Are storm clouds gathering over our parks?
D-DAY is looming for Newcastle’s parks whose futures will be decided next week.
Councillors are set to vote on plans to hand over running of the much-loved open spaces to a separate charitable trust, which will be able to raise its own cash to keep the services going.
The new trust would cover 32 parks and more than 60 allotment sites. The council would continue to own the land.
Since the idea was last considered by councillors in July, the proposal has been altered to exclude recreation sites.
A charitable trust would be able to bid for grants from pots of cash which are not available to a directly council-run organisation.
It would also be able to raise money through other means, including paid-for events in parks, ‘pay to play’ attractions like minigolf, corporate sponsorship and even eco-burials.
At the July meeting, Lib Dem opposition councillors raised fears the move could lead to a “change in ethos” of the parks service, and raised concerns that money might be made through things like car parking, which would contribute to air pollution issues.
But the council claims the plan represents a “radical and pioneering” approach to an “impossible situation” created by central government cuts.
Parks budgets have been slashed by 91% over the past seven years, from £2.589m in 2010/11 to less than £1m this year.
An initial £9.5m will be required to set up the trust, but council officers insist it should become self-sustaining after 10 years, saving up to £110m for the city. Although the report says the council might have to offer an endowment of extra cash beyond that £9.5m, this money would have to be repaid.
Coun Kim McGuinness, cabinet member for culture and communities, said: “This proposal is about protecting parks and allotments for the people of the city, because these services would otherwise risk closure as a result of austerity.
“Newcastle has a proud tradition of providing accessible green spaces, dating back to the creation of our first municipal space, Leazes Park, in 1873, and the proposed new arrangements would legally protect the parks for public use and make them self-sufficient and open to all for years to come.
“The strength of the public response to the consultation process demonstrated just how passionately the people of Newcastle feel about the preservation of our parks, allotments and open spaces.
“Faced with impossible choices, the council is proposing a radical and pioneering new model that can both sustain our green spaces and take them to the next level in terms of public access and enjoyment.”
According to the report, the “core purpose” and quality of the parks will be maintained by the charitable nature of the body running them, as well as a number of council conditions on the lease of the land.
If the plans are approved, the hunt for a chairperson and a board of trustees will begin in January and the new trust could take control by the end of 2018.
The National Trust is supporting the move and Harry Bowell, its director of the North, said: “The National Trust has been working closely with Newcastle City Council to advise on the proposed model for an independent Newcastle Parks Charitable Trust. We’re confident if it’s given the go ahead, the public benefit of Newcastle’s parks and green spaces will be secured.”
The vote will take place on Monday, November 20.
Coun Kim McGuinness