The Big Society poses the challenge of small budgets. The ‘environmental assets’ local authorities own – places like parks, woodlands, canals and coastal areas – can be hit hard by budget cuts.
For local authorities, facing up to 30% cuts year on year yet expected to deliver the same statutory services, the challenge can seem intractable.
Many authorities are facing similar issues when thinking about the future of their environmental assets:
- Open space management is often an expensive, non-statutory service. With local authorities working to deliver on many competing objectives, environmental assets can rank lower on a council’s list of priorities, and fall into under management.
- Responsibility for land is often fragmented across departments, making it difficult to create a holistic approach to its management.
- Traditional ‘Friends Of’ or voluntary groups that can help care for a site need time, support and resources from a local authority. They may, quite understandably, not have the capacity or desire to take on full responsibility for an asset on a voluntary basis.
- Contracting land management to the private sector is one option, but draws any profits out of an area, and can limit the opportunities for social, health and environmental benefits to be generated from a site.
- In some cases, sale or transfer of ownership can be seen as the only option.
- Yet “selling the family silver” can cause public resistance and have political repercussions. It often doesn’t make practical sense, and can reduce an authority’s strategic control over its area.
- Where they exist shared management arrangements between councils and communities are often informal, causing uncertainty for local authorities and insecurity for community enterprises.
Wycombe District Council recently met such challenges. Faced with budget cuts, the council undertook a pro-active and pragmatic approach to their conditions, and supported their Woodland Service’s spin out into a Community Interest Company, Chiltern Rangers CIC.
WDC recognised that the social benefits the woodland service team had been providing would be lost if the service was privatised, but could not afford to sustain the service in-house. Chiltern Rangers CIC now manages 14 of the council’s woodlands, undertaking new social and educational activities and drawing new income streams to the sites.
The woodlands are now a vehicle to help the council meet three of its four strategic objectives: value for money, environmental sustainability and community engagement.
With two thirds of publicly owned assets held by local authorities, the potential for progressive councils to move beyond volunteerism, bring about change, make their jobs more interesting and open up their resources to new forms of sustainable productivity is huge.
You can read our guide for landowners on the all the potential benefits shared management arrangements can produce, or contact us if you would like to have a chat about how we can tailor this approach to you.