In small but smart meeting room adjacent to Rumbles Café, set within the highly used and publicly valued green flag award winning park called Sutton Fields, GreenSpace East Midlands delivered a workshop on Asset Transfer and Big Society which included wise and experienced words from the Catering Manager of this social enterprise.
Over 20 officers came together to discuss Asset Transfer through interesting case studies from the East Midlands region and to listen to Central Government’s latest news and view on Big Society. The case studies showed the variety of green spaces and different levels of asset transfer, illustrating that it isn’t a simple affair for green space managers. The workshop could have quite easily focussed in depth on one or two aspects. Workshop participants learnt from each other’s experiences and because of this free productive dialogue it was a shame there wasn’t more time for further debate and discussion.
The overwhelming reflections were that communities require and appreciate the support of officers and a flexible approachable authority. Concerns were expressed over the sustainability of community groups and the financial viability of business cases particularly for managing something that is public services and not a business. Many authorities did not wish to transfer a liability so where possible many assets received investment first before transfer.
It was felt that full asset transfer wasn’t right in all situations and for all green spaces, although there is and will continue to be good examples where it has worked well e.g. Warley Woods, Sandwell. Learning from these needs to be considered as each community is unique as the public space they wish to manage. There are also many examples of other levels of asset transfer such as partnership and delegated services.
Is the default basis of Big Society that the community knows best on how to deliver public services? If so who are the community and are they fully representative of the whole neighbourhood? These are questions that were raised in the discussions. It is worth considering that many of our green spaces such as parks are intended to be accessible and enjoyed by all members of the public. If one community interest group manages the park will they do so in a way that continues to allow full access and be publically accountable? Most but not all asset transfer examples tend to be green space with provided limited access where there is a form of membership i.e. allotments, bowling greens, cricket pitches etc.
For central government officers I think the workshop helped them to understand the special nature and relationship the public have with green spaces and the fundamental role they provide to our human existences through ecosystem services e.g. clean air, water, wind protection etc. as well as national concerns such as public health, climate change and regenerating neighbourhoods. Therefore there is a responsibility to manage green spaces with regard to these essential services which means that transferring of ownership of an asset shouldn’t be considered without serious consideration of transferring of responsibilities. At a national level ecosystem services are being recognised and incorporated within Treasury methodology and other departments yet potentially at a local level green space could be regarded simply as pieces of land because of the traditional ways we place a price on them rather than a value.
The inevitable question arose, what happens if the community group or SME fails, does it return to the responsibility of the public purse? Is there Plan B?
Because of so many variables some highlighted above, and from a previous GreenSpace survey, it initially appears that most local authorities are approaching asset transfer of green spaces in project by project basis as individual situations arise. A few are approaching it from a new ways of working perspective to fulfil the Big Society ethos alongside efficiency savings.
In summary for many authorities, the driver for asset transfer of many of our green spaces seems still to be a financial one, by seeking new ways of working to be more efficient at delivering a valued public service that is deemed by government as non-statutory. Whilst most officers and green space departments can and do see the community benefit of asset transfer, they are also realistic about the officer time often required to support these groups.
A workshop report containing a copy of the presentations, notes, summary of discussions and further information is available for GS members or at small reasonable fee for non-members. Contact Ruth to find out more.