The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the parks service at Nottingham City Council. It is forecast that the total annual loss of external income will be £295,000 and up to 6,640 volunteer hours will be lost. However the pandemic has presented new opportunities to aid and enhance future service delivery.
Nottingham City Council is a Unitary Council in the East Midlands and is home to around 332,900 people. It has 140 formal parks and 448 green spaces. Figures from Nottingham Insight suggest that 209,727 people (63 per cent) visit parks and green spaces at least once per month. The estimated number of visits per month to Nottingham sites is 1.1 million (based on Vivid Economics visitor data) equating to 13.2 million visits per year. The council’s Public Realm service (which includes street scene and the parks service) has 400 members of staff and an active and valued community of volunteers totalling over 500 people many of whom were keen to continue volunteering during the lockdown period but were unable to.
The COVID-19 crisis has had a dramatic impact on the service delivery as during the lockdown period all park maintenance ceased other than grass cutting and litter picking. All grass cutting stopped in the first eight weeks and across weeks 8-12 only large volume areas and high risk areas were cut with tractor or ride on mowers. Horticultural maintenance ceased, the weed spraying programme was postponed and all facilities including play area, toilets and cafes and concessions were closed. Additionally, community engagement activity ceased however some services moved online e.g. StoryParks which saw the creation of a brand new digital den. StoryParks was launched in 2019, taking libraries to parks offering literacy, numeracy, and wellbeing sessions.
Most of the grounds staff continued to work throughout the pandemic, albeit with limited duties focused on litter and volume grass cutting only. In addition, on a week on week off basis in order to reduce overcrowding in depots, some staff had to be stood down for a short period and 30 members of staff were diverted to support waste management teams, five staff moved across to assist cemetery and crematoria teams and two were moved across to the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) distribution centre. Monitoring of social distancing has been delivered by the Community Protection Team, with the assistance of park attendees.
There is now a backlog of maintenance tasks including large areas of long grass, high hedges, removal of spring bedding and weed spraying. It is estimated that around 20 additional staff would be needed to help get back up to standard, which amounts to circa £200,000 in additional costs if charged. Unfortunately, there is nowhere for the Council to recharge this cost to so the backlog of work will have to be carried out over a prolonged period with volunteer support.
From 25 May the council re-introduced outdoor recreation facilities including fishing, tennis, bowls, adventure golf and boating. Cafes (takeaway only) and ice cream concessions are also back on sites with control and social distancing measures in place. The council restarted all public realm duties including street cleansing, litter picking, fly tipping removal, grass cutting, and the Garden Assistance Service and reopened the Golf Course and Woodthorpe Plant Shop from the 10 June 2020.
The total annual public realm (parks and streetscene service which includes Parks and Green Space maintenance and street cleansing duties) is £18.3 million of which £12.5 million is core funding. Income from other services is worth £570,000 and external funding is £5.2 million or 28.5 per cent of the total budget.
|Sources of income||%|
|Core council funding||68.4|
|Internal income - other departments / services||3.1|
|Annual income source £||Expected income after loss £||Maximum estimated loss £|
|Leases, licences, concessions and catering||926150.40||231537.60|
|Charging for services and fees, and sports bookings||3981136.80||24691.20|
|Car parking charges||9717.40||38869.60|
The loss of income to the service over the initial three months of the lockdown period is estimated £232,000, this could raise to £305,000 if modelled through to September with the summer months seeing the greatest loss. There have been significant losses of income from commercial enterprises including landscape contracts, car parking, leases, ice cream and sports concessions, cafes, catering and sports pitch bookings and room hire e.g. there has been significant loss of income from football pitch hire which generates around £10,000 per year. In addition, many of the businesses who sponsor traffic islands are SME's and the potential ongoing loss of income from this is a risk.
The service are forecasting an average loss of 5.7 per cent of annual external income as a result of closure and temporary suspension of services and facilities in response to the pandemic, including an 80 per cent loss of car parking income.
No loss of internal income is currently forecast.
Some areas of the service including crematoria, the nursery and plants retail unit are however generating more income, the latter seeing success through an online delivery service for plants and gardening sundries which is attracting a new customer base but has seen some council's cancelling large horticultural orders.
Capital funded projects have faced delays and those that were mid-construction have been the most affected along with the income from In Bloom sponsorship.
The parks service has a strong volunteer community which contributes 10,300 hours per annum, they play an important contribution in supporting the preservation of the borough’s parks and green spaces in addition to this, the service benefits from the contribution of ‘clean champions’ who, in some cases litter pick every day their overall contribution is valued at £36,000. The council therefore benefit from a wealth of in-kind volunteer contributions. During the lockdown period all formal volunteering activities were suspended with only the ‘clean champions’ re-starting litter picking in June 2020. Throughout lockdown the council continued to communicate and engage with volunteers through the Nottingham Open Spaces Forum, mail outs and via social media. The council have also carried out several online consultations and we have regular meetings with groups using Teams and Zoom.
It is anticipated that other volunteering activities will restart in line with government guidance when it is published. However, the temporary suspension of volunteering is devastating and current forecasts predict a loss of 61-80 per cent 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.
Forecast loss of volunteer contributions in 2020/21 £63,000 - £82,000
Lessons learnt and future plans
Although the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has had significant and devastating impacts on parks service delivery and related income the pandemic has also presented new opportunities to aid and enhance future service delivery. This includes new online services and new ways to consider how the council communicates both internally and with external partners. The service have also used the lockdown period to rethink how they maintain parks and whilst the council are keen to recover they will ensure that the biodiversity bonus provided throughout the lockdown enables the opportunity to accelerate the Nottingham carbon neutral 2028 climate mitigation and ecological targets.
The closure of playgrounds was challenging throughout the pandemic. Following a rigorous Risk Assessment review process play areas have now all reopened alongside some sporting activities such as open water swimming, paddle boarding and some boot camps.
To help the council address the backlog of grounds maintenance work a major volunteer campaign that will follow government social distancing guidance is planned for September 2020. The volunteer programme is seen to be a critical way of helping the service return to its normal standards as it is unlikely that the service will be able to recruit additional staff due to the loss of income.
Plant sales have done better through the online sales platform and the centre have received positive comments and the success has energised staff. There are no current plans to open the centre and online sales will continue beyond COVID-19. The nursery will continue to run an online service - click and collect. Considerations are being given to not reopening facilities that run at a loss e.g. some pay to play facilities e.g. crazy golf, pitch and putt, golf courses and some cafes.
An Arts Council grant application was submitted for StoryParks but unfortunately it was not considered as all applications were suspended by the Arts Council. It is the council's intention is to resubmit the bid next year.
Colwick Country Park has seen significant increases in visitor numbers due to fewer cars. This has been transformational as previously cars travelled through the park to a central car park. The space now feels more natural, cleaner and greener. The council is now considering remodelling the access which will prevent cars driving through in the future, unless visitors are using the lake for sporting activities.
During the lockdown the council developed a range of online services including retail and plant sales from the Woodthorpe Park Nursery, outdoor tennis court and fishing bookings. This attracted lots of new custom with new people coming using the service. Next year, online services will continue but there will be more of a focus on getting people back out into parks in the open air.
The COVID-19 situation has led to an unexpected biodiversity bonus that will help the parks service to accelerate planned wildflower / rewilding projects.
 The public realm directorate is a fully integrated service which includes parks and streetscene services. The figures highlighted in the case study relating to loss of income is all parks related.