Took part in Guardian online debate today on managing parks and green spaces despite the budget cuts and with over 100 posts in two hours it was a lively debate.
I pushed the APSE line about whilst we disagree with the cuts we recognise that they are happening and therefore we need to find ways to stop services from imploding. The only response is to seek efficiency, generate additional income and innovate.
In terms of efficiency APSE's Performance Networks benchmarking data tells us that 56% of parks and grounds maintenance costs are staff, 16.5% are premises, 12.5% are vehicles, with the rest made up of equipment and materials, sub contractors, administration and central establishment charges.
Some of the answers therefore need to be found in staffing costs and that is why many local authorities have or are moving to more integrated streeetscene models where services merge together to reduce management costs. They are also looking at job redesign from the ground upwards to streamline processes and cut out waste and bureaucracy. This will increase productivity further and by utilising seasonal staff and volunteers, reduce the numbers of full time staff. This is not something I am happy about but service budgets will now only go so far.
Other areas to focus on to improve efficiency are better vehicle utilisation and better absence management.
In terms of income generation whilst many parks and open spaces people have raised revenue through events over the years the data I have seen suggest that this is not consistent across the board. There is a need for an even more commercial mindset in these tough times, that doesn't mean charging people who can't afford the cost but being more entrepreneurial in attracting new revenue streams.
This can come from providing catering for the many millions who visit parks or sponsorship from private companies of bins and shrub beds. Some provide specialist services to other public and private sector bodies. One authority in Scotland generated tens of thousands of pounds by getting its arboricultural squad to undertake tree inspections for private companies and some pruning activity. Others sell off surplus nursery plants. One English authority has received significant funding from the local health authority for organising outdoor health walks and putting some outdoor gyms in its parks and open spaces.
In terms of innovation a number of opportunities exist around renewable energy. The feed in tariffs for solar PV mean that revenue can be generated by fixing panels to south facing roofs of facilities. This can make these facilities self sustaining in terms of energy and helps with carbon reduction commitments. Similarly biomass boilers can heat premises and the fuel for these can be grown on rough land surrounding facilities, the new renewable heat incentive will also provide funding for this.
Other authorities already recycle water they use in ponds through drainage systems and reuse leaf fall and other parks waste as fuel.
The issue of trusts was raised as a potential answer to the parks funding crisis, however I think you need to start by asking what advantages can be achieved by this route and ask what you may lose.
It would be difficult to establish a trust without going through some form of procurement process and these normally take a number of years to achieve - my view is the cuts are more immediate than this.
Unlike Leisure there is only a very limited NNDR or VAT advantage with a trust for parks, therefore there is no significant financial savings.
In terms of trusts ability to attract new investment I have not seen examples that cannot equally be achieved by local authorities directly. On this point of funding I am aware of a number of examples where local authorities have used their specialist resources to make successful heritage and lottery fund bids and I wonder if this would be diminished by externalising services.
Overall a useful debate was had but if parks and open spaces are to survive the age of austerity then it will be done by sweating out efficiency, generating new income streams to offset budget drops and by seeking new forms of innovation.