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Green spaces and community assets, new models for new developments

Hannah Gardiner

Our Head of Consultancy, Hannah Gardiner, discusses models for the management of green space and community assets in new developments.

In the years since the financial crisis, we have seen many parts of society facing permanent restructuring through the guiding hand of austerity, and the development industry has not been left untouched. As Local Authorities worked to reduce spending they have stopped adopting public spaces in new developments. This left a funding gap, in the main filled with service charges paid by residents to management companies contracted by the developer to undertake the management and maintenance of the development’s green spaces. In recent times there has been a public outcry against this model, dubbed ‘fleecehold’. Lack of transparency, lack of quality over time, lack of control over charge increases, and lack of responsiveness to residents needs are all stated as issues.

There are alternative models and approaches, but balancing accountability and ensuring different interests have a voice, whilst enabling delivery without being overly bureaucratic is not easy.

Places like Chilmington Green are leading the way, with a design code and quality agreement in place that were created in collaboration with the lead developers and existing community stakeholders right from the start. Their vision is for a Community Management Organisation which will hold £24m worth of assets, and receive a service charge from residents. In order to achieve this, investment in legal and planning capacity was necessary on the part of the local authority. North West Bicester have also adopted a similar approach, developing supplementary planning guidance and a vision statement early on, with input from the lead developer and existing stakeholders. They have specified a staged approach to the development of the Local Management Organisation, and also specifically commissioned a study looking at the financial viability of the organisation, and making sure the S106 agreements drafted were fit-for-purpose to support this.

This kind of early vision creates a certainty that gives the stakeholders involved confidence to invest and gives a framework for easier collaborative working and planning. One advantage of this early thinking is that you can also build thinking about financial viability into the design of the spaces and assets, considering that any management organisation will need income in perpetuity and be able to minimise costs. But in some cases, it may be necessary to try and retrofit these approaches in at a later stage.

Our recent work in Ebbsfleet was one example of that, with a masterplan in place, many S106’s finalised and development in process we had to work carefully to engage stakeholders and understand ambitions and constraints so that the model we created was not just financially viable but also aligned with the objectives of all involved, and deliverable within the wider processes and context.

The Heeley Development Trust is also a great example of a successful later stage intervention. They took on 3.5Ha of derelict land on a 125-year lease from the local authority and over time have developed a multiple income stream business model which includes a renovated Victorian school being rented out as managed workspace, alongside a number of community initiatives. They now employ 32 people. For them, alignment with local authority objectives has been key, as has been being responsive to and accountable to local people. 

Management and maintenance require income, and a service charge may be appropriate, but it’s very different if that is transparently collected, and there is democratic control over how it’s spent. Portfolio approaches to community assets can also be effective, as in the examples above, balancing assets which provide more social value with ones that provide more financial return. Appropriate governance that drives both ongoing innovations in the organisation and also ensures the community needs stay at the centre, is essential. I like to think of it as generative governance. Accountability and what that looks like may change over time, for example, developers may want to retain influence during a certain period, and the community will take time to form in a new place.

This is not just about placemaking, its about place shaping and place keeping. By giving people ownership of the space, it can enable it to adapt to residents needs over time – this is a different type of quality, utility in perpetuity. This is new ground for many, and the alternatives are numerous, for example, Community Land Trusts could get a nod here, where they exist strong Parish Councils may have a role. Perhaps local planning could be a driver? Each site and context is different, and what works in one place may not work in another. Here at Shared Assets, we are excited to have been part of the journey of innovation with a number of organisations. If you are going on this journey why not check out a webinar we organised on the topic, or get in touch to discuss your ideas.

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