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Posted by Sarah Brown on 20 Jan '14

How to marry community need and viability using novel ways of working

{img_title} The days of a simple solution to local provision have gone as the Rethinking Parks fund has identified. Councils need to think about innovation and collaboration to maintain services let alone improve them.

The days of a straightforward feasibility study to identify how you can make a council building or resource make money have gone. The traditional consultancy model of an expert in sports facilities, for example, using their experience in developing sports centres where the gym pays for the swimming pool or the bar pays for the changing rooms have been undermined by two majors trends. Firstly, the market has changed and what worked before does not always work now, for example, gyms have become very price competitive and bars/pubs are closing for lack of profit. Secondly, these plans normally assumed that the local authority would pick up the maintenance of the buildings, the pitches and open spaces but now councils do not have the resources so any model has to pick up these costs as well.

The traditional feasibility study in the past would have included some community consultation to check viability and demand for services and to tick a box to say the community had been involved. Today with declining council resources the need is for more creative solutions to save costs, increase revenues and almost inevitably these require collaboration and the active involvement of the community, a social enterprise or even a commercial organisation. 

Like a business, councils now need to think about their markets, what niche does each service or facility occupy, what will make it attractive and bring in custom which will generally need to part with some money if only for additional things like coffees, equipment or data about how fit they have got in the park? Branding, promotion and initially marketing strategy are critical. The simple model of the past where it was a self evident truth that parks and libraries and other public resources are a good thing that will continue is now under threat from the new economy and the virtual world where so much is done outside the public space.

As the Rethinking Parks fund being lead  by Nesta, Heritage Lottery Fund and Big has identified, new business models are needed and this applies across the public realm.

Our experience of projects bringing social enterprise together with councils and community groups looking at maintaining council sites illustrates it will not be easy but when it works everyone wins.