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.