Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)

TUESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2001

MR RICHARD HILL AND MS LORNA MCROBIE

Christine Russell

  320. Can I ask you about those unsuccessful applicants. Could you perhaps share with us your thoughts on whether or not there were any common weaknesses in the applications that you actually turned down, and whether that gives a knock-on effect to the implications for this PPG17 and the current system in general? Have you identified, through the weaker applicants, whether there are messages?
  (Ms McRobie) I think we understood or found out quite quickly. The Urban Parks Programme was launched in 1996 and we had an immediate swell of applications. About 40 per cent of those were rejected. What immediately we started to do was to look at ways of addressing that. As I have said, we started with a plan-led process providing more support and capacity building with applicants; introducing our two-stage process, which means local authorities can come in and outline and then get further development and hand-holding to get the full grant. In the last 18 months, of the 60 applications we have received, we have only rejected three of them. With those three we write letters and encourage them with more consideration and background research, and they are welcome to come back and try again. There again, what we have learnt are the areas where local authorities struggle, and where we can help them and support them through the process. We do see ourselves very much as helping and supporting them through the process.

  321. What are those particular areas?
  (Ms McRobie) The first one would be resources. A fairly obvious one is, have they got partnership funding? More particularly, have they got the staff resources to even put a good application together? Have the staff got the skills? Is there a champion; is it a real person behind the organisation actually leading them and driving them through? There is a whole resource implication in local authorities in even making the applications. Perhaps an area where PPG17 might be able to help us most is in understanding, and that goes back to what I said earlier on. Currently there is a lack of knowledge of basic structure and quantity of parks. There is lack of knowledge of how the community uses those parks. There is a lack of understanding on how parks deliver to quality of life. There is also still a certain amount of lack of understanding of what we can contribute to. We can fund new facilities where they build on historical and conservation work and look holistically at the whole park and address the needs of communities—not just conservation work. Sometimes we are thought to be very conservation-driven. I think that whole area of understanding and knowledge in PPG 17, looking strategically at what parks they have will help us and will help them prioritise and identify the work that needs to be done. The third area is about attitude. I think there is a lack of blue skies vision. I see it all the time. I go out to local authorities—their applications tend to be worthy but dull. As I tell them, why not think more innovatively; think of the opportunities that this funding and your parks can bring to you. Obviously that is a difficult thing for a PPG to do, but if you raise the value of the understanding of parks then, hopefully, some of this visioning will take place.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Vision is not often found in planning documents. I am glad to hear you want it!

Mr Betts

  322. PPG17 says: "Where there is a particular need ... authorities should seek to create new or enhance existing areas of recreational open space (including playing fields) through the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities initiative. This is provided as part of the New Opportunities Fund". Do you think the New Opportunities Fund is fulfilling that role? Can you give the Committee any idea as to how much money has been spent on the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities initiative, and how much of that has actually gone into open spaces?
  (Mr Hill) First of all, I think the reference in PPG17 to the New Opportunities Fund is helpful to people looking at that guidance. The Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities programme in general is £125 million UK-wide. We are starting to deliver on funding on that programme. At the moment we have spent around £6 million of that funding as the award partners have started to roll out the schemes. To put that into context slightly: we decided not to run this as one single national open grant scheme; we decided to bring through a number of award partners, and those award partners actually deliver either grant schemes or umbrella schemes. The reason we did that was, we were very conscious that some of the communities we wanted to target were the communities that were precisely those unlikely to be successful in the open grant scheme; and we wanted to put in an intermediate layer to provide development or to help communities plan projects and to help them deliver projects. Those award partners will help communities bring those projects forward to us.

  323. Just looking at the figures now—how much has been spent so far on green open spaces?
  (Mr Hill) The figure I use for England so far is around £6 million across the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities programme, and that would be for projects in terms of playing fields, children's play and access to green space; and the rest of the funding will roll out over the next two to three years.

  324. Do you have any ideas of how much that will involve?
  (Mr Hill) The total spend at the end of the programme in England will be around £97 million out of the £125 million UK-wide.

