It has been a very busy few months for my colleagues and I, as the review into the future funding of parks and green spaces in the borough reached a critical juncture – and we had to make a final decision on how best to protect these special places for future generations.
If you’ve been following developments, you’ll know that we set up an independent review board to look into this for us at the beginning of last year. We currently spend £1.3m per year maintaining parks, but as our Government funding comes to an end, we know that from April next year there won’t be a penny in our pot to pay for this any longer.
However, we remain determined that this should not condemn our parks to a bleak future. Thanks to years of council investment and the dedication of local volunteers, these are high quality spaces of which everyone in Knowsley is rightly proud.
The review board, which included representatives from town and parish councils, friends of parks groups, the council, businesses and academics, carried out a very thorough piece of work and considered a number of possible management and funding models. In the end, they unanimously agreed that the creation of an endowment fund, managed by a charitable trust, was the best option. They recommended that if an endowment of £40m could be created through the sale of a small percentage (no more than 10%) of the borough’s green space, the interest from this could be used to pay for the upkeep of the vast majority of remaining parks, forever.
The review board also carried out public consultation to gather views on its suggestion. There were 2,500 responses and the majority of those respondents (60%) supported this approach.
To be clear – the only other realistic option was to allow the parks to be left, unmaintained. That would mean overgrown, unattractive spaces where litter, dog fouling and antisocial behaviour would quickly make them no-go areas. That’s what happened during the dark days of the 70s and 80s and it was clear from the responses to the consultation that there is no local appetite to return to those times.
At Cabinet in November, we agreed that the endowment model was the one we wanted to pursue as we felt it presented the best chance to protect the vast majority of parks – 90% of all the sites in the borough – 144 sites – and retain them as the high quality spaces they currently are.
Since that decision in November, this matter has been looked at by our Scrutiny process and considered again by Cabinet. Several concerns have been raised, both by Scrutiny and members of the public and I hope that what we’ve done so far has answered a lot of those concerns. I’ll also be speaking in more detail at Council this week about the financial rationale behind our plans and the work that we have done to help reassure those who have expressed concerns.
Following the latest Cabinet meeting, I was interviewed for the BBC’s Sunday Politics show and made the point that, whilst surrendering some park land isn’t what we want to do, it’s something we now have to do. We know we haven’t enough money to do everything we once did, or everything we’d like to do. We have a duty to the most vulnerable in society to prioritise our spending on essential, life and death services, like children’s and adults’ social care. But where we don’t have the money to spend on things like parks we aren’t just giving up – we’re thinking differently. If we can’t find the money for this service from our budget anymore, where can we find it from? Can we continue these valued services by doing things differently?
On the Politics Show piece and in the conversations I’ve had with some local residents in the last couple of weeks, it has been suggested that local people might be happy to pay some kind of ‘precept’ added on to their council tax to fund parks. Unfortunately I just don’t think that is realistic.
To explain – for every 1% rise in your council tax, we raise an additional £500,000. In order to raise enough each year for the maintenance of parks, we’d have to raise the council tax by almost 3%, just for parks. That could come on top of any additional rise which may be needed to pay for essential services such as social care, and any other precepts that might be rising to pay for other public services. Whilst I admire the sentiment behind the offer to pay more council tax, we know local people are having to make their own savings to household budgets, and in reality the vast majority might not share the same willingness (or ability) to pay more.
The other suggestion that was muted on the discussion following the piece on Sunday Politics, was that by more aggressively pursuing unpaid council tax, we could continue to fund parks. Putting aside the fact that Tory MP for Eddisbury, Antoinette Sandbach, who made the comments, seemed unaware that Knowsley is not the same local authority as Liverpool (and therefore got her figures very wrong on this), this too is an unrealistic proposition.
Let me assure you that we do actively pursue unpaid bills and collect wherever possible. In reality, it is never going to be possible to recoup every penny – no local authority can claim to do this. In some cases, those who don’t pay have no means to pay, in some cases pursuing a case can be more costly to the local authority than writing off monies owed. It certainly isn’t a sustainable way to fund a service for the future because it would essentially mean relying on the very worst off to foot the bill.
I’ve also heard other comments too, that may be confusing people. It’s been suggested that we’re privatising parks – absolutely not true – in fact, it’s the very opposite as this actually ensures they stay in public ownership but safeguarded from future government cuts – forever! Conspiracy theorists have been getting worked up about the fact that potential company names have been registered for possible future use – this is nothing more than an administrative task which was done to prevent any third party attempting to frustrate the process.
There have been concerns expressed about how the plans will impact on the employees currently working in the service – and these are concerns I have shared. That’s why we’ve given reassurances that all staff – currently the 39 employees – will transfer to the new trust when it is established, subject to the Final Business Case being considered by Scrutiny in June and the final decision made by Cabinet in November this year. This will protect their jobs, which is great news for them as otherwise they would have been at risk of being made redundant without these new arrangements.
I also know that there has been a lot of discussion in our communities about some of the sites which have been identified for surrender, and people have asked what consultation has and will take place.
The consultation that the independent review board went through has been well documented – but for clarity there is lots of information about this on their website http://knowsleyparksboard.co.uk/.
Included in the recommendations that the board made to us were about how to identify which sites should be surrendered. They said that this should be an impartial and objective exercise which would apply the same criteria to each of the 161 parks and green spaces, to ensure fairness in the decision making. So that’s how the list of 17 spaces was drawn up, and you can see the rationale behind the inclusion of each of the sites in documents we’ve put on our website at http://www.knowsley.gov.uk/things-to-do/parks-and-green-spaces. If you haven’t taken a look yet, I’d really urge you to do so. Of course these weren’t easy decisions to take and my fellow councillors and I are very aware that there will be an impact on the local community for each of the sites surrendered. However, as you’ll see in the site selection criteria, for all of the sites chosen, careful consideration about how to mitigate these impacts has been given.
I believe that judging all 161 sites against the same objective criteria was the best way to draw up this list, as did 60% of the 2,500 residents who responded to the consultation by the Parks Review Board. In saying that, I can assure you that our minds are not closed and we welcome any alternative ideas or suggestions that people may have. We’ve started this process with the Parish and Town Councils, who are the leaseholders on six of these sites, and those conversations were very constructive.
As for what’s next, Scrutiny Committee will consider the Outline Business Case in June, so I would urge people to keep talking to us as we remain open to ideas which will ensure that we can protect jobs, the vast majority of parks and the quality of our special green spaces. A final decision on the full business case will not be made until November this year.