Whitehall has more pots on display this summer than a garden center

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Money for new public parks in deprived areas sounds good – until you see the details of this latest “pepperpot” funding announcement, writes journalist Steven Downes.

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Who doesn’t love a public park? Green lungs in the middle of our polluted cities, they offer us a space to think, walk, play, drink a coffee and just decompress.

My nearest, Eaton Park in Norwich, has a model railway, rose garden, fountain, boating lake, children’s play area, six football pitches, changing rooms, cricket ground, pitch and putt, skate park, basketball court, cafe, mini golf, tennis courts, croquet, bandstand, and colonnaded pavilion.

It is a public good to be cherished.

So when I saw this headline on the government website gov.uk I was impressed: “Over 100 new and renovated parks to improve towns and cities across the UK.”

If there’s one thing that’s underestimated when thinking about the concept of ‘leveling up’, it’s the importance of open public spaces and the role they play in improving well-being. .

Upgrading can only be fully effective when it tackles the low availability of green spaces in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of our cities. This press release, however, seemed to have part of the answer.

It says: “In England, the money will be given to councils to create or significantly revamp existing parks in 85 areas most deprived of outdoor space. Areas that will benefit include Liverpool, Birmingham, Carlisle and 16 boroughs of London.

“The new parks will dramatically increase access to quality green space for those who need it most, especially helping people without gardens to spend time with friends and family in the natural world.”

The 85 neighborhoods were chosen for their high deprivation and low availability of open spaces. They don’t have to ask for the money – it’s theirs.

So far so good? Yes, until you look at the numbers.

The overall funding pot is £9 million, or £85,000 for each of the councils chosen. What will it bring you?

These talented landscape designers Capability Brown and Humphry Repton could have created the 9th wonder of the park world with £85,000 – in the 18th century. These days, that would keep the rose garden looking good for a few years or buy the fuel for the model railway for about…well, at the current rate of inflation, a month?

It may be hyperbole to make a point, but there is something rather depressing about the tips only getting a sixth of Cristiano Ronaldo’s £480,000-a-week. They have to get a new park out of the hat, while CR7 just has to show up and run around once in a while.

Ian Miller, Senior Managing Director of the District Council Network’s Finance and Investments Work Area, puts it much better, calling it “yet another pepper pot”.

He added: “Although eligible areas have secured funding, £85,000 is not going to ‘buy’ a large chunk of a park anywhere.”

£9m each would be more like that. This would allow a council to develop and nurture something truly special: a park to cherish and be proud of, with facilities that convey the message that people in the community matter.

That would be leveling up in action.

Sadly, even the £85,000 per tip comes with strings attached. Councils have the flexibility to spend the money however they see fit – as long as that’s what the DLUHC likes. That means:

1. Up to £47,500 capital for park creation or improvement

2. Up to £18,500 in income for project preparation, creation and maintenance

3. Up to £19,000 ‘tree raising’ for tree planting and related costs.

There is good news, however: “Eligible councils will also receive an initial site assessment by the Green Flag Awards, which the department has paid for to the value of £450.” It’s a heavy weight on the minds of the CFOs of councils.

The central level of control reaches new heights with a colorful drawing of a ‘good park’, complete with labels to let councils know what to look for when designing their own.

I suspect there are few people and organisations, let alone local councils, who need to be told to include “activities for all to enjoy”, “trees providing shade for seats” and a “healthy natural environment”.

It’s hard to see how this tight oversight from the center squares with the conservatives’ declared love of small government and increased decentralization to the regions.

The other thing that may cause concern is how this announcement was made, particularly so soon after February’s Leveling Up white paper flagged the government’s aversion to the “patchwork of fragmented funds” that exists to support economic development.

He adds: “Local government consistently points out the inefficiencies, decision-making complexity and reporting burdens that result from the number of local funding pots and the conditions attached to them.

“Many fields, especially those with limited resources, lack the ability to navigate multiple sources of funding, develop investable projects, and secure the right combination of capital and revenue to target long-term priorities.”

It’s fair to repeat that the £9m parks funding did not require a tender process. Which is just as well, because the process may have cost more than the grant.

But it’s yet another tidy tributary flowing into Whitehall’s river of money. Over the past week or so, the following funding pots have been announced or distributed:

  • Tuesday August 2 – Up to £635million for public sector organizations to make their buildings more energy efficient.
  • Monday August 1 – Forty-five local authorities encouraged to apply for a share of £368million to improve services for young people in “underserved areas”.
  • Friday July 29 – Sixteen faith groups working with the most vulnerable to share £1.3million from the Faith New Deal pilot scheme.
  • Friday July 29 – £54m awarded to four projects to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
  • Monday July 25 – £50million to police forces, councils and community groups to prevent violence against women and girls in public, neighborhood crime and anti-social behaviour.

There are fantastic plans here. But they may be lost in the blizzard of other announcements.

If the government continues to tell councils the private parts of a public park (with drawings) and has more pots on display than a garden centre, one wonders if its words speak louder than its actions.

I’ll let Mr. Miller add the closing remarks.

He said: ‘There is a big gap between the government’s rhetoric about wanting to simplify funding flows and reduce tendering and the reality of the behavior of ministries, including DLUHC.’


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