“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

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Drones in the city: should we ban drone hobbyists?

A young boy flying a drone

By Steven McGinty

Drones are becoming an increasingly observable feature of modern cities, from tech enthusiasts flying drones in local parks to engineers using them to monitor air pollution. And there have also been some high profile commercial trials such as Amazon Prime Air, an ambitious 30-minute delivery service.

However, introducing drones into the public realm has been something of a bumpy ride. Although the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) produces guidance to ensure drones are flown safely and legally, there has been a number of hazardous incidents.

For example, in April, the first near-miss involving a passenger jet and more than one drone was recorded. The incident at Gatwick Airport saw two drones flying within 500m of an Airbus A320, with one pilot reporting a “significant risk of collision” had they been on a different approach path. In addition – and just 30 minutes later – one of these drones flew within 50m of another passenger jet, a Boeing 777.

Videos have also been uploaded to websites such as YouTube, which have clearly been taken from drones – a clear breach of the CAA’s rules prohibiting the flying of drones over or within 150m of built-up areas. This includes events such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, a match at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium, and Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Jordan Brooks, who works for Upper Cut Productions – a company which specialises in using drones for aerial photography and filming – explains that:

They look like toys. For anyone buying one you feel like you’re flying a toy ‘copter when actually you’ve got a hazardous helicopter that can come down and injure somebody.

Privacy concerns have also started to emerge. Sally Annereau, data protection analyst at law firm Taylor Wessing, highlights a recent European case which held that a suspect’s rights had been infringed by a homeowner’s CCTV recording him whilst he was in a public place. Although not specifically about drones, Sally Annereau suggests this decision will have far reaching consequences, with potential implications for drone users recording in public and sharing their footage on social media sites. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has already issued guidance for drones.

The CAA report that there were more than 3,456 incidents involving drones in 2016. This is a significant increase on the 1,237 incidents in 2015.

The response

Cities have often taken contradictory approaches to drones. Bristol City Council has banned their use in the majority of its parks and open spaces. Similarly, several London boroughs have introduced ‘no drone zones’, although the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has a relatively open policy, only banning drones over Richmond Park. Further, Lambeth Council requires hobbyists to complete an application form “to ensure suitability”, a standard similar to commercial drone pilots.

There have also been several accusations of double standards as large commercial operators such as Amazon receive exemptions to CAA rules, in front of photographers recording events, hospitals delivering blood, and researchers collecting data.

Although cities have a responsibility to protect the public, they also have to ensure citizens are able to exercise their rights. The air is a common space, and as such cities must ensure that hobbyists – as well as multinational firms – can enjoy the airspace. Thus, it might be interesting to see cities take a more positive approach and designate ‘drone zones’, where hobbyists can get together and fly their drones away from potential hazards.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

It’s a kind of magic: how green infrastructure is changing landscapes and lives

Daisies in Victoria Park sent in by Fiona Ann Patterson

Victoria Park, Belfast. Image: Fiona Ann Paterson

The greatest change happening to the face of our planet is the rapid growth of urban areas. Every ten years, an area the size of Britain is colonised by urban development, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This urban growth is already having a profound impact: while cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 75% of the Earth’s natural resources and produce 75% of global CO2 emissions.

Last month’s Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) forum in Edinburgh explored how green infrastructure projects can help cities and towns repair the damage of urbanisation, while making urban areas more healthy and prosperous places for the people who live there.

The importance of green infrastructure

Green infrastructure includes elements such as parks and gardens, woodland and wetlands, canals and cycle paths. It’s a natural life support system that can play a key role in helping urban areas adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Three projects showcased at the CSGN forum admirably demonstrated how green infrastructure can benefit the environment, the economy, large cities and local communities.

Milan: building forests in the sky
Francesca Cesa Bianci, senior architect at Stefano Boeri Architects in Milan described a ground-breaking project in her city, called Bosco Verticale – the Vertical Forest.

She explained that, while urban growth cannot be stopped, it is possible to build cities more in harmony with nature. The Vertical Forest project is a response to this challenge.

Almost 800 trees and 5000 shrubs have been planted on the balconies of two residential towers built on a brownfield site in central Milan. The result is visually striking, but even more outstanding is the greenery’s environmental impact. The two towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 per year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced and the buildings now provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

The Bosco Verticale idea is now spreading beyond Italy, with similar projects in Albania, Switzerland and China. Some municipalities in China are also exploring the idea of entire cities composed of vertical forests – which could bring significant benefits to urban areas where air pollution is a hidden killer.

Belfast: telling a different story

East Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation, with some of the worst levels of physical and mental health in Europe, low educational attainment and a deprived physical environment. The 2014 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland warned readers that it was “inadvisable” to visit the area.

That scenario is now changing, thanks largely to a green infrastructure project. Wendy Langham, Programme Manager for the EastSide Partnership, outlined to the CSGN forum how the Connswater Community Greenway  (CCG) is changing lives and changing the way people think about the area.

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Connswater Community Greenway Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Executive, two major phases of development have created a 9km linear park with 16km of walking and cycling routes, 30 new or improved bridges crossing over three rivers, and works to deliver elements of Belfast’s Flood Alleviation scheme and improve water quality.

An ongoing assessment of the project has estimated the potential economic return of the CCG to be up to 14 times the investment. The flood alleviation investment of £11.7m has saved an estimated £54.7m.

The study also highlighted the wider benefits of the project:

“We have shown that environmental interventions, such as the Connswater Community Greenway, could be a cost-effective way to increase physical activity levels, prevent major chronic diseases and decrease healthcare expenditure. In addition, the Greenway may have benefits beyond health such as reductions in traffic and carbon emissions, crime and improvements in safety.”

