We’re approaching a general election. Brace yourselves for ‘changes’, ‘new’ directions and new brooms to sweep away the old. Long-term for politicians is no more than 5 years and that brings with it some real problems. When you are asked to think about the long term, would you only stretch to 5 years? Here in the Department of Landscape, when we discuss how long is long term with our students, this ranges from 20, 50, 100 years to infinity…!
So it was with few expectations that I accepted an invitation to the Green Spaces Seminar hosted by the government’s Department for Communities and Local Government last week in Westminster. It was all about managing green spaces. But, being realistic, how long-term can a government department think…let alone when an election is two months away?
Well, the answer is not very!! And a cynic could say that to hold such an event so close to the election is paying mere lip service to the idea of raising the profile of green spaces.
We were there to discuss innovations to help make green spaces more financially viable. So that cynic (back again so soon!) would argue that the starting point is that there is no national funding for green space. For some in the room, this was a dangerous starting point – to not lobby government for more funding implies that we around the room were happy with the local authority budget cuts. When this point was raised, it was politely (and in a very English manner) ignored and perhaps partly this was because of the significant number of local authorities represented in the room. They are at the sharp end of these cuts, know that there is no respite in the immediate future and are understandably on the lookout for cost-saving alternatives. This week I was also on a field trip with students in Birchwood New Town, Warrington where we saw how the woodland which makes the place special just cannot be maintained by the much depleted Ranger Service team.
So if national and local government can’t do long-term thinking because of short-term political and budget cycles, who can? To make the most of my expensive train ticket to the Big City, I visited London Bridge Business Improvement District after the seminar. The BID among others in London, which have some very large businesses financially contributing to public realm management, is ahead of the times as they are retrofitting green infrastructure to add value to the urban environment. The BID goes beyond hanging baskets and some great little spaces and pocket parks have been created – and that’s just at ground level. Apparently, roof gardens can also be found atop several buildings. The BID model runs on a 5-year cycle with renewal which is slightly better than the political timeframe, but is that really long enough? And what would happen to a place if partners in a BID decide not to renew?
And if not these decision-makers, what about those holding the purse-strings? I heard Nick Grayson, Climate Change and Sustainability Manager at Birmingham City Council, speak at an event at the TCPA last September. He claimed that the key is getting the accountants to think more long term. Annual budgets need to be agreed…annually. But why is that? Why can’t funding be ring-fenced and set aside for ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Thinking beyond the short-term political and financial timeframes is difficult, but is it really impossible to do? The original garden cities and parks were not publicly funded but were dependent on the private sector and were based on a long-term vision of legacy and sustainability (before the term was coined of course).
If the decision-makers with the money - by which we mean the funders as well as the budget holders - were able to consider a longer timeframe when spending/ allocating money, would our urban green spaces look different to what we have now? We think they might....