Nottinghamshire and Buckinghamshire investigate country parks asset transfer

Nottinghamshire County Council has become the latest local authority to propose "market testing" some of its parks services to "see whether other providers could provide better value for money".

Nottingham's proposal to outsource the running of its country parks is the latest move towards asset transfer. It follows authorities including Buckinghamshire, which is considering proposals for the management of its country parks.

The service review in Nottinghamshire is seeking to save £120m over the next four years and covers a shortlist of 11 "trading services" including facilities management at Sherwood Forest and Rufford Country Parks as well as landscape maintenance.

Corporate director Tim Malynn, who is leading these reviews, said: "Like every other council in the country, we're facing massive financial pressures and we must now look seriously at who is best placed to provide some services and how they can be best delivered in the future.

"We will be investigating whether the private sector could potentially provide better value for money for our tax payers. I understand that this will inevitably cause some anxiety among our employees, but they should be reassured that jobs are protected by law, which means that if any services that the council runs are transferred to another provider, their jobs would be transferred too as part of that agreement.

"Whether the council directly provides the service itself or not, it still remains responsible and accountable for those services. The public should be reassured that maintaining the quality of our services is paramount."

In Buckinghamshire, the county council is now considering management models for four country parks and up to 40 green spaces covering 680ha. A council representative said the country parks and green spaces project board would decide on the next stage of the project later this week.

Market testing includes options for management by public sector bodies including parish councils, a shared public sector model including other local authorities, transfer to a not-for-profit trust, keeping the services in house or a combination of options.

But some experts have questioned the claims that such moves can deliver better value services without compromising on quality. Parks consultant Alan Barber said: "The saddest part of all this is that current local authorities have lost touch with their core business of managing and maintaining the public realm.

"I have read the Buckinghamshire prospectus and it makes their parks and green spaces sound like burdens rather than assets."

He continued: "I think it makes a difference as to who takes on the task. A profit-taking enterprise may lose sight of the public realm and try to draw in money from commercial enterprises in the parks.

"Buckinghamshire quotes £400,000 pa for the total running cost, which seems light, but there is no indication of their investment needs so who will watch over standards? This is essential if they are to hand over to many different agencies working to different models."

Consultant Sid Sullivan also raised concerns, questioning why a third party would wish to manage an asset that its prime owner could not adequately finance and predicted asset transfer would become increasingly common.

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