I have just spent a few days at the Public Sector Solutions conference hearing about initiatives and best practice from all over the UK, and wanted to share some reflections on some of the directions of travel I encountered there.
The main message I came away with was ‘partnerships are the answer’, one speaker even commented; “a few years ago if you came here outsourcing would have been the answer, now people are looking to insourcing or partnerships”. As councils continue to be pushed to reduce spending, cross-sector working and detailed analyses are being encouraged to co-locate services and ensure operational assets are fully utilised, and other assets are sweated or face streamlining agendas. One initiative worth a mention is the One Public Estate programme; this provides funding for costs such as feasibility studies and master plans, and has been pulling together partnerships to maximise utilisation of public assets, such as between different local authorities, as well as NHS trusts, and the police.
But repeatedly I found the assets focused on are buildings, the ‘spaces in between’ weren’t mentioned. Upon pushing panellists on different occasions I found the responses shaped by a persistent underlying view of open and green spaces as parts of the estate which just need supporting or maintaining rather than assets in their own right capable of delivering wider public benefits. However, there were some signs that things are shifting. Health and wellbeing benefits do now seem to be widely acknowledged and natural capital and ecosystem service accounting are also increasingly being seen as methods for valuing the assets, although to my knowledge have yet turn out financial returns. They are also recognised as key in place making; often new public spaces are created through planning obligations in new developments. Given the actual and potential value of these assets why as part of the planning process is the long-term management of these spaces not always mapped out? And why is consideration of them separated from the other assets at the point when partnerships and portfolio approaches are being developed to ensure future viability?
Firstly, modelling of their long term value and social return has only been carried out relatively recently. Secondly, the financial opportunities that they could present are not always recognised. Many public spaces are not designed to be income generating but they can generate at least part of their maintenance costs. Thirdly, they offer a great opportunity to create a supporting ecosystem of local social enterprises, if the community has, or is supported to develop, the capacity to meet it. Examples include Green Estates (Sheffield) and Health Community Garden Activities (London).
Regeneration, local economic development, social value and sustainable procurement were also high on the agenda at the conference. If these agendas are tied together with a ‘place’ focus you could see public spaces maintained by local enterprises, with urban growing or health and wellbeing initiatives based in them; supported through progressive procurement; providing services, fair employment and food; and contributing to local economic resilience.
What is also lacking in many cases is an initial vision of stewardship; including modelling early in the master planning stages for the ‘invisible infrastructure’ of governance and accompanying income streams to integrate and be viable. Examples of successful stewardship bodies exist, such as the Nene Parks Trust, mostly with multiple income streams and portfolio approaches (see our previous webinar on stewardship of green spaces).
At Shared Assets we want to see and support a move from place making to place keeping, one current exploration is how local planning can better enable this. If this hasn’t been built in from the beginning then regeneration, asset mapping and partnership building offer a chance to do it. Let’s not miss it the second time round!