A new report from Policy Exchange, Green Society, offers up some ideas to “improve the UK’s green spaces”. With council budgets under severe pressure, spending on parks is being cut, despite a wealth of evidence to show that access to high quality parks and green space have a hugely beneficial impact on communities’ well-being.
Among the proposals that Policy Exchange put forward is the suggestion that Local Authorities should consider offering discounts on Council Tax to people who volunteer to maintain their local parks and green spaces. These ‘green guardians’ would keep our parks nice and clean and in return the council would reduce the council tax they pay. The idea sounds like a beautifully simple way for councils to tap into local volunteering potential, increase social action and would no doubt help address the cuts to open space public spending – which the report says has been reduced by an average of 10% in the last couple of years.
I fully support the report’s assertion that our green spaces are hugely important and that they offer numerous benefits to local communities. But I’m not quite sure that the idea has been fully thought through…
Councils would have to forgo the revenue from council tax if they offered a discount. Given the pressures on public spending, it’s not clear how they would find this money. Presumably by taking it away from other services. The reason why spending on public space has fallen is that councils are under pressure to fund essential services. And whilst maintaining our parks and open spaces is important, it’s clear that many councils have decided (rightly or wrongly) that this is an area of spending they cannot afford to sustain. If they offer a council tax rebate, then the money needs to be found from somewhere else…which would effectively undo the decision they’d already taken to de-prioritise spending on parks.
Or to put it another way… if they wanted to fund green space, they could just fund green space.
Administering any scheme like this would cost money too, as it would inevitably require some paperwork. People would have to apply for and be awarded the rebate and presumably someone would have to check that people were actually doing the volunteering they said they would. Then council tax bills would need to be re-issued and processed. So there would be a cost implication which would need to be factored in.
The report’s author, Katherine Drayson, has been responding to comments about the proposal by referring to ‘long term savings’. I believe she is correct in suggesting that there are potentially long-term savings to be realised from maintaining green space. However, I am honestly not sure that most councils are in a position to find money today for things that may deliver benefits in a decade’s time. We may not like the fact that prevention is difficult to fund in the current climate. But that is, I would suggest, where we are at with the current austerity measures in place.
Some people have suggested that if you offer financial reward for maintaining parks, then this is not volunteering. I don’t really have an issue with offering incentives. In fact I think that if people are prepared to get involved, then why shouldn’t they receive some sort of civic benefit from that participation. I don’t think that necessarily means an extrinsic incentive – as intrinsic incentives might also form part of the equation. But I am not, in principle, opposed to this sort of incentive being offered.
One thing which may have been overlooked is the fact that not everyone pays council tax. Although the system is now locally determined and will vary from place to place, in general, pensioners, low income households, people on benefits and disabled people will pay no council tax, or a reduced amount. Given that often these are people who have time available to volunteer, offering these people a discount on something they don’t pay (or pay very little) removes the incentive that such a proposal would offer.
Surely it makes more sense to offer incentives that appeal to people who are likely to have time to be able to volunteer? So tying the scheme to council tax reduction may not be the most effective way of encouraging people to care for parks.
I don’t wish to be overly critical of Policy Exchange’s attempts to encourage new ways to maintain green space and they do offer a range of other proposals which would undoubtedly make a positive difference. They make reference to Lambeth’s Cooperative Parks, to the fantastic work done by friends of parks groups up and down the land and asset transfer of community led spaces. These are tried and tested approaches which are undoubtedly part of the solution to maintaining high quality public space. It is an important issue and I applaud them for bringing attention to the challenges local authorities and communities face in funding this. I just think this particular idea may need a bit more thought.
* I’m not sure anyone actually refers to ‘parkies’ anymore but that was what the park keepers were called when I was a kid (at least that’s what the Beano said!)