The project has been keen to tell a different story about East Belfast from the negative narrative so long associated with the area. Celebrating local heroes, the project has developed a public square named in honour of author C.S. Lewis, while a Van Morrison music trail has attracted locals and tourists to the area.

Wendy explained that the project is far from finished, and has ambitious plans for the future. She concluded with a quotation from Michelangelo that captures the spirit of the project:

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Copenhagen: connecting people with nature

For many years, the Danish capital has been the envy of cyclists the world over. But now, the city’s well-developed network of on-road cycling routes is being supplemented by a new set of ‘green cycle routes’. Winding through parks, open spaces, woodlands and other habitats, the new paths will give cyclists and pedestrians safe and enjoyable access to nature.

Niels Jensen, traffic planner with the City of Copenhagen, explained that the first of these green cycle routes opened in 2012, and a further 23 routes are planned, covering an area of over 100km. One of the routes connects central Copenhagen with the suburban town of Albertslund, 22 km outside the city, while another follows the course of an abandoned railway line.

Albertslund Bikeway

Albertslund Green Cycleway. Image: Soren Rud/LifeExhibitions. Further information – Copenhagen Green

Niels acknowledged that the investment in the project is significant – €20.7 million, But Copenhagen believes the benefits are worth the money,with more non-cyclists – including children – taking to bikes, using safe, direct and unpolluted connections. Since 2012, the first two routes have experienced a growth in the number of bicycle users of 61% and 34% respectively. The project expects to see a 25% increase in cycling traffic by 2025, advancing Copenhagen’s ambition to be the best cycling city in the world.

Conclusion

In her keynote speech to the CSGN forum, Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham described the transformation achieved by green infrastructure as “magical”. She highlighted the examples of a project that will transform a landfill site in Glasgow into a community woodland, and another programme to improve mental health by bringing people into contact with woodlands and forests.

These projects, and those showcased during the CSGN forum demonstrate that our urbanising world need not be a concrete jungle, and that the benefits of green infrastructure go far beyond its face value.

Orangefield Park Celebrations

Orangefield Park, Belfast Image: EastSide Partnership, Belfast


Further reading on green spaces in our blog

Who pays for parks? Are ‘green benefit districts’ the answer?

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Southwark Park, London. Photograph: Mike Faherty. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

The benefits of urban parks are well told. Quite apart from their environmental impact, green spaces really do make a difference to our quality of life: from health to housing, community cohesion to crime prevention, city parks generate spin-offs extending far beyond their green acres.

They also cost money. Even before the economic crisis of 2008, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was highlighting the challenges of maintaining urban parkland:

“We risk a never-ending cycle of large areas of poor quality urban green space that are restored with public money, then decline, then need more public investment to restore them to a good standard.”

In the age of austerity, those challenges have intensified: between 2010/11 and 2012/13 local authority spending on open spaces in England was cut by an average of 10.5%. Now, more than ever, local authorities have to think more imaginatively about sources of revenue and capital funding for urban green spaces.

Last summer, the Policy Exchange think tank came up with some ideas for attracting more money to maintain urban parks. These included:

  • extending the Gift Aid scheme to community civic improvement groups;
  • requiring new green spaces to include a long term funding plan;
  • allowing communities and local authorities to apply for funding to employ park keepers in those spaces identified as crime hotspots.

The report also encouraged the idea of green benefit districts. Also known as park improvement districts, these are urban parks, gardens, and green spaces whose upkeep is funded in part by a tax on nearby residents.

It’s an approach that echoes the concept of business improvement districts, defined areas where participating businesses pay a levy for security, landscaping and other improvements to their trading environment.

Some communities in San Francisco are already exploring the idea, teaming up with housing developers to establish a green benefit district that aims to protect and enhance 25 small parks, community gardens and ad hoc recreation spaces.

In the UK, green benefit districts might prove to be a harder sell. Many people feel that they are already contributing quite enough for the maintenance of parks through the council tax, and the Policy Exchange report stressed that the idea would not be appropriate in deprived areas.

But the authors suggested that home owners living near parks might be persuaded to pay more for amenities that raise the value of their properties.  An analysis of price increases of homes in south London before and after a £2.7m regeneration of Southwark Park revealed a significant increase in prices of properties located within 100m of the park. The report could not conclude that this increase was due to renovation of the park, but suggested that the link between green space quality and property prices was worth further investigation.

The green benefit districts idea has received a cool response from coalition ministers, who suggest that cutting waste and inefficiency in local government is preferable to additional taxation. But, with the prospect of councils’ budgets being squeezed further in the coming years, the idea of green benefit districts might well take root.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on urban green space. Items of interest include:

The contribution of green and open space in public health and wellbeing

Future parks (Birmingham City Council seeking NHS funding for upkeep of parks)

Time to re-think parks (innovative income generation for public parks)

Park land: how open data can improve our urban green spaces

Rethinking parks: exploring new business models for parks in the 21st century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.

Love Parks Week: shouting out for green spaces

bluebell fairylandby Laura Dobie

This week is Love Parks Week (25th July-3rd August), an annual campaign to raise the profile of local parks and green spaces. The initiative, managed by Keep Britain Tidy and Love Where You Live, began in 2006 with the aim to encourage people to visit and take a pride in their local parks and highlight their vital contribution to healthy, happy and strong communities.

The campaign has been growing year on year, and last year there were 1,100 events across the country, with approximately 1.4 million participants. The quality of green spaces is an important concern for the campaign, and its Park Health Check questionnaire invites people to rate the quality of their local green spaces and contribute to a report assessing the health of the nation’s parks. With listings for a variety of events across the UK, and promotional materials available to help people to promote events in green spaces in their communities, it is clear that Love Parks Week is raising awareness of parks and green spaces and making the case for continued investment in these places in the face of funding constraints. Continue reading