget. That is before we consider issues such as, capacity, experience, expertise, willingness and equality."

Consultant Ken McAnespie added: "[Whiteman] seems to have missed the point that National Trust properties are only visited by a fraction of the population, are only open a very few hours and months of the year and cost trust members several times more than the 3p per person per day that parks currently cost. It is a very poor analogy."

A CABE representative said: "Volunteers play a key role in improving open spaces because they bring passion, commitment and knowledge to looking after the spaces they care about. However, we need to ensure we don't place an overwhelming burden on civic society."

HW voiced the industry's concerns to Whiteman in an exclusive interview on his first day in office as head of the body responsible for "supporting improvement and innovation in local government". He conceded his comments were meant as provocation for a debate and argued that the public should have the final say in which services they wish to protect from cuts.

Asked if he felt the National Trust was an appropriate analogy to use for how best to deliver parks services given the amount of funding it receives, the expertise required to carry them out and the will of the public to do so, Whiteman said: "I can understand all of these questions - I think they are very credible. But the status quo isn't going to remain either because councils are facing such severe budget issues over the next few years.

"The National Trust employs around 10,000 people on all its activities and works alongside 47,000 volunteers. So what I'm saying is that balance that occurs where services are provided not entirely by employing people is worth looking at."

He insisted that it was not for professionals or for him to make such decisions but that local communities should choose which services to protect.

"The trust is a really interesting model to look at for a number of public services. If it is a good model for parks, that is a question for the community. If communities say actually the model is an interesting model, then... "

He added: "The idea of a land trust I felt was an example of how people living in the greater area may be invested in an asset transfer and volunteering. I'm not suggesting that's a viable idea but that these ideas have to be discussed. It (the Guardian article) is a think piece."

Localism and asset transfer were recognised by parks consultants as valid points for discussion. Parks consultant Alan Barber said the bleak financial outlook was making asset transfer begin to look attractive.

He highlighted the devolved Milton Keynes Parks Trust as an authority with "an excellent track record". But he warned that the obstacles were formidable. "My belief is that the community group must have the size, expertise and resources to undertake the task," he said.

Sullivan agreed, adding: "What the article misses is that it is not the National Trust model that we should consider, it is the Milton Keynes model. There is an opportunity, with some local variations, that is worthy of closer scrutiny."

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