Shared Assets has recently completed a pioneering piece of work to develop a proposal for the U.K.’s first Parks Improvement District. The work was undertaken on behalf of the London Borough of Camden as part of its “Bloomsbury2 Squared” initiative.
As austerity continues to put pressure on local authority budgets, Parks Improvement Districts (PIDs) have been proposed as a model for funding improvements in parks, squares and the wider public realm. Bryant Park in New York City provides the most celebrated example, successfully funding the restoration of a neglected green space in the heart of Manhattan in the 1980s.
LB Camden’s proposal to establish a PID to cover nine squares and gardens in London’s historic Bloomsbury is one of 11 projects funded by Nesta, Big Lottery and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of their “Rethinking Parks” programme. If the proposal is taken forward it will see the development of a non-profit organisation that will secure new financial and in-kind resources to support improved management of the squares. It will also take an area-wide approach to their governance.
Shared Assets was commissioned to develop a detailed proposal and business model for a Bloomsbury Parks Improvement District. Working with our associates, Peter Neal (Peter Neal Consulting) and Lorraine Hart (Community Land Use), we undertook a baseline analysis of each of the nine sites, bringing together and reviewing existing data, interviewing local residents, businesses and institutions, and conducting a survey of park users.
Our initial analysis identified the potential benefits of an area-wide approach to the management of the squares. These include improved coordination of management operations, and better engagement with Friends groups and other potential sponsors and supporters. Typically for London there are wide differences in character and socio economic context across the area. By taking an area wide approach, the differences in each site’s potential for income generation can be balanced across the District. Cultural and commercial events and other uses can also be coordinated and programmed in ways that are sensitive to the different capacities and characters of each site, whilst enhancing the contribution that the squares and gardens make to the character and identity of Bloomsbury.
In addition to establishing a new organisation able to coordinate fundraising and expenditure, and to commission and deliver services, the PID model enables the organisation to charge a levy on local businesses. The levy, made through the business rates, can be established using the Business Improvement District regulations. Such a levy has the potential to provide a significant new source of income to be invested in improving the quality and use of the squares and gardens.
If a business levy is to be charged in accordance with the U.K.’s BID regulations, it must secure a majority in a referendum of local businesses who will be liable for the charge. It must also demonstrate how it will provide added benefit over and above the level of service already being provided by the local authority. By establishing a levy for a single five year term it will be possible for the Bloomsbury PID to invest in improvements to the buildings, services and facilities on the sites, enhancing their ability to generate long term commercial income from leases and concessions, and enabling a wider range of events to be held with less disruption to local residents and park users. The possibility of using income from a levy to create an endowment capable of providing a long term investment income will also be explored as this work develops.
The Bloomsbury2 Squared project provides the first opportunity to pilot the PID approach in the UK. We believe it has the potential to enhance Bloomsbury’s renowned squares and gardens, and to increase the level of regular use by residents, businesses and visitors alike.
If local business are to support the development of a PID and an associated levy on their business rates they will need to see a clear benefit to their investment. By expanding the range of park-based activities, improving the range and quality of concessions, and developing a compelling programme of events, a PID offers local businesses the potential to greater footfall and retention of visitors to the area. For some it has the potential to expand the range of customers, enhance staff retention, and to improve their setting and local amenity. It provides an integrated and business focussed proposition to enhance the character, brand, cultural and economic vitality of the district.
A new area-wide body will bring together landowners, businesses, residents and local institutions, giving them greater local control and stewardship of their shared assets, and enabling better coordination of new and existing resources, whether these are financial or in kind.
Establishing a new area-wide approach to the management of Bloomsbury’s squares and gardens will be a challenge. Varied land ownership, legal covenants and constraints, and existing management arrangements all add to the complexity of the project. Despite these challenges we are excited by the prospect of seeing the U.K.’s first Parks Improvement District established in the heart of London. We believe that it is a model that other local authorities should be exploring in order to bring new resources, new ideas and new voices into the future management of local parks and green spaces.
Bloomsbury2 Squared is a Rethinking Parks project, funded by Nesta, Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund.