Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 302 - 319)




  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.

Ms King

  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 that—obviously 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 106 agreements.

Mrs Ellman

  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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  309. Unlikely! I think it should be more widely known!
  (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 groups—volunteers and the landowner and manager—and 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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 about?
  (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.

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