Newcastle scopes health-backed parks mutual

Newcastle City Council is preparing to set up a mutual organisation to take over its parks service, with substantial funding set to come from the public health department.

The council has said it expects it will have no money for non-statutory services by 2017-18. The parks budget for the city has been cut by 70 per cent to £300,000 over the past three years. But council assistant director Tony Durcan said it is "not as bad as it might sound". The public health department is temporarily topping up the budget by £1m per year - enough to keep them going "while we sort out a different solution".

That solution is to create a mutual with charitable status that would care for the city's principal parks and major open spaces. It would be a self-governing independent body built on the contributions of local people and staff, with any profits made to be reinvested in parks. Permanent ownership of the parks would stay with the local authority but they would be leased for a peppercorn rent. The remaining parks would continue to be maintained by the council.

A mutual "can access opportunities and funding sources a local authority can't - such as trusts and foundations, which don't fund local authority projects or public health funding," Durcan explained. "It removes that feeling that if the parks are local authority-run, then the local authority pays. This new model draws on local people and partners - I think funders are more receptive to supporting it." Other funding such as development contributions from section 106 agreements would also be given to the mutual.

While finding funding to maintain parks is "clearly" a key reason for the change, "this is also about a new model of delivery, involving volunteers, local people and other organisations like businesses or the third sector in partnership", he added. Public health funding is likely to continue in some form and the public health department would have a bigger say in parks' governance.

"One of the things we're exploring is having parks as centres of therapeutic excellence - for example, patients being prescribed or referred to parks for fresh air and exercise," said Durcan.

Although this is not new - "clinical commissioning groups already have the capacity to do that if they think it's appropriate"

- Newcastle is exploring how health funding could in turn support parks in recognition that they are a public health asset. The next step is to commission a detailed business plan to look at funding sources and governance to ensure that it would work, followed by wider consultation.

Newcastle is also getting advice from the National Trust, which is working in Sheffield on setting up an endowment trust for the city's parks, as part of the Rethinking Parks programme.

"We think this is the right solution for Newcastle, but we need experts to test the financial model. If they come back and say yes, then we'll start doing the legals, look at how you create a mutual and look at questions of staffing and so on."

That would include how the city's parks staff - all in-house employees - would be employed under the mutual model. Durcan has a "very ambitious" target of handing the park over to the mutual in April 2017.

First published in Hort Week, 19 February 2016, written by Elizabeth Henry