OOTS: The Stark Facts About Budgets

Once again Palmstead Nurseries put on a fantastic workshop yesterday and I've come back brimming with inspiration concerning how we can get the public planting we deserve. However, there's one big issue poised to put a major spanner in the works which I've only touched upon lightly so far. This is the result of the spending review due next month which will significantly affect all of our public services, including those parks, gardens, allotments and other open spaces managed by our local councils.

Paul Bramhill of GreenSpace (an organisation whose activities I introduced to you here) stepped up to the plate to tackle this thorny topic. Public open space is one of the few non-statutory provisions made by local authorities and thus is ripe for deep spending cuts. The fact that it's a tiny percentage of a local authority's budget (less than 1%) and so won't actually go that far in finding the massive savings needed just won't wash with them. Just like other non-statutory provision such as libraries and sport centres, the future potentially looks very bleak indeed. Not only that, in my view open spaces represent a bank of land which many councils will be tempted to plunder or privatise - even though land prices are much lower than they were a few years ago - so that they don't have to make cuts elsewhere.

However, Paul also reported on the research by CABE showing that parks are the most valued and visited public service with 87% of the population visiting a park at least once a year. An estimated total of 2-4 billion visits are made per annum, with the next most popular service - libraries - netting 368 million visits. In addition, the upkeep of parks and the emptying of our bins are the key factors cited by us to show how well our local authority is performing. There's been lots of outrage at the proposed cuts to our library services and anything concerning changes to the way our bins are emptied, so why hasn't it been even louder for any change to the provision of our open spaces? It seems rather sad to me that the entrepreneurial and public benefactor nature of our Victorian forefathers which funded and founded so many of our public parks in the first place seems to have been all but lost. I don't think many people would flock to fund public parks in Manchester via public subscription like they did in the 1840s (the equivalent of £13 million in today's money was raised according to a programme I watched recently on the TV).

Paul then outlined a number of measures which argue the case for the benefits our parks bring: similar to the ones I've previously summarised from this report here. He also referred to the work in the States which has evaluated the costs benefits case in monetary terms. In the case of Philadelphia an outlay of a few million dollars on park provision is far outweighed by the 10's of million dollars netted in return. In my (and Paul's) view we urgently require this kind of study to be carried out here and Paul is trying to secure funding to do so. I only wish I had the money: in fact I'd even donate to a fund specifically for this task if one is available as I firmly believe - just like in my former line of work as a business analyst - that a business case showing how society profits from our public spaces is the only language that government, local authorities and any potential investors will take note of.

There was an all too brief look at funding and management options which I would have liked to hear more about. Paul favours the use of a ring fenced, fixed levy at a local level (e.g. Paris - 1% of their equivalent of council tax pays for the annual upkeep of a smaller amount of open space than we have) to generate funds. In reality a whole raft of other options will probably be needed as alternatives or additions dependent on local needs. Other examples given were Heritage Lottery Funding for key projects (e.g. St Ann's Allotments in Nottingham), the development of new community gardens and city farms, the use of volunteers (e.g. Friends of Cotteridge Park in Birmingham) and provision being taken over by or partnered with other organisations (e.g. BTCV now manages Tuckingmill Valley Park in Cornwall). The staging of events to raise income was also raised during question time and whilst Paul acknowledged this was another option, he also warned that seeing 65% of a park's visitors go there to find peace and tranquility, this seam shouldn't be exploited too deeply.

Whilst this post is a bit gloomy, Paul's presentation was a most necessary one which I feel was a call for action to share with you immediately. It looks like over the coming months as our own open spaces come under threat we'll all need to become advocates for their continued investment and retention. The information I found here, offers some guidance to help us all to do so.

On a more positive note, I'll be returning to the more inspirational presentations another time, especially the one from Bert Griffioen which proposed an innovative solution to shrinking budgets which puts perennials at the heart of the design. This talk in particular caused quite a buzz on the day - like I said earlier, anything involving the mention of money or savings grabs the attention these days.

The picture is of the memorial gardens in Oswestry a couple of weeks ago.


