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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Council bosses make moves to take back control of city parks

Council wants 'more control' back over Newcastle parks amid charity's money worries

Council bosses want “more control” back over Newcastle’s parks and are set to decide the fate of the charity which runs them later this year.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed in March how Urban Green Newcastle (UGN) was facing financial trouble and civic centre officials are now set to launch a £50,000 review into the charitable trust’s future.

Newcastle City Council handed 33 parks and more than 60 allotments to UGN on a 125-year lease in 2019, in the hope of giving the green spaces a more sustainable future at a time of severe local government cuts.

But all of the £7.7 million that the council offered Urban Green as a subsidy to help see it through its first decade, after which it was meant to become self-sufficient, has already been used up in just half that time – a problem that parks bosses have blamed largely on the impact of Covid-19.

The local authority is set to give UGN a further £1 million to see it through the current financial year but, with a £6.7 million shortfall predicted between now and 2029, what happens beyond the next 12 months is unclear.

Documents prepared for the sign off of that extra grant reveal that the council is looking to bring in specialist consultants, at a cost of around £50,000, to review UGN’s performance and options for the future management of the parks.

A report states that the council “requires more control” over how its money is spent if it is going to be giving the charity more funding than was planned, with UGN having told the authority that “financial self-sufficiency is not achievable within the foreseeable future”.

It says: “Given that financial self-sufficiency is not expected within UGN’s current business plan, the council wishes to review again the potential structural options for the management of its parks and allotments. If the council needs to provide further funding towards the costs of managing parks and allotments across the city, then it requires more control over how this funding is used.

“The council therefore wishes to appoint consultants to assess the performance of UGN over the first five years of its existence, and to review whether an independent charitable trust remains the preferred way of managing the assets that UGN is currently responsible for.”

The consultants are expected to deliver their verdict this summer, with a report to the council’s cabinet setting out the next steps due in September.

They will be asked to assess how UGN has performed against its original objectives, how its business model and finances have developed over the last five years, and what options are available for the council to achieve “best value”.

Urban Green said in March that Covid-19 had hampered its income generation and that its finances had also been hit by increased energy costs.

It added at the time: “Working together, we want to see more people visiting Newcastle’s green spaces and enjoying the many benefits that come from spending time in nature. Access to green spaces is proven to improve people’s health and wellbeing, which is why it’s so important for communities across the city to be able to access their local park or allotment. For people without a garden or outdoor space of their own, their local green space is incredibly important to their quality of life.

“Our ongoing discussions with Newcastle City Council will have no impact on the city’s green spaces. Urban Green Newcastle will continue to care for city parks and allotments; ensuring everyone across the city can access safe, clean and welcoming green spaces where they live.”

In March, the council said that “all options remain on the table” for the future of the city’s parks.

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