Public parks could be handed to new charitable trust to run

Leazes Park in Newcastle. Pic Geograph/Newbiggin Hall Scouts.
Leazes Park in Newcastle. Pic Geograph/Newbiggin Hall Scouts.

People in Newcastle are being asked if they support plans to hand over their public parks to a new charitable trust to run.

Newcastle City Council's proposals, which come in the face of cuts to its park budget of more than 90% over seven years, are a first for a local authority, but could be adopted by cash-strapped councils elsewhere.

A consultation that runs until April 21 is seeking views of residents on transferring 33 green spaces and possibly 50 hectares of allotments to a charitable trust.

The parks, which are not a service local authorities are legally obliged to provide, would remain owned by the council and free to access.

But a trust with the sole purpose of running the parks could open up new sources of funding, ensure they are looked after and provide new volunteer opportunities, while maintaining paid staff levels, the council believes.

It been advised by the National Trust on the plans and awarded a £237,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop them, with a requirement to share the findings with other local authorities that might want to take the same route.

A recent report by MPs warned the squeeze on council budgets across England means parks face a return to the neglect of the 1980s and 1990s without innovative management and funding measures.

Newcastle's cabinet member for culture and communities Kim McGuinness said: "Our parks budget has suffered greatly at the hands of central government, but despite this, we're committed to maintaining and sustaining the beautiful parks and green spaces the city is known for."

Pressure on overall budgets meant parks were an area that would "really suffer", she said, potentially having to close their gates, which the council was not prepared to let happen.

The public consultation, which has involved social media, online surveys, community events and workshops, was important because "it's a huge change, it's groundbreaking, it's innovative and that can be nerve-wracking".

"It's a case of making sure that the public are happy and comfortable with the plans and that they feel their views are heard."

Early statistics from the online survey suggest people think the main priorities for parks are to generate income to keep them maintained and to increase available facilities, each getting 28% of votes.

The main concern for their future is they will fall into a state of disrepair and become unsafe, with 44% most worried about this.

Consultation feedback also shows people are concerned about whether a trust can raise enough money to look after parks and whether the funding will be "ethical" and not involve creeping privatisation.

Ms McGuinness said all views would feed back into the plans.

She said: "The primary aim is the parks are protected, they are well managed and they are free to access. These are really non-negotiable."

Keith Pimm, a member of the Elders Council of Newcastle, said if it is to be successful, the trust must be accountable to people and give them a say in the future of the parks.

"This can be seen as a real change of situation, almost a new kind of cultural situation; where the local communities will really be much more in charge of the parks," he said.