Can ‘Friends’ save our parks?
“There are issues relating to responsibilities and insurances when community groups take over green space management (who is to blame if something goes wrong, who puts it right?).”
The management of public urban parks and green space by community groups is on the increase. Research soon to be published in the Journal of Public Sector Management*, shows that local authorities are increasingly diversifying their approaches to how parks are managed. 49% expect the role of community groups to increase over the next 5 years. ‘Friends of’ groups, those groups of community activists passionate about their local green space, lie at the heart of this, yet the relationship between Friends and the local authority can be an uneasy one.
One of the key drivers for changes in the way public green space is managed is the significant cut to local authority budgets introduced by the Conservative Government. For many local authorities this has resulted in a huge decrease in funding for public green space management. Sheffield, often held up to be the ‘greenest’ city in Europe, has suffered around a 40% cut to parks budgets. These cuts are forcing local authorities to explore new ways of managing their parks and green spaces.
Working in partnership with community groups, and devolving management responsibilities to them, is seen by many as one route to saving money. This approach can bring other benefits, such as gaining access to funding that requires community involvement that is otherwise unavailable to the local authority. It can bring social benefits from being part of a community group, a key motivator for many retired volunteers.
In the Place-keeping Group we use the term ‘place-keeping’ to describe the long term, sustainable management of parks and green spaces. This implies a flexible, responsive approach to management that maximises the benefits that a green space can bring. Partnership working with community groups – who are ‘on the ground’, can be pro-active and reactive, and represent users views and needs, can help to deliver a place-keeping approach.
Research however, shows that a partnership approach to place-keeping, is not easy. It takes time and resources to ensure partnerships work well and endure beyond the initial enthusiasm that such new initiatives can bring. There are issues relating to responsibilities and insurances when community groups take over green space management (who is to blame if something goes wrong, who puts it right?). Ensuring representativeness within a partnership can be difficult – to what degree does it really represent ‘the community’? The continued delivery of the ‘public good’ is important – a park for all, not one that delivers what the community group or individuals want.
The dilemma for many local authorities is that the desire, or need, to work with community groups has coincided with a reduction in their capacity to develop and support such partnership working. Budget cuts do not only mean fewer grass cuts or colourful seasonal bedding schemes. These cuts have impacted on the resources available for community activity and capacity building that might enable groups to take a more active and ultimately cost saving role. For example, in Sheffield, the Ranger Service, formally a great supporter of community activity, has been reduced from a peak of 36 posts in 2010/11 (although some externally funded) to 10. The community and events support has been cut from 3 to 0.6 staff.
In Sheffield, one response to this dwindling support has been the formation of a ‘self-help’ group – the Sheffield Green Spaces Forum (SGSF), a collective of Friends and other community groups with a green space focus. Facilitated by the Place-keeping Group and Sheffield City Council Parks and Countryside section, the group has grown from a loose collective, into a constituted organisation affiliated to the National Green Spaces Forum. Although it is early days, SGSF has a growing membership, a website, and members meet regularly to share information, advice and host speakers. Significantly, it is now the point of contact for the local authority no longer able to deal with individual groups. Sheffield City Council’s Director of Service is a regular guest.
While this is a great step forward, such groups and community activity cannot replace the expertise previously provided by local authority officers, now lost through cost saving job cuts. Groups must still deal with the local authority to gain approval for improvements projects, and unless those projects bring on-going management costs they are refused. There are structures in place to enable groups to take on management responsibility, however these involve lengthy bureaucratic processes which now take longer due to fewer staff with higher workloads. The frustration at SGSF meetings is loudly expressed. Friends groups can also be seen by some as a thorn in the local authority’s side. They take time and resources, and may object to necessary, budget forced changes in management, such as the removal of high maintenance planting, or transfer of assets. Friends groups are vocal in their complaints when issues are not dealt with
Despite examples, such as the successful community owned and managed Heeley Millennium Park in Sheffield, community management of parks is no quick fix solution to budget cuts. If local authorities see the role of Friends and other community groups increasing, then they must ensure the resources, at least in the medium term, there to support it. Central to this is maintaining good communication. Community groups need to know who to contact in the rapidly changing local authorities, or be directed to external support, which can sometimes be provided by charitable organisations such as Wildlife Trusts. Above all, honest conversations are needed about what is, and what is no longer possible in their parks. They need to know how they can best help rather than hinder. Friends groups may not be the answer, but they can be part of the solution.
*Authors: Dempsey, N., Burton, M. and Selin, J. ‘Contracting Out Parks and Roads Maintenance in England’ (IJPSM-02-2016-0029.R2) was accepted for publication in International Journal of Public Sector Management.