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Public parks - innovation and investment

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and BIG Lottery Fund (BIG) used the UK Public Parks Summit to announce a £100m investment in public parks over the next three years. PSE discussed the investment, the summit and the wider context with Drew Bennellick, head of landscape and natural environment at HLF.

There are more than 25,000 parks in the UK – possibly as many as 30,000, though the figure is disputed. Since 1996, HLF has invested about £640m to improve 700 of them. Drew Bennellick, head of landscape and natural environment, told us: “A lot of that investment has been through supporting local authorities to deliver regeneration projects.

“But as everyone is acutely aware, local authorities are now under huge pressure to reduce budgets; public parks in particular, being a non-statutory service, are prone to suffering. We want to try to avoid a ‘boombust’ scenario, as was the case when our funding was needed due to problems dating back to the 1970s and 80s with a lack of investment – we don’t want to go back there.

“Plus, 700 is actually only a tiny percentage of the total number of parks in the country and we want to share what we’ve learnt from investing in some really good projects more widely, to help others to improve.”

But the local authority funding situation is a real problem, meaning the UK Public Parks Summit on October 25 also focused heavily on looking at new models, new funding streams and ideas from around the world on caring for parks. Bennellick said: “We were trying to flag up that there is a major issue here that really needs some creative thinking.”

HLF supplies funds for capital projects, and does not get involved in funding day-to-day revenue. Its money has been used to get them back into the right condition, focusing on drainage, lakes, path structures, railings, bandstands and so on, especially in historic parks.

He said: “They’re the things that are often expensive to maintain and, with dwindling resources, the long term major conservation projects have probably been neglected. We’ve also supported projects to help with learning, engaging with a wider audience, increasing activities in parks, so parks get a fresh face and a fresh life ahead of them.

“I was worried we might see demand for the programme decrease because a lot of local authorities have had to lay off their development staff, who have been the people who put together applications. We’re actually seeing application levels staying pretty consistent, as a lot of people realise they need to invest in parks to help resolve long-term management issues and to try to reduce the amount of money wasted on repairing vandalism and graffiti. They are also looking at new opportunities to increase parks’ revenue generation, whether it’s building a new enterprise that could be run by a Friends group as a social enterprise, or renewable energy, we’ve seen that as well.”

A common change in the way local authorities have been managing sites, he said, is for responsibilities to be merged from multiple managers into one.

HLF funds both major and minor projects: bigger ones, from £100,000 to £5m, through its Parks for People targeted programme, delivered by the site owner, which in 95% of cases has been a council but occasionally a trust. It also provides smaller grants, of £3,000 to £100,000 through what is known as its open programmes, with applications coming from voluntary societies and ‘Friends of’ park groups. These have often been for memorial and bandstand restorations, for example.

Bennellick said he was really impressed with some of the speakers at the summit, especially those who brought international experience, such as Peter Harnick who runs the Center for City Park Excellence in Washington DC. He spoke of the need for good comparable data and the value of knowing more about who uses parks and how.

He noted that highways engineers will make successful bids for funding because they can always tell you how many vehicles, where they were going, what fuel they were using, whether they turned right or left, how many passengers were in the car – a huge amount of detail. “A public parks person may even struggle to tell you how many people use the park,” Bennellick said, but said more surveys and visitor counts are now starting to happen.

Cllr Phil Davies, leader of Wirral Borough Council, gave the summit some context on the funding situation, referencing the nowinfamous ‘graph of doom’, which visualises the idea of rising demand in statutory services like social care, and falling funding, to mean that in only a few years’ time, councils will have no money at all for anything except care and waste collection – parks included.

Bennellick told us: “We’re very interested to see how different local authorities are responding to this situation. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in London is merging services with a neighbouring authority, others have just cut back on staff numbers, and others have decided to put parks into some kind of a leisure trust. There are various solutions that seem to be emerging and we’re interested in understanding more and if there’s anything we’d be able to do to encourage innovation more generally.”

He also praised the work of Julie Procter and the team at Greenspace Scotland, which is coming up with imaginative new ways of approaching green space.

Bennellick concluded: “We’re working with The Land Trust (which launched its Prosperous Parks income toolkit at the summit) and BIG Lottery to find a way of sharing some of the really good practice out there, and there was a discussion about building some kind of a web resource with information and contacts. We’re working on that at the moment.”

Speaking at the summit, HLF chair Jenny Abramsky said: “Today’s new Lottery funding in our public parks could not be more needed. We know parks are under threat from reducing revenue budgets and, as money becomes tighter, the risk of entering a cycle of boom and bust for our parks is very real. Park managers have serious concerns about their ability to maintain standards and many maintenance budgets have already been reduced to a bare minimum.

“Through today’s Summit, we want to make sure the wider values of parks are recognised and that the lessons we have already learnt are shared in order to build greater resilience for the very challenging times ahead.”

Peter Ainsworth, UK Chair of the BIG Lottery Fund, added: “Now is the right time to take stock, look back at what has been achieved across our communities and also look beyond the severe financial constraints to find cost effective and innovative ways of doing things.”

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