  1. Very good post - lots to think about.

  2. VP thanks for this. A really informative post which has set me thinking.

    I worked as a national judge for Britain in Bloom for seven years, when it was still administered by the Tidy Britain Group. In those days, there was, in my view, far too much emphasis on high input planting - bedding for both spring and summer, street decorations and so on. Costs could have been reduced without damaging green spaces nearly as much as, say, the effects of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, imposed by the Thatcher Government.

    I tried hard to persuade fellow BIB volunteers that we should be going far greener, with more naturalistic approaches to parks and more laissez-faire green spaces while maintaining horticultural excellence.

    I'm glad to say that the whole BIB competition has changed considerably and has much to offer to communities of all sizes. One way is to create a better relationship between private individuals, business volunteers or fund givers and the public sector. There are lots of people out there, keen to assist and where local authorities work closely with volunteer 'bloom' groups and with community gardens, the results are so much better for everyone.

    Looking forward to hearing how the other presentations went.


  3. Philip - thanks :)

    Nige - good point re BIB and thanks for adding so much to my original piece. There's still a lot of annual stuff in BIB schemes. I wonder if the extra knowledge needed at the outset to put together good perennial schemes is also a hindrance to them being used more? I'm not saying the annual bedding and hanging baskets aren't designed, but I find them easier to do than my borders. Also where does this fit with using volunteers/ fundraising, seeds are much easier to raise and cheaper in the short term.

  4. Perhaps the judges are still a little too addicted to 'impact' planting with lots of bright colours, and don't encourage enough perennial schemes. But it's difficult to convince folk, if they fear being downgraded for too little colour.

    Also, I think people love colour, in public gardening. The bedding at St James's Park, for instance, is extremely popular - but it isn't terribly green.

    Volunteers and fundraising because that's where the heart of the BIB success lies. For example, when I judged, I believe Marks and Spencer and possibly other retailers sponsored massive hanging baskets in, I think, Cheltenham (it was a long time ago, so I may be wrong) but the Bloom Committee and local authority supervised the basket composition so that they were all co-ordinated.

    Businesses are often happy to sponsor local planting, particularly if it helps to boost the local image and improve tourism.

    Not sure that answers your question,

  5. Nige - thanks for coming back and adding to the debate. Colour was discussed a lot on the day. Yes, people love it (and seasonality too BTW, so we should wave goodbye to all that 'tasteful' greenery which then gets clipped into meaningless blobs by maintenance contractors let loose with chainsaws. Ahem but I digress, end of rant for now and actually Matthew Wilson ranted much more effectively on this subject on the day, but was so funny that no-one noticed it was a rant really because we were in stitches over his public planting categories).

    James Hitchmough's research at Sheffield Uni was discussed a lot at Palmstead, which I've been trying to find a good reference on the 'net for for ages, so I can talk about it proiperly as I think it's v important.

    They (the public) don't care what cultivar it is either, nay they don't mind whether it's annual perennial or shrubbery. Just colour will do.

    I wish I had some of the slides from the day - there was tons of colour shown of the perennial variety to blow away any doubt that perennials can deliver AND over a longer period than most annuals can

  6. Came across a window box (type thing) a few days ago that had been given and planted by 'Friends of Christchurch Station'. British Rail (or South West trains or whoever . . . has money giving flower friends!

    Locally, one of our parks has been handed over to volunteers. I feel uncomfortable with this. I don't feel it belongs to the community any more. Not only do the gardeners there favour stiff beds, balls are now out of place. I think balls and children and teenagers in a busy park are brilliant.

    I hope not too many councils solve the problem this way.

    On the other hand . . . same council enabled the change of a dreadful concrete shelter in another park into a cheerful outdoor cafe - and the whole atmosphere changed. Anti-social lurkers gave place to walkers, tourists and locals and it's all brilliant with space to play and lovely beds. Maybe (and as a not-happy-about-capitalism-person I'm not pleased to be saying this but . . .) maybe commercial ventures within parks, subsidising them rather than taking them over is one way forward.



  7. Esther - I think you've touched on an important point which I've also been pondering this morning. Perhaps councils need to turn their thinking on its head a bit and start looking at our parks as a possible income stream rather than a capital spend. I'm sure plenty could be done to provide people with the things they want from a park, whilst supporting local businesses and/or council employee employment. Your cafe is a good example of this. I think this was what was being thought about when the question was asked about putting on events too.


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