Debating the financial future of Sheffield’s parks

Dr Nicola Dempsey

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This is the second of two blogs sharing the debate we held as part of the recent The Great Outdoors exhibition in the Winter Gardens, Sheffield.

Co-hosted with colleagues Jill Dickinson and Will Easdon at Sheffield Institute of Policy Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, we asked four speakers to debate the financial future of urban parks. The speakers were Councillor Mary Lea (Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure, Sheffield City Council), Sue France (Green Estate which is custodian of Manor Fields Park), Peter Neal (landscape architect and environmental planner), Andy Jackson (Heeley Trust which is custodian of Heeley People’s Park). The debate was chaired by Dr Julian Dobson (Department of Landscape Architecture) who asked the following questions:

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Friends reminiscing over historic photos of the parks they used to play in

Learning from the long period of disinvestment in the 1980-90s, what specific challenges does the loss of funding pose for the future of parks?

AJ: For a short time, we ran out of funding in Heeley People’s Park. For two weeks, we could not cut the grass or empty the bins. We saw a decade of work unravelling in those two weeks. It takes very little time for a park to become a liability, not an asset. In focusing on the crisis of we’ve got no money, we forget to look at the values that parks acquire. Trees grow over lifetimes. We need to think of our parks over the lifetime of a tree, not the duration of an election.

SF: It takes no time at all for a park to lose value. The cycle acts very fast. We have spent 10 years and million of pounds in developing a belief that you can be safe when you’re outside in tough neighbourhoods. That belief is crucial. But the minute you cut out all the things that get people outdoors, that belief goes.

We need a citywide vision: my fear is that we are going to focus on the cost-cutting with no view on how we are going to change things. Deciding on what we are going to focus on can then lead to the solutions. We can’t have neighbourhoods without any green space… but I can’t underestimate how important it is to stand out and come up with a plan.

ML: Austerity has had an impact. We have lost £400m since 2011, and there are more cuts to come. 30% of the parks budget has been lost. But we have got a £3m budget for parks including recently invested public health money with more coming in the future. We need to continue working with partners to bring facilities into parks, which is part of the council’s recently Building Better Parks programme, aimed at bringing in enough revenue from the parks to be self-sustaining.

PN: Revenue budgets underpin all other activities. There is a risk and timelag of the loss of revenue – some impacts are felt immediately but it takes longer to see the effect of the loss of knowledge and expertise. The skills are being eroded, particularly in leadership and management which has been hit the hardest by austerity. When you pare back the service as much as possible, it’s much harder to argue for more investment when you have the chance.

It’s a case of ‘here we go again’ where we are seeing another cycle of underinvestment. History should give us some reassurance that things will spring back…the number of user groups and friends groups of parks is rising which have ‘latent energy’. We have an asset base with an ecological landscape to drive opportunities for a new future for our parks.

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Audience members listening to the speakers at “The Great Outdoors” debate

There’s a phrase: to “sweat the assets”, or generate income from green space. Where are the trade-offs, tipping points and where compromise will not be made?

ML: We are not selling off our parks – there will be no parks sold off. The Building Better Parks programme is identifying where facilities are needed in parks – e.g. Hillsborough Park does not have a café, while other similar-sized parks have very successful ones. It’s also about working in partnership to make parks such as Mather Road Park in Darnall an asset.

SF: You have to sweat the assets. Restore and use the buildings in parks. I’d build on the edge of parks if I can because I want to capture the values of parks in perpetuity. I have no problem running businesses in parks – of course, they have to be appropriate. There are lots of different design styles and we don’t need Victoriana in every place. Would we sell anywhere? Yes, where there is an overabundance of green space but it is not of good quality. The whole spatial pattern of green space needs to work well. It’s about having long-term strategies which allow the building up of an asset base so that places are activated and people have reasons to go.

AJ: I do not agree with running private events in parks which remove the public access. It’s fundamental that my local park does not have a gate to pay through and is open and accessible. But because of this, our approach is complicated. We have tried lots of approaches to cover ongoing revenue costs differently. 10% of our revenue budget comes from subscriptions. Our strategy is to transform and repurpose the big civic buildings with the lease linked to the park. The GS is then improved enough for people to want to come to live here. And you need a closed loop to do this: money from the asset must go to the park. We simply cannot operate on an “everything you get is paid for” model – it just doesn’t work.

PN: It’s a common trap that local councils fall into when austerity comes: you pare everything down and then you sweat the assets. This is completely the wrong way around. If you were a financial advisor, you’d say invest in the asset first and if you have a broad portfolio of assets, you can get wider and more far-reaching benefits. You host events to promote social benefit not just as a means of income generation: there has to be an objective beyond the income generation. It’s important not to overcook the commerciality of parks: they need a much more savvy business case. You have to draw the boundary of the park much wider than the park itself. 18th century (housing) development around parks was used to help make the parks self-sufficient.

 

 

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