TORY THINK TANK SAY PARKS CAN BE RUN BY VOLUNTEERS

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Britain’s public parks and open spaces are largely a legacy of 19th century philanthropy and the sense that open green spaces freely available for individual or group recreation are a public good.  A view often supported by current research into issues such as public health and obesity.  Such places often also harbour rich histories in their own right and as a by-product, also act to conserve earlier landscapes and archaeology in areas which have otherwise been built up and developed.  However, The center right think tank Policy Exchange, founded by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and reputed to be a favorite means of flying policy kites for Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, has published a report entitled “Green Society: Policies to improve the UK’s urban green spaces,” [ http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/green%20society.pdf] which among other recommendations, advocates combating the loss of public sector support to parks maintenance, by transferring the management of public parks to community groups or even commercial companies.  The report also suggests addressing cuts in staff by rewarding park volunteers who agree work set hours, or provide set services with council tax rebates, as well as suggesting other forms of fund raising including additional charges on the locally raised taxes and levy’s, including Council Tax.  Suggestions which critics argue could lead to the replacement of skilled and experienced staff with a patchy provision of sometimes poorly trained and supervised volunteers supported by a skeleton of overstretched professionals, or commercial service providers whose only interest would be turning such sites into profit centers.

The Policy Exchange report seeks to address issues which were highlighted by another report “The State of UK Parks,”  published by the Heritage Lottery Fund earlier this year, 2014 [ http://www.hlf.org.uk/aboutus/howwework/Documents/StateOfUKParks2014_advocacy.pdf ].  That report sought to provide a baseline of current data supported by a survey undertaken by pollster Ipsos MORI.  The HLF report noted that while Parks saw 2.6 billion individual visits per year and that existing Parks Friends Groups raised on average £30 million per year across the UK,   81% of Parks had lost professional management since 2010 and 77% had seen front line staff either sacked or lost through posts being frozen or other forms of wastage.   In a trend which the Policy Exchange report seeks to promote, the HLF report also reported that 45% of local authorities were considering raising money to support their budgets, or making efficiency cuts, by either selling off Parks and open Spaces or outsourcing their management to other parties.

Policy Exchange;s mission statement is to “foster a free society based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture.” and the Policy Exchange Report, authored by Dr Katherine Drayson and edited by Guy Newey, claims to offer sustainable solutions to the current squeeze on public sector budgets with regard to parks and public open spaces.   However, critics argue that the suggestion is just the latest in a series of uncoordinated moves which will have the net effect of de-professionalising what were once seen as public services.  Examples of this trend being the use of volunteers to staff libraries in the place of trained librarians and the replacement of  trained and experienced museum curators with managers and volunteer gallery and archive staff.  A complaint made against Northampton Borough Council by the protesters  the sale of the statue of Sekhemka in Northampton.  In that context it is argued a cut in Council Tax in return for specified services in a local park is effectively payment for a job and a contract of employment.  Aside from the moral and philosophical issues this raises over just who provides such skilled services, these issues could have an impact at much more practical level.  For example in effecting a person’s availability for employment if they are claiming Job Seekers Allowance and thus limiting the kind of people capable of undertaking such volunteering.

In a further suggestion the Policy Exchange Report points to the apparent rise in value of houses which are adjacent to parks and suggest this is effectively a local authority subsidy to those who live near parks.  To counter this the report advocates an additional Council Tax levy which is hypothecated to Park maintenance.  A system which has been in place on Wimbledon and Putney Common since 1991, where the local authority and local representatives administer the funds raised.  However critics of the report also suggest that visitors to Parks come from across the wider local area making the general Council Tax a fairer way of supporting such community assets and point to the irony of a right of center think tank suggesting a tax increase to combat the effects of funding cuts instituted by a right of center Government.

Of course, any report from a Think Tank such as Policy Exchange, is not binding on Government.  Indeed such reports are often used to “think the unthinkable” allowing Ministers and the policy makers and special advisors who support them to try out ideas without the collateral damage in the opinion polls if the public does not like the idea.  However, it is certain that given Policy Exchange’s ideological links to the “Orange Book”  economic liberals and small government advocates at the top of the Coalition, the kind of policies outlined in the report will form at least the subtext to the Conservative, and possibly Liberal Democrat Manifesto’s in the 2015 General Election and a victory for David Cameron on 7 May could well result in such policies being implemented much more aggressively across National and Local Government.  Something many in an  archaeological community already heavily hit by redundancies and loss of capacity can only view with concern.