Mrs Dunwoody

  325. You are not exactly rushing, are you?
  (Mr Hill) We have put in place a system of award partners and that has taken some time to put together. I think the benefits of that, in terms of the way communities will be able to engage in the programme, will outweigh the amount of time it has taken us to put that into the staging.

Mr Betts

  326. Given the specific reference in PPG17 to the fund, is it not rather strange that you did not actually take part in the consultation exercise organised by the Department nor to submit memoranda to this Committee?
  (Mr Hill) I think our general position on PPG17 is similar to that my colleague from the Heritage Lottery Fund has set out, in terms of us wanting it to be helpful in providing guidance across the range of things we did—playing finds, open space, children's play and supporting local authorities in thinking strategically about that process. We did not comment directly on PPG 17 although a number of the award partners that we have appointed to run the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities Scheme—English Nature, the Countryside Agency, Sport England—did feed into that process and of course we are happy to give evidence today.

Dr Pugh

  327. An awful lot of money is being allocated to this task and very little of it has actually been committed. Are you satisfied that you are doing the job as intended? Supplementing that, you have clearly been given a lot of direction by the Secretary of State in terms of policy and things like that from time to time; remembering you are amongst friends here, upon whom would you blame the delay?
  (Mr Hill) In answer to the first one, £125 million UK-wide is clearly a very significant sum and set against the range of priorities that we have for the programme—playing fields, children's play and access to open space, indeed, a need identified by this Committee and others—clearly it is important that that money is spent wisely, which is why I do think that the system we have adopted of using award partners (the first time that has been done for a Lottery Scheme) will lever in that expertise to help communities at a local level, and I think we will get better value for money at the end of the scheme than if we had rushed very quickly into a large-scale open grant scheme.

  328. The delay is partly due to a desire on your part to get true value for money out of the scheme?
  (Mr Hill) I would not accept that there has been a delay. Setting up the award partner process has taken us some time. The scheme could have been run quicker if we had opened it as an open grant scheme with £125 million availale for anybody to bid for the money, ut what would have happened in that case is the money would have gone to the usual suspects, ie, the areas that have better capacity in terms of putting in bids, the programme would have been considerably over-subscribed, and there would have been a large sector of disappointed applicants. I think the award partner process where communities are helped to bring together plans and run their projects will bring us better value for money and more sustainable projects in the long term.

  329. If you look at the way in which the funds are diminishing, for example, the Transforming Communities Programme, where it is down to £50 million, it would seem to me there is a difficulty getting the money committed in the appropriate timescale.
  (Mr Hill) The Transforming Communities programme is a separate programme for which we got directions in the third round. Clearly there is a range of programmes under those sets of directions of £1.5 billion but £159 million of that in total falls under the heading of "Transforming Communities"; a smaller part, around £50 million, is for improving quality of life of local communities.

  330. Parks.
  (Mr Hill) We finished consulting on that scheme in September and would hope to launch it fairly early in the new year.

Ms King

  331. I wanted to ask whether you think that we should blame the Secretary of State for the spending programme and in particular for the fact that only £3.8 million has been spent to date on the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities initiative?
  (Mr Hill) No, I think what I said before is probably true in fact, that the £125 million that we were given was a significant amount of money, but there were a number of priorities identified by government for us to deliver on that—playing fields, children's play, access to open space and sustainable communities. Clearly we had to work quite hard in terms of prioritising and narrowing that down through open consultation. The decision to deliver the scheme using reward partners was a decision made by the fund after that consultation, and that process has taken some time to put in place so that the award partners can deliver the schemes. As I said, I think the approach has a lot of advantages but it does mean that it is not delivered as quickly as an open grant scheme opened on day one. That is a decision that we made following consultation with government departments and others and was not one made by the Secretary of State.

