Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Big Dilemma

As some of you will know I live in one corner of a big public park. The park is run by the Council - but for how long into the future we don't know. In preparation for the day, the Council has wisely set up a 'Friends of' group which could, in time, evolve into something more.

So last night I missed bedtime stories and trooped down, Big Society-style, to the park to the Friends meeting. I had extra motive because, without saying very much at all the Council had put whackin' great fences up around my favourite meadow in some hare-brained attempt to earn revenue from grazing - except no revenue actually comes in till 2017 because the grazier has paid for the fencing.

Anyway, nuff said there. The meeting was composed of various people from the community, mostly older and all, I would say, not high in confidence around their role as a group. The dominant force in the meeting was the man from the council, who, for the most part, was letting people know what was happening.

The interesting bit here is the future. The park is a great place but financially not that viable. It has buildings in it which if sold could raise funds - an endownment effectively - for the park. Equally, they could, with investment, be made into rustic retail and garden-centre type operations which, in turn, would generate revenue.

But who would do this? The Council themselves probably don't have the skills. But neither too do the community. This isn't an area full of up-and-at-it professionals who will lead a new social venture, attract the investment, redevelop the site etc.

So who will do it? I suspect an enterprise bringing all of the parks in West Suffolk under one umbrella is the likely answer - some kind of spin-out which can attract revenues which the council can't. Then comes the question of where the commercial skills will come from. Because one thing is certain. The man from the council will still be at the centre of things and we could be no further on.

My dilemma therefore is this: do I work with and on this gentleman, bringing him along to appreciating that the park is not his park, to share power a little more and, yes, let commerce play a role in a sustainable future? Or do I argue that parts of the park need to be sold off now to create an endowment - and probably put the man from the council out of the picture?

Interesting one - any thoughts?


Edward Harkins said...

My initial curiosity is about ‘the man from the council’. I’m not sure if you mean, literally ‘a man from the council’; but if you do, your inference is that he’s not up to much on the entrepreneurial/commercial front.

If that’s the situation, are there not other players within the council; is there something like an enterprise department?
As for working with the man - beware the all-too-common scenario where you think you have a long-laboured 'deal' with a council official, only for it all to fall apart when the matter is placed in front of the elected councillors... thereby lie dragons and sea monsters.

Is there scope for a still-council-friendly-spin-off-entity taking with it the park and the other council- owned assets you refer to?

Glasgow City Council created a charitable company (now Glasgow Life) and transferred much of the city heritage and leisure assets to it. The motive was greater access to funding and tax exemption. So far it seems to work.

But I’d have to acknowledge that it was, and remains, a very controversial move. Moreover, it did not remove ‘the man from the council’ – there is local media agitation over what are alleged to be eye-watering payments to city councillors for sitting on the board of this entity (and similar arrangement involving other entities).

On the possible trade-off between the continued existence of the park and its demise with a legacy: for all practical purposes the park will never be reinstated or replaced. The issue, therefore, is the extent of the permanence of the legacy substitute.

There again, will the park anyway continue to exist in anything like its existing form? If its very existence is in immediate danger that, obviously, has a bearing on assessing the alternatives. Incidentally, I believe that somewhere in Edinburgh there is a very similar debate going on. There is there a proposal to sell off part of a local park to ensure the continued existence and accessibility of the remainder. The local community is, however up in arms and wants no disposal whatsoever – a difficult call for the council?

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

A thoughtful set of comments Edward, thank-you. A council friendly spin off is the most likely thing on the card. After posting, I got a call from the Man at the Council's boss, saying just this. He agreed with me that the Man needs to be consulting properly and assured me that there will be no repeats of his recent fencing disgrace. Re a sell-off, I think we have three years to make the house and its walled garden work - or it will be sold for £1m for a dwelling. If you're interested this is Nowton Park, Bury St Edmunds. www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk - or just google it.

Adam said...

But who would do this? The Council themselves probably don't have the skills. But neither too do the community. This isn't an area full of up-and-at-it professionals who will lead a new social venture, attract the investment, redevelop the site etc.

You do yourself a disservice Craig. Are you not the up-and-at-it professional? I know of a few like you in Bury too!

I can't see why the park couldn't actually be self-funding or even profitable?

Lots of volunteers in leafy Suffolk! Programmes to train up the unemployed. Music, arts, crafts events in the summer. An ice rink and Santa in the winter.