Interview - Liz Gifford, chair, Milton Keynes Parks Trust

Liz Gifford is a consultant in economic development, which may help in her new role as chair of the Milton Keynes Parks Trust. The independent charity owns and cares for the city's parks and green spaces, which includes 1,800ha of parkland, river valleys, woodland and lakesides, as well as the landscaped areas alongside the main roads - in total, about 20 per cent of the city's area.

Interview - Liz Gifford, chair, Milton Keynes Parks Trust - image: HW
Interview - Liz Gifford, chair, Milton Keynes Parks Trust - image: HW

Q: What is the Parks Trust's raison d'etre?

A: In most places, parks are owned and managed by the local authority, but the founders of Milton Keynes wanted to be sure that local landscapes would be managed and protected forever, without having to compete for funds with other council priorities. The Parks Trust was created by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in 1992 to care for most of the city's green space and is entirely self-financing.

Q: Would you say the trust is a trailblazer for localism?

A: We could be a trailblazer, but we did get endowed with assets including a substantial property and investment portfolio of office blocks and supermarkets, not all of them in this city. Localism needs the wherewithal to operate and that's the big question mark. I know parishes that are keen to take on more responsibility for their parks but they will need funding. Some localism is sleight of hand - you get responsibilities but the host body doesn't have the funding.

Q: So where does your money come from?

A: We have 999-year leases on the parkland we maintain, and most of the income for this comes from rent on our properties. Over the years, we have sold buildings and bought better ones. We spend £5m a year on the parkland and you have to collect a lot of rent to cover that. We will continue to buy and sell property and invest our money prudently to increase value - although sometimes you take a hit, as we did with the stockmarket crash in 2008 and ensuing recession.

Q: What can you bring to the table?

A: I'm a keen gardener, but not a horticulturist. However, I have run big secondary schools and am a member of the Chartered Management Institute. My role is more about the overview of the whole direction of where we are going. We have ambitions - ambitions are important in this economic climate - to launch a new biodiversity action plan. This would involve creating more wildlife habitats, wildflower enrichment areas in parkland, conservation plans and wild-bird-cover plants. We have seeded more than 135ha of land - the equivalent of 300 football pitches - with spring flowers.

Q: What is your most pressing concern?

A: There is more development going on in Milton Keynes and maintaining the quality of the landscape will be one of the most pressing concerns, along with finding the finance. The development of Milton Keynes shows that a new city can be built in a relatively short time. However, a mature, well-structured landscape takes longer to develop and needs regular and continuing management. In the early years of the new city, to create a green and attractive landscape quickly, trees and shrubs were planted at high densities with large numbers of fast-growing plants used in the planting mixes. It was always planned that rigorous management would be needed to create a healthy and sustainable environment, and that still applies.

Q: Where would you like to be in five years?

A: I would like to see greater biodiversity in our parks, and I'd like the community to understand us more and work with us. As well as our biodiversity plans, we are about to embark on a community-engagement project, because there are people who still aren't sure who is responsible for their green spaces. Showing that we care is important, as is involving the community. This should ensure that we get more positive support and give people hope that there is a positive body out there.

Q: Is the negative press about new towns ever justified?

A: I live in Milton Keynes - it was the last new town, the biggest and the most successful. The city has a strong private sector and economy, but it's not perfect and we have suffered with a rise in unemployment. However, the Parks Trust looks after around 4,500 acres of green space, which is threaded through the city, so no-one is ever more than half a mile from green space. Given the recent research carried out on the health and well-being benefits of green space, elements of Milton Keynes remain new in ethos.

CV

1970: Aberdeen University

1974 onward: Posts in teaching and economic development

1995: Trustee, Milton Keynes Parks Trust

2007: Deputy chair, Milton Keynes Parks Trust


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