The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the parks service at Rugby Borough Council. It is forecast that the total annual loss of external income will be £97,000 and up to 9,459 volunteer hours will be lost but the enhanced awareness of parks is promising for the future.
Rugby Borough Council is a district council in Warwickshire and is home to around 108,000 people. It has 32 parks, 71 green spaces, 19 nature sites, 50 play areas totalling over 360 hectares. It welcomes over 1 million visitors to its parks each year. The council’s park service includes 29 staff and an active and valued community of volunteers contributing 15,765 hours in 2019, many volunteers were keen to continue during the lockdown period but were unable to due to Government guidelines.
Throughout the pandemic all parks and green spaces remained open except very small pocket play parks which comprise of only a play area. All facilities including play areas, ball courts, toilets and cafes were closed in line with government guidance.
To aid the council’s urgent response to the crisis, the majority of Grounds Maintenance staff were redeployed to the Rugby Foodbank and Community Hub distributing food medicines and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to those vulnerable members of the community who are shielding.
During the lockdown period the council's Community wardens worked closely with the police supporting monitoring of social distancing, checking on closed play areas, replacing signage and intelligence gathering. To help manage social distancing the council have been widening paths and mowing desire lines in grass. During this period maintenance was suspended and summer bedding and hanging baskets were cancelled. Only skeleton maintenance continued i.e. cutting of cemeteries and sports pitches which will prove more cost effective in the long term.
Many of the staff were brought back to normal operations in June 2020 but are continuing to balance out the needs of the social hub until its closure in mid July with park maintenance, as the council started to receive complaints about the reduced grass cutting. The pandemic has created a backlog of two months worth of maintenance work comprising of grass cutting, weed spraying and footpath clearance.
The council’s park service has experienced a significant loss of income and incurred additional expenditure as a result of implementing social distance guidelines. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the council’s total annual parks service net budget for 2020-21 was £2.1 million. Gross expenditure was forecast at £2.2 million and external income at £111,700. In 2019 in-kind volunteer contributions totalled 15,765 hours and were valued at £195,000*.
The loss of external income over the initial three months since 23 March 2020 has amounted to £40,870 because of the closure and temporary suspension of income generating services and facilities such as cafes, concessions, sports bookings and hosting events. The parks service are forecasting a loss of external income of 87 per cent which amounts to £97,000. Limited income is expected from fees and charges pending a phased reopening of facilities such as sports pitches but the council is weighing up this approach as charging may incur more expenditure than income. No income from planned events, or “In Bloom” sponsorship which is a significant income generator for the service or from cafe leases is expected for the remainder of the financial year.
|Sources of income||%|
|Core council funding||30.1|
|Internal income - other departments / services||58.3|
|Planning including s106/CIL||6.6|
|Annual income source £||Expected income after loss £||Maximum estimated loss £|
|Leases, licences and concessions (including catering)||0||48610|
|Fees and charges (including sports events and bookings)||14998||24992|
|Fundraising donations and sponsorship||0||23050|
Survey participants were asked about the anticipated impact of COVID-19 on sources of income for the remainder of the year. This chart shows upper and lower estimates of annual loss against annual projected income from their approved revenue budget.
The parks service has also incurred additional operational costs totalling £25,000 for the provision of signage, additional locks and PPE and the purchase of new flail heads to enable cutting of longer grass. Additionally, all capital projects have been delayed as the lockdown period prevented works continuing on site but the council are seeking to progress projects.
The parks service has an active volunteer community which plays an important contribution in supporting the preservation of the borough’s parks and green spaces. Volunteer contributions are valued at £195,000, and its temporary suspension is devastating to the service as current forecasts predict a loss of 41-60 per cent (£80,000 - £117,000) of volunteer contributions this financial year. The council decided that in order to protect their volunteers, volunteering would cease during the lockdown period despite some groups wanting to continue to protect and preserve their parks and green spaces. In addition, as Friends Groups were not classed as essential work under Government guidelines and would not be covered by insurance if they were to continue volunteering.
It is anticipated that volunteering activities will restart in line with government guidance however not all will be able to return as some will be shielding.
Lessons learnt and future plans
The lockdown has meant that work on our capital projects has stopped. Despite this the council has found a way to progress work with the contractor, Canvas, on a design and build skatepark project who have developed an online consultation system with 3D models to engage with local users on the plans. This is a new approach of enabling discussions on designs and if it proves to be successful the council will adopt similar processes in the future.
One of the main challenges the council experienced was the lack of timely and clear guidance on the reopening of park services. There was an urgent need for guidance on how volunteers can return safely, opening toilets and play areas. Even when guidance was published some of it was impractical and it is felt that the Government should engage with parks professionals to ensure these types of mistakes are not repeated.
* 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.
Whilst the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging it has presented the service with an opportunity to trial new approaches to service delivery including the piloting of robotic mowers and leaving more areas of long grass for biodiversity enhancement which could become a permanent change. The pandemic, although challenging for society, has also enhanced the profile of parks and has highlighted their importance to communities. In addition it has helped to develop a movement towards making the recovery a green one and has pushed climate change up the agenda. Parks and green spaces have a key role to play in this and as such the council have established a climate emergency members group that have highlighted three main areas to look at moving forward that affect the parks service including; tree planting, grassland management and the development of the Rugby Parks Connector Network.
Parks and green spaces have been brought into focus as currently they are the only public spaces where people can meet and exercise however this may bring future challenges in terms of potential visitor numbers.
Parks and Grounds Manager
Rugby Borough Council