Seminar discusses how to maintain GI in times of budget cuts
These are difficult times for publicly funded green infrastructure, particularly in terms of maintenance and most especially for anything that is dependent on cash-strapped local authority budgets. So there was a danger that a discussion on ‘green infrastructure in an age of austerity,’ the last of three to take place at during the London residency of the ‘Rethinking the Urban Landscape’ at The Building Centre, could have been a simple rehearsal of grievance.
But all the speakers, while acknowledging that it would be good to see more public investment, avoided complaints and simply saying ‘More should be done’. Instead they looked for solutions.
This was particularly admirable in the case of Peter Neal of Peter Neal Consulting since he was a contributor to the HLF report The State of UK Public Parks. But Peter had also written Nesta’s Rethinking Parks report which looked for new ways of supporting parks financially and it was this approach that he brought to his presentation.
He talked about the ‘real alarm bells’ that were sounded in the first of these reports, explaining that local authorities were losing 30 per cent of funding over just three years. Even worse, he said, ‘some of our non-statutory funding could fall by 90 per cent.’
However much one might regret this situation, Peter said, the only solution was to think differently, both about what one valued and how to fund it. After all, he said, financing and maintenance of parks had gone through many different models and had always been ‘a rollercoaster’.
He talked about the importance of quality not quantity and, when pressed about whether this meant that there would be some gems and other neglected spaces, said that this could mean focusing on the parks that we have rather than trying to create new spaces.
When looking at funding for maintenance, he said that Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York is a great example, with a close relationship between development and parks funding. One way to emulate that in the UK, or at least in London, could be, he said, by diverting the money paid in property taxes by businesses. Brooklyn Bridge Park benefits from a tax of 8 per cent on property. In London, this would amount to £217 million – plenty to match the current maintenance budget of all London local authorities of £153 million. The excess could go into an endowment to fund future spending.
Katherine Drayson, research fellow at think tank Policy Exchange, made the disclaimer that, as a representative of a centre-right think tank, some of her ideas would be unappealing to many of the audience. It was vital, she said, to understand the true economic benefits of green infrastructure, not just to list the advantages but to be able to quantify them in terms of money. ‘We still haven’t made a business case,’ she said.
We need data
As austerity rises to a peak in 2017-2018, local authorities will, she warned, find their budgets absorbed almost entirely by adult social care. Any spending on parks will have to be argued for rationally and, crucially, we will have to know what we have. Data, she believes is essential. At present we only have a ‘guesstimate’ of where our green spaces are, and, with the exception of the Green Flag scheme, little knowledge about their condition.
It is vital, Katherine argued, that ‘we make better use of local authority and private sector funding,’ arguing that endowments are the way to go. Milton Keynes, for example, with the Milton Keynes Land Trust,
And we should also find other ways of raising money. As an example, Katherine talked about the increasingly popular green prescribing, where doctors write a prescription for sessions in the open rather than for drugs. While many are familiar with the concept, the idea that parks could benefit from a prescription charge was an eye-opener.
She also suggested that local authorities could offer a council-tax rebate for volunteering. This would, she said, bring three benefits. It would attract a greater mix of volunteers; it would encourage long-term volunteering; and, it would prevent an adversarial relationship developing between friends’ groups and the council.
Although this may seem inimical to many, there are precedents, she said. Southampton Council, for example, gives a 100 per cent council tax rebate to special constables.
Environment is close to home
Ed Wallis, editorial director and senior research fellow at the Fabian Society, talked about the fact that engaging with green space is a political choice. It is also, he said, the aspect of the environment about which people care most closely. ‘People think of the environment as the places they live in and the places they live with, rather than issues like climate change,’ he said.
And, he argued, ‘We need to think differently about the role of the environment in the economy. It is now impossible to talk about sustainable economic growth without talking about environmental sustainability.’
Sue Ireland, director of open spaces at the City of London Corporation, and also a founding member of the Parks Alliance, warned ‘volunteers are not the solution’. Organisations such as libraries are already finding, she said, that volunteers need a considerable amount of managing and are limited in what they can do – and they are also a limited resource.
While the private sector can become involved in green spaces, there needs, Sue said, ‘to be a some core revenue funding. Maintenance funding is key.’
Noel Farrer, president of the Landscape Institute and also principal at Farrer Huxley, talked about his own experiences, both near his home in the Lake District and in Bicester, where his practice is working.
In his local town, he said, the council’s proposals for building housing were all on sites at the edge of town, leading to a disaggregation of the town centre and also to a loss of green space. This is because these pieces of land are the simplest to develop in terms of ownership. The result, however, is loss of green amenity coupled with a diminution of the town centre.
In Bicester, which has been designated as an eco town, Farrer Huxley has been tasked with developing an area on the edge of the town with relatively low density, which could too easily become urban sprawl. But by modelling the development on field boundaries, retaining hedges which offer the greatest biodiversity, it is both preserving character and maximising green infrastructure.
He is also looking at local people taking control of the area through a community land trust. ‘We are looking at a new form of localism,’ he said. ‘Local authorities may not be the right people to maintain our parks.’
The future for green infrastructure will certainly be hard and it may well be different. What these speakers demonstrated is that it will be interesting and that, despite all the constraints, there is hope.