The Government is preparing the nation for the deepest cuts in 25 years, in which spending will fall nominally for the first time since 1947. With next week's emergency budget likely to set the scene for painful decisions still to come, parks providers are preparing for a revolution in the way their services are delivered.
However, despite prime minister David Cameron's ominous predictions about the country's finances, last week's Saving Your Service conference, organised by parks charity Greenspace, offered some signs for optimism and cast light on a sector that seems motivated to tackle difficulties head on.
Though it may be too early to tell quite where the coalition will take us, CABE Space head of public space, strategy and design Peter Neal told delegates how the Government's urban space adviser views the political outlook. "Many consider we are moving from prosperity to austerity, but it has always been tight for parks and we have always had a need to prove our worth whatever the circumstances," he explained.
"In certain ways, while the current climate is challenging, it will start becoming clearer with the emergency budget and the pre-budget report in November, which I think will start looking more strategically. We are really going to have to seriously look at a whole range of techniques and approaches, and not in a piecemeal manner but far more ambitiously, judging from the policies coming out of Number 10. Fundamentally, it is about repositioning."
Neal identified cost reduction, welfare reform and localism as the three key influences on the repositioning that parks would undergo. He said the autumn debate on the Decentralisation & Localism Bill would provide the crucial forum for debate on how the localism agenda would be manifested.
Welfare reform will provide another important driver for change, he added, describing the potential to develop new and green economies. He said it would be crucial for parks providers to take part in these debates and to draw on the growing evidence base to justify their budgets and seek to find new partnerships, tying in with the political agenda. "Things are challenging ahead, but there are many tales we can take heart from and continue to build good green space services," he concluded.
"We are not going back 10 or 20 years because we are now more informed about the urban space and parks agenda. The popularity of the parks service is increasingly interesting because the Government is going to ask the community what they value and what should be cut. Parks are joint-top of the 2009 Place Survey and are a long way ahead of cultural services. In certain ways it may not be about the money, it may be about priorities, so it may be possible to sweeten the bitter pill."
London Borough of Islington performance and improvement manager Jerry Gutwin continued in an upbeat vein, explaining how asset auditing could help to protect parks expenditure. He said it can achieve better procurement through the standardisation of assets, reduced maintenance costs by using preferred assets, reduced provider costs by getting rid of unnecessary assets and lower utilities, litigation and insurance costs.
Gutwin added: "You need to know what you have. If you don't, how can you make decisions about how to move forward? If you have a detailed picture of what you have got, you can show how much you actually need. You will never get that, but it will help you protect what you have. Anecdotal evidence is nothing - we have to provide solid costs."
London Borough of Richmond head of parks and open spaces David Allister echoed Neal and said it was vital to forge strong relationships with politicians and decision makers. He suggested reminding councillors that parks are a public indicator of how the council is performing and that they are used by all sections of the community, so are even more important in times of recession.
He said they were a direct influence on house prices with the potential to generate a lot of income. "Be positive," he urged. "Green space has never been higher on the political and social agenda. Sell the benefits of your service. Link your priorities to corporate priorities and political manifestos. As new initiatives arise, don't see them as a barrier, think how to use them to your service's benefit. See change as an opportunity to improve your service and what it provides. To reposition your service you must use all opportunities."
Bristol Parks Forum chair Fraser Bridgeford and the city council liaison officer Raquib Khandker offered their experience as an example of what friends groups could do for parks providers. Bridgeford told delegates the forum had achieved protection for existing investment, £250,000 for additional park keepers through lobbying, funding for reparation work in new contracts and a high profile for the city's parks.
Bridgeford was backed up by Gutwin, who said: "Friends groups are becoming increasingly important. Sometimes they can be a double-edged sword, but they are voters and they have access to funds you don't get, and they can lobby councillors on your behalf."
London Borough of Tower Hamlets director of Mile End Park Michael Rowan highlighted the value of volunteers, offering an example of how Cameron's "big society" idea might be interpreted. Using a model of paying corporate volunteers from some of the city's biggest companies, he said he had been able to bring in good income, carry out work that would not otherwise be cost-effective and provide a conduit for volunteers.
Summing up the event, Rowan concluded: "I came here thinking that this would be depressing, but it has given me hope - we don't have to lie down and take it."
SPEAKERS' TOP TIPS
- Audit your assets and maintain an up-to-date database.
- Understand the value of your assets.
- Develop friends groups and use them to lobby councillors.
- Build a relationship with a key political advocate.
- Show them the benefit of your service by giving real examples.
- Tie your green space strategy in with other authority services.
- Link your service priorities to corporate priorities/political manifestos.