Report urges local authorities to reward volunteers with council tax rebates for improving local green spaces
Paper also makes case for introduction of “living legacies” to encourage people to donate to the upkeep of parks
Local authorities should consider rewarding people who volunteer their time to clean up and maintain their local parks, allotments and cemeteries with council tax rebates.
A report released today by leading think-tank Policy Exchange highlights the importance of parks and other urban green spaces to the social and economic wellbeing of the country. Providing free outdoor space for exercise, socialising and relaxation, parks can benefit both physical and mental health. However, on average local authority spending on open spaces was cut by 10.5% between 2010/11 and 2012/13 and there is no ring-fence protecting the budget spent on maintaining green spaces. Combined with the increasing demand for housing and other urban development there is a risk that the UK’s parks will deteriorate or become spaces that are the preserve of the wealthy.
The paper suggests a wide range of proposals to improve local green spaces including the idea of a full or partial council tax rebate for local residents who join civil or community groups and volunteer to maintain and improve nearby green spaces. The rebate could be worth as much as £1,500 a year, the average amount of council tax paid by people across the country. Local authorities could set the discount rate themselves, basing it on hours spent volunteering or setting a minimum number of hours necessary for volunteers to qualify for the rebate. This would not only provide a solution to the declining number of park rangers but would encourage people of all ages, backgrounds and income groups to become actively engaged in their local communities.
The report suggests a number of other innovative ways to protect and improve the UK’s urban green spaces at a time of squeezed local authority budgets:
Ecotherapy. The Department of Health should run a series of pilots allowing GPs to refer patients to non-clinical sources of support to improve their mental and physical health. These could include encouraging patients to join a physical fitness class held in a local park. The patient would pay the standard prescription charge and the Clinical Commissioning Group would fund the remainder of the course, with the class organisers paying the local authority a fee as part of an agreement to hold classes in a public green space.
Park Levy. Residents should be given the ability to vote on whether to raise a compulsory levy on properties within a set distance from a park or urban green space. Collected by the local authority on top of council tax, the levy would be directed into funding the maintenance of green spaces. Exemptions would apply to people unable to afford the levy. This system is already in practice in parts of London, including Wimbledon and Putney Common.
Living Legacies. Charities supporting green space maintenance and regeneration should be made eligible beneficiaries of Living Legacies, through which a donor can receive an annual income from a trust for a specified period (for example, until death), after which the remaining capital value of the trust, which is tax exempt, goes to the specified charity.
Developer endowment. New green spaces which are planned as part of a new housing development, for example, should be required to include a long term funding plan which may include endowments part funded by developer contributions as part of the planning application.
Katherine Drayson, author of the report, said:
“Britain’s parks are the lungs of our great cities. They are an oasis of calm and tranquillity in an increasingly fast moving world. However, as local authority budgets have been squeezed, public funding on parks, cemeteries and allotments has declined sharply.
“The time has come for radical new thinking to safeguard our parks and make them more accessible to everyone in society. With people’s disposable income still under pressure a ‘green guardian’ scheme that rewards local volunteers to help maintain their local parks with council tax rebates is just one way of protecting and enhancing our public green spaces.”
Responding to the report, Drew Bennellick, Head of Landscape and Natural Heritage at Heritage Lottery Fund, said:
"If we are to avoid the bleak future facing our public parks as exposed in HLF’s State of UK Public Parks 2014 report then new ideas of funding and maintaining them must be explored. This new report is a very welcome contribution to the debate."
Gareth Morgan, Head of External Affairs at RSPB, said:
"Policy Exchange is advancing a hugely significant debate about how to enrich our urban green oases. Often a glimmer of green can provide a lifeline for nature and a haven for local communities, but much more could be delivered if we have a national plan for helping local communities to connect up green spaces and enhance their biodiversity. That’s why the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are calling for a Nature and Wellbeing Act to help plan for nature’s networks and connect people with the environment. This report makes an important contribution to the debate."
Lydia Ragoonanan, Rethinking Parks Programme Manager at Nesta, said:
"Policy Exchange’s report provides a timely reminder of the scale of the challenge facing the UK’s public parks. With funding projected to fall over the next decade, innovative new ways of managing and financing our parks are desperately needed. Ambitious new models, such as levies or charitable giving identified in the report, could help in creating a more sustainable future for our green spaces and over the next 18 months our own Rethinking Parks programme will set out to test a range of ideas to identify which could work best."
James Cooper, Woodland Trust's Head of Government Affairs, said:
"The Woodland Trust has long pushed for greater recognition of the value of accessible local green space for people’s health and wellbeing. We’re therefore pleased to see Policy Exchange also highlighting the need for this and showcasing the supporting evidence in their new report. It is essential to see the environment as an asset when planning new built infrastructure, to prioritise the protection of irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland, and to incorporate woods and trees into those plans so that both people and wildlife can continue to thrive."
and Julie Hopes, Chief Executive of The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), said:
"Recent reports demonstrate the threats to the parks and green spaces that maintain the health of our towns and our cities, and the people that live there. This report by Policy Exchange is a significant milestone on the route to developing a secure future for these precious assets.
"Local authorities are under considerable pressure to operate with reduced budgets, but it is crucial for the health and well-being of the nation that parks and other outdoor spaces are protected. Policy Exchange have come up with innovative ways local authorities can ensure the upkeep of these local assets, and TCV feel these policies offer a strong way forward."