The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the parks service at Leeds City Council. It is forecast that the total annual loss of income will be £8.8 million and up to 126,282 volunteer hours will be lost however recent restrictions have demonstrated how vital parks and green spaces are for both physical health and mental wellbeing and their importance in delivering the active travel agenda.
Leeds City Council is a metropolitan district council in West Yorkshire. It is home to around 793,139 people. Leeds is the third largest and one of the fastest growing, greenest cities in the UK. It has 4,000 hectares of green space, comprising seven major parks, 63 community parks and 150 neighbourhood parks, in addition to numerous pocket parks. It attracts 45 million adult visitors to its parks each year. The park service is delivered directly by the council it has over 400 FTE staff and an active and valued community of volunteers, whose time collectively amounts to the equivalent of 109 FTE staff. The council has ambitious plans to plant 6 million trees in the next 25 years and to convert 1,260 hectares of land to new woodland across its whole estate, thus planting around 50 hectares each year as part of its commitment in response to the climate emergency declared by the council in March 2019.
In response to the pandemic, the council closed all attractions, facilities, third party operated activities and car parks. Lotherton Hall which is a country house estate and operates as a ticketed venue was temporarily closed but all other outdoor spaces remained open with the exception of the specialist Chelsea Gold winning gardens in Roundhay Park because they are constrained by design and present social distancing issues.
Notices have been erected and gates locked on facilities where possible, however, the council have not taped off benches or policed social distancing in parks preferring to encourage visitors to follow government guidance and legislation whilst promoting the benefits of parks for physical and mental health. The parks service team have instead focused on their role to facilitate, engage and provide a service.
The majority of staff comprising the Countryside Rangers and Landscape Construction teams alongside others from the wider staff team were redeployed to supplement bereavement services whilst a number of retail and café staff have undertaken alternative work supporting adult and children’s social care teams delivering food parcels to those shielding and to families where children receive free school meals. In total the cost to date for staff redeployment is estimated at £226,000. The Rangers and Landscape teams (c10 staff) returned to normal duties in early July 2020 with catering and retail staff brought back as needed when facilities opened from June (take away and later for seated food). All volunteering ceased in line with Government guidance.
The COVID-19 crisis has created a backlog of some grounds maintenance tasks including rough grass mowing and non-emergency tree works. Events and activities have been severely impacted. The In Bloom activities have all ceased and significant commercial events were cancelled during the lockdown including the annual West Indian Carnival and Black Music Festival. These events are large scale participation events and have been cancelled for 2020 with no council involvement in alternative provision.
The retail element of the Arium plant nursery, bowling greens and golf courses reopened on 12 May and cafe takeaway services on 1 June 2020. The council foresees capacity and additional cost issues once wider facilities reopen as there will be a need to manage queues and ensure enhanced cleaning at indoor attractions, retail and toilets. This is likely to be considerable given how many attractions and facilities fall under the parks service remit.
The council's parks service have pulled a team together who would usually be engaged in events management to carry out an audit which will be developed over the next two months and will focus on setting out appropriate measures to sustain social distancing with a focus on major and community parks.
The parks service annual net managed budget for 2020-21 pre-COVID-19 was £7.77 million (gross expenditure was forecast at £33.91 million and income at £26.15 million), with external income accounting for 48.9 per cent of the total cost of the service. The parks service manage all parks and green spaces, PROWS and park based attractions including Tropical World, Lotherton Hall, Wildlife World, five cafes and retail outlets, retaining the income generated. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on the service.
The forecast loss of income over the initial three months as a result of closure and temporary suspension of services and facilities in response to the pandemic has been £4.52 million (including internal income).
|Sources of income||%|
|Core council funding||22.9|
|Internal income - other departments / services||28.2|
|Annual income source £||Expected income after loss £||Maximum estimated loss £|
|Leases, licences, concessions, catering||729000||2913000|
|Fees: sports bookings & car parking||38000||487000|
|Events and activities income||0||250000|
|Visitor attraction admissions||0||2198000|
The forecast annual loss of income is considerable at £8.8 million this excludes losses of £6.9 million from internal funding (related to rechargeable works for internal customers where work has not been carried out including tree management tasks and support for outdoor markets), but includes £1.6 million from charging for external services, plus external sources of income including £2.9 million from cafes and concessions, £0.8 million from car parking, fees and charges and events income and £3.5 million from visitor attraction admissions and retail as shown in the chart below.
The service has also incurred an additional £101,000 of costs during the lockdown related to bereavement services (£65,000), Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and hygiene, external security staff and signage and purchasing counters have screens and floor markings for the nursery shop. It will also cost around £1 million to implement the Safer Public Spaces guidelines. In addition, as outlets re-open there is estimated to be £250,000 additional cost associated with enhanced cleaning including toilet areas. There have been savings achieved through the cancellation of council organised events and the purchase of re-saleable items. All capital projects have been paused and investment work staff repurposed.
Volunteering is a huge asset to the parks service as volunteer time amounts to the equivalent of 109 FTE staff. There are 55 In Bloom groups and around 50 friends groups with some managing site elements. Throughout the pandemic the council has maintained contact with volunteers via social media and have continued to support the Parks and Green Space Forum using Microsoft Teams software. Corporate volunteering has also been affected and there are bookings made for the remainder of the year that may be cancelled.
The parks service is looking at reviewing risk assessments and safe systems of work with regards to how volunteers can operate independently. There are plans to heavily market volunteering to enable assistance with an ambitious woodland planting programme from November. Community seed gathering in September is planned to assist with the council's plans to grow their own trees within the plant nursery under the plans to increase the number of hectares within the park estate. It was also proposed that schools could help with this project however; it is not certain this will be permitted/supported by schools in 2020.
Whilst it is anticipated that volunteering activities will restart in line with government guidance, the temporary suspension of volunteering is devastating as current forecasts predict a loss of 41-60 per cent (£1.07 million and £1.56 million) of volunteer contributions this financial year.
* Local Authorities calculate volunteer time differently therefore to allow for comparisons to be made an average hourly rate of £12.38 has been used across all six case studies.
Lessons learnt and future plans
The council has received high levels of public support and elected members have been very supportive of the service area. Parks features highly in the council’s COVID-19 recovery plans and will be a key part of supporting plans around active travel for which the Parks Service will play a key role in maintaining active travel routes.
Parks service managers feel the benefits of being part of the council have helped manage the effects of the crisis as they have received more advice and it has made them less vulnerable as they are an integral part of the council.
The pandemic has led to reduced levels of carbon emissions and a marked improvement in air quality. The Government’s increased emphasis on sustainable travel which may present opportunities to develop designated cycle routes in parks and green spaces. Additionally, the council plans to plant 6 million trees over 25 years as part of its climate emergency response. The recent restrictions have demonstrated the importance of parks and green space for physical activity and the benefits to mental health and general wellbeing in connecting with nature. It is anticipated that this improved visibility and value will lead to better engagement with the public.
The forgotten lesson of why the Victorian's gave us public parks (to benefit public health) is a lesson that has been demonstrated. They now have a link with people's hearts and minds.
Leeds City Council
Business Development Manager
Leeds City Council