Innovative work in parks used to debunk local authority stereotype

Association for Public Service Excellence conference highlights innovative local authority thinking.

A leading voice of the public sector has insisted that the "Daily Mail view of local authority as tea-swilling bureaucrats" is wrong set against its proven commercial and creative acumen.

An Association for Public Service Excellence conference last week focused on parks and street cleaning, sectors that have showed some of the most innovative thinking in recent years, said chief executive Paul O'Brien.

"Hard evidence shows the Daily Mail view of local authority as tea-swilling bureaucrats with the social skills of Mr Bean and the competence of Homer Simpson is not true," he told the Delivering Innovation conference.

O'Brien singled out parks teams working in partnership with other departments or the private sector to raise budgets or boost efficiency. Stockton has eked out £2m of sponsorship from local businesses for floral displays.

North Tyneside has made allotment services more self-sufficient to raise £16,500, Sefton tapped into £500,000 from its health budget to fund gyms in parks and Wakefield raised cash from biomass while splitting play and quad-bike areas' upkeep costs with fire and police.

"You must develop commercial strategies and commercial capacity - think creatively, network and offset budget cuts. Services must become more self-financing, self-reliant and self-sufficient to survive, leaner but not hollowed out. This thinking is now mainstream."

Trafford Borough Council head of operations Alun Morgan said his parks department saved almost £2.5m in two years after restructuring a service that had included 18 head gardeners but only 12 gardeners for 243ha of parks, 212ha of countryside and 216,000 people.

Creating four localised units enabled them to be more focused and responsive, leading to massive savings. Better vehicle utilisation enabled the sale of 26 trucks.

"I'm pretty sure I would have been sacked if this hadn't worked," said Morgan. "We used benchmarking data to assess performance and that helped us to redesign the service to meet demand. But you have to understand that demand to start with."

Halton Borough Council, meanwhile, struggling with a budget cut of almost a third in two years, was forced to shed nine park rangers. It also had to try and shift the running of six visitor centres to community groups.

Open spaces services manager Paul Wright worked with a youth group and a community miniature railway organisation to use two of the centres as group bases but keep them as visitor centres too. A private business took over a third and made it into a cafe.

"They do litter picking at a nearby play area because it benefits their business," said Wright. "More people come to the cafe because there is a nearby and well-looked-after playground."

Council comment

"In some ways localism and 'Big Society' are insulting because in parks and green spaces we have been involved with localism for 30 years. It is nothing new but what worries me is central Government wants to drive down costs to next to nothing, which is a ridiculous concept." - Paul Wright, open spaces services manager, Halton Borough Council

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