  332. Are you not concerned that playing field strategies currently represent a partial solution to strategic thinking about open space, and yet more bias towards sport as opposed to other usage of open space, and that what we really need is comprehensive open space strategies?
  (Mr Hill) I think the interest for us in this is that we are trying, under the Green Spaces Programme and soon under the Transforming Communities programme, to fund a fairly wide range of activities under the green spaces heading, including delivery through Sport England of playing fields. I think the proposal under that programme of developing strategies for playing fields and then funding new and improved playing fields (of the order of 80 new playing fields and 100 improvements) is a sensible strategic approach to that part of open space. Clearly the wider point, that there are lots of ways in which people will wish to use open space and open space of different kinds, is well made.

  333. So the more money that is spent on preparing playing field strategies the less there will be available for delivering improvements on the ground. What proportion of the Green Spaces Sustainable Communities and Transforming Communities funding do you anticipate will be spent on the provision of better urban green space?
  (Mr Hill) If the question is how much of the £97 million for England, for example, will go to urban green spaces—and I take urban green space to include playing fields, space for children's play—I think the vast majority of the £97 million will go to those sort of projects, although clearly they will not all be in urban locations. It is a programme that covers urban and rural areas, particularly the Countryside Agency Project for doorstep greens which will obviously provide open space in rural areas. I do not think that a significant amount of that money will disappear, as it were, towards the development of strategies, although clearly there is an element of strategy under the playing fields programme.

  334. You think it is the right proportion?
  (Mr Hill) I think it will be a small proportion in the context of that particular part of the programme and I think that is a sensible thing to do.

Chairman

  335. The existing PPG makes it clear how you can get rid of playing fields with development, under fairly strict rules, and it does not make it easy. The new PPG will not have those strict rules in it so, presumably, the idea is to get rid of existing playing fields and then you will come up with the money for new ones. Is that it?
  (Mr Hill) On the playing fields, what we are doing under the Green Spaces programme is we are working very closely with Sport England on the delivery of that. Clearly they have a key strategic role in the provision of playing fields and maintenance of existing playing fields, and the award partnership programme is very much based on using the expertise of organisations in their field to ensure that precisely that sort of thing does not happen.

  336. Should the proposed new PPG make it much clearer that you cannot do that, as the old one did?
  (Mr Hill) I think my understanding of the PPG, which may well be imperfect, is that the intention is very much to preserve green and open spaces of whatever sort. Certainly I think we would support that.

  Chairman: Can both of you perhaps address yourselves to a slight problem that I have. I represent Denton & Reddish and, as far as Lottery money expenditure is concerned, it is bottom of the league table and, as far as I know, neither of you have managed to come up with any money for Denton & Reddish. It has a substantial number of small parks and green spaces. What is it doing wrong?

  Mrs Dunwoody: Why did you not do your homework before you came, not afterwards!

  Chairman: I will be happy to receive a note on that point.

Mr Betts

  337. And a cheque!
  (Mr Hill) We have funded a couple of things in Denton & Reddish in the past and we will be able to send you details of that.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mrs Dunwoody

  338. If you added in your note not just what you have and have not done in Denton & Reddish (which may determine your future in some very interesting ways) one or two simple points, picking up exactly what the Chairman has said, saying what they have as a local authority done wrong, that would be useful. What concerns me, and I have listened to you very carefully, is that you have set out the machinery, the base work, how you decide you want to do it, where the strategy ought to lie, but I get a terrible feeling of—I would not want to say inertia, that is too cruel—a leisurely advance. Children have a nasty habit of growing up quite quickly so there are two or three generations of children in Denton & Reddish who do not seem to be doing terribly well out of it.
  (Ms McRobie) I would ask if they have made an application under the Parks Programme and, if not, why not? Perhaps that is something —

Chairman

  339. I do not want to go too far into it but in Denton & Reddish we have very little parks, very nicely set out Victorian parks, but most of the money you have spent so far is on the big parks and they tend not to be, sadly, in Denton & Reddish.
  (Ms McRobie) They do not compete one against the other. We are always looking to spread our funding widely into what you obviously describe as a cold spot. Size has nothing to do with it in terms of application and we look at both small parks and large parks equally and have funded such across the UK.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Can we have the next witness please?

  Mrs Dunwoody: Do not forget Queen's Park in Crewe!





 
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