During the COVID-19 pandemic, parks proved their status as lifelines for local communities. The loss of external income due to the closure of income generating facilities in parks and the loss of in kind volunteer contributions have left parks services in a vulnerable state.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parks proved their status as life lines for local communities. The Government announcement on 23 March 2020 that parks will remain open during the national lockdown to enable individuals to do one hour of exercise a day has propelled parks into the nation’s hearts and minds. However, whilst they remained open, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on council’s parks services. The loss of external income due to the closure of income generating facilities in parks and the loss of in kind volunteer contributions have left parks services in a vulnerable state.
The Local Government Association and the National Lottery Heritage Fund co-funded Community First Partnership to produce a set of case studies demonstrating the financial impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on council park services. The case studies capture financial data that each of the six case studies made available between 23 March and 29 May 2020. With thanks to Drew Bennellick, Head of Land & Nature at the National Lottery Heritage Fund Chris Worman, Rugby Borough Council, Victoria Bradford – Keegan, Future Parks Accelerator and Samantha Ramanah, Adviser, Local Government Association, for their advice and input on the steering group.
|Council||Annual income budget £||Forecast loss £||Forecast loss %|
Top 10 findings from the case studies
- Loss of income
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant and varied financial impact on parks services. Specifically the loss of income due to the closure of income generating facilities and the impact from lost hours provided by volunteers who play a key role in the preservation of parks and green spaces has been devastating.
- Social distancing
Throughout the pandemic all parks and green spaces remained open except those constrained by design where social distancing measures could not be implemented. Play areas and skate parks were particularly difficult to manage during the lockdown period.
- Parks staff supporting vulnerable people
The majority of parks service staff were redeployed to support their council’s local effort in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They played an invaluable role supporting the vulnerable and shielding residents through for example distributing food parcels and personal protective equipment (PPE), supporting children and adult social care services and lent their skills to bereavement teams and crematoria.
- Maintenance backlog
While most staff members have returned to the parks service, in some cases this is a phased return. There is a backlog of maintenance work, in some cases the council have used this opportunity to progress their plans for biodiversity or trial new approaches to service delivery. Despite this positive development additional staff and / or volunteers will be required to return to pre-COVID-19 levels of service.
- Commercial income impacted most
There is a large variation in loss of external income between the six case studies, ranging between £87,000 and £8.8 million. Council parks services who are more reliant on commercial opportunities have been affected the most by COVID-19. Key sources of loss of external income included sponsorship opportunities, outdoor events, car parking charges, sports bookings and visitor attractions which ceased or were closed during the lockdown period.
- Ongoing loss of income
Despite many facilities reopening it is anticipated that there will be a continued loss of income as a direct result of the need to employ more staff or reduce visitor numbers in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.
- Additional operational costs
Many council parks services have also incurred additional operational costs relating to the provision of signage, PPE, enhanced cleansing regimes and the purchase of new equipment. Additionally, capital projects have been impacted.
- Guidance in response to COVID-19
The lack of timely and clear guidance supporting parks services with both the closure of facilities and the phased reopening following the lifting of lockdown restrictions; particularly with regard to play areas, toilets and volunteers has had a negative impact on the service’s ability to return to normal operations.
The pandemic resulted in the temporary cessation of volunteering and although some continued, many volunteers were advised not to volunteer and many were shielding - the loss of in-kind volunteer contribution has been significant, ranging between £12,000 and £1.56 million.
- Healthier lives and greener future
Although the pandemic has been challenging there have been some unexpected benefits including increased biodiversity and an enhanced awareness at national and local level of how important parks and green spaces are to communities and how they benefit people's health and mental wellbeing. In addition, it has helped to develop a movement towards making the recovery a green one (there are now greater links between parks and their contribution to active travel) and has pushed climate change up the agenda. In many of the councils, parks were featured in the council’s COVID-19 recovery plans.