Examination of Witnesses (Questions 302
TUESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2001
302. Welcome to the Committee. Would you like
to introduce yourselves for the record.
(Mr Hill) Richard Hill, Head of Policy and Public
Affairs at the New Opportunities Fund.
(Ms McRobie) Lorna McRobie. I am a landscape architect,
and I am currently Policy Adviser on Landscape and Natural Heritage
with the Heritage Lottery Fund, and that includes advice on public
parks and countryside projects across the UK.
303. Would you like to say anything by way of
introduction, or are you happy to go straight to the questions?
(Mr Hill) Straight to the questions.
304. This is directly to the Heritage Lottery
Fund. Could you tell me what is wrong with the draft PPG, and
what should it say?
(Ms McRobie) In terms of the Lottery Fund I do not
think we would necessarily have particular views on changes or
directly what is wrong because we are not directly involved in
the planning procedures. What we would like to see it deliver
much more is a strategic approach that local authorities should
take to their provision of public open space.
305. Do you think it is actually going to ensure
that development plans provide for the conservation and actual
enhancement of urban parks?
(Ms McRobie) I think currently there is very little
understanding and knowledge in local authorities of what they
actually have, or manage, or the use of that land. They do not
seem to know really very basic things, even sometimes where it
is, quantity and, more particularly, how communities can use that
land or whether they wish to do so. I think the benefits that
could be obtained are by requiring the strategies and producing,
hopefully, some guidelines to back up that requirement; that it
will mean local authorities do go out and do that work, do access
the needs within their area and do have a much better understanding
of what they currently manage now and what they should be managing
in the future. Obviously that in itself will help set priorities
and make them understand the historic value.
306. Even if local authorities come to understand
what they have got and how they could best improve it, do you
think they will be able to use s.106 funds; and to what extent
can they use s.106 funds to contribute to that refurbishment and
enhancement of those parks?
(Ms McRobie) Our awards are usually for major parks
and are usually up to only 75 per cent; so local authorities have
to find 25 per cent of partnership funding. For some of them that
is a real struggle. They use a variety of means to do thatobviously
European funds, their own capital reserves, landfill tax and other
environmental schemes etc. As far as I can gather, the use of
s.106 is relatively infrequent. I think, from discussion or being
part of such discussions, they often find it hard to connect directly
what is required of them by Circular 1/97, linking new development
with existing, maintaining, improving and regenerating existing
public parks. Often there is a distance of space. Historic parks
are embedded within nineteenth century housing developments, areas
possibly that are not available for much new development. I do
not think that connectivity is seen. I also recognise there are
many demands on s.106 funding. If local authorities will not put
public parks at the top of the agenda, they are not at the top
of the list when it comes to looking for expenditure or gain of
307. How can local authorities be persuaded
to undertake more maintenance of parks? Is there anything you
can do to support that?
(Ms McRobie) In terms of awards that we make, I have
to say we do take a risk in that. We encourage local authorities
and insist that they prepare a maintenance and management plan
for ten years as a part of our capital award. This requests them
to have a commitment to improving standards and maintenance over
that period. We can monitor and evaluate whether they are achieving
that over the ten years; and the contract itself expresses a duty
of care obviously of the capital investment involved. It is risky
and we recognise that, but we think it is worth the risk. One
area that we have been investigating and push local authorities
to do is in terms of community involvement with those particular
parks. We understand that if we can get the community involved
in the park, and we stress that this is a requirement of all stages
through the capital grant process that we offer, that these communities
can then support, demand, monitor and feel more involved with
the local authority in trying to encourage and retain standards
long-term through management. The vagaries of local government
finances cannot make that a true condition of grant.
308. Does community involvement then start to
direct which parks will get support and which will not?
(Ms McRobie) No, certainly not from us,
because although we require that to happen it is often the case
there is no current friends group or community group involved
in the park and you have to start from scratch; or there may be
a friends group which is more like an enemies group, so to speak,
in respect of some local authorities.
309. Unlikely! I think it should be more widely
(Ms McRobie) I think communities and local authorities
should be working together to generate some synergy in the outcomes,
and that is a difficult skill. I think currently the community
sector and the local authority sector both have lessons to learn.
There needs to be mutual respect and benefit and a common purpose
of what they are trying to achieve. If you think of the added
benefit that volunteers bring, or community involvement brings,
I do not think it can ever be seen to replace core funding and
care that local authorities should give their parks, but it can
add value. You have only got to look at the National Trust, the
biggest private provider of countryside recreation, and the wonderful
use they make their of community involvement and volunteers to
see the real added benefits that can come through this work.
310. They are not very typical, are they? They
have a very narrowly focussed and a very narrowly based representative
group of volunteers, so you are not comparing like with like?
(Ms McRobie) No, but they do deliver a large amount
of recreational open space in the countryside.
311. Yes, no-one would doubt that, but you are
not comparing like with like.
(Ms McRobie) I think what I am comparing is the idea
that there needs to be a mutual respect and benefit between the
two groupsvolunteers and the landowner and managerand
they need a common purpose for that. Yes, of course, it would
be different; and I think trying to widen the community involvement
in parks is a difficult and skilled job, particularly if you are
going to try and involve ethnic communities or minorities; that
takes skills from the local authority, and there needs to be resources
put into those types of facilitators, community coordinators and
volunteer links. Currently that barely exists throughout the parks.
312. How can PPG17 address the issue of maintenance
rather than capital gain?
(Ms McRobie) I think the difficulty, as I said before,
is that it can indicate standards, benchmarks and quality standards,
but for policy guidance to actually insist on those standards
is much more difficult an objective of the PPG.
313. When you decide to award a grant how deeply
do you think about the need for continuing revenue for maintenance?
(Ms McRobie) We insist on them preparing a management
and maintenance plan.
314. Beyond the plan, how stringently do you
look at that?
(Ms McRobie) Our contract and our awards are linked
for the ten years post-completion. That is the period which the
management and maintenance plan covers.
315. What has your experience been? Are there
any examples where you have had to threaten to withdraw money?
(Ms McRobie) I think mixed, it has to be said.
316. If it is mixed, have you actually taken
money back from anyone yet?
(Ms McRobie) No, it would be very much a last resort.
Our projects are very long. Of the 180 or so parks we have funded
there are only about 30 now coming to completion. The first awards
were in 1997, so we are only five years through, and we require
a plan-led process in advance of the main grant and have a two-stage
application process; so it may well be five years between initial
thoughts and completion.
317. You have indicated that some of those 30
you are not too happy about?
(Ms McRobie) Yes.
318. How many of those 30 are you not too happy
(Ms McRobie) From personal knowledge, and I have to
say that we cover the whole of the UK and I do not know every
single one, there would be one or two of those where we were concerned,
and where we have taken action in the form of returning to the
local authority and demanding fairly firmly improvements to standards.
319. Are they doing it?
(Ms McRobie) Yes, they have taken that to heart.