The Parks Trust, 1992 to the present Keeping Milton Keynes Green
Milton Keynes, one the most well-know new towns is home to the Parks Trust, which has responsibility for managing many of the large number of green spaces in the city. It has been able to develop its asset base to allow it the freedom to invest in new services for the community.
- Effective management and maintenance of community assets
- Using profits drawn from management of community assets to fund new services for local people
- A successful model of managing settlements with unusual characteristics
Caring for Milton Keynes' green spaces
The Parks Trust, created in 1992, manages many of the town's major parks, road corridors, lakes and woodlands, which represent about 20 per cent of the new city area. The Trust has been able to manage the area's green environment to a high standard, safeguarding it for future generations. This stewardship has been completely funded through self generated revenues and investments. The Trust is now Milton Keynes' biggest landowner, managing not only green spaces but also commercial properties.
Countryside at the heart of the town
In the 1960s, the New Town of Milton Keynes was envisioned as a ‘forest city' that would integrate the countryside into the heart of the community. The town's masterplan included a natural environment of around 4,500 acres of open space, green corridors and parks threaded through the development as a whole. All these green spaces were originally the responsibility of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, but when the task of building the new city was completed in 1992, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation was wound up. It was thought that the unusually high proportion of green space in the town would best be managed by a specific body rather than the local authority, and the Parks Trust was created.
A variety of green space assets were first transferred to the Borough of Milton Keynes on a freehold basis, which in turn transferred them onto the Parks Trust on a 999 year lease, intended to ensure that the assets would be protected in perpetuity. Much of the land the Trust received could not be built upon, and in order for the Trust to generate the funds it would need to carry out its work it was also endowed with the freehold of commercial properties and other assets. Those commercial assets consisted of shopping centres, local shops, industrial and office developments and various miscellaneous properties with over 200 tenants.
The governance of the Parks Trust
The Trust is registered as a charitable limited company which allows it to reinvest the profits it generates from its commercial assets in securing its long term financial security and in providing extra services for the community. The Trust is managed by a Board of Trustees, drawn from the community and local organisations. The Board operates autonomously to safeguard and enhance the Trust's assets for the benefit of the community.
Local people are now able to play an active role in the stewardship of their local public spaces by becoming volunteers in many of the Trust's activities. Groups of volunteers meet regularly in their local green spaces to participate in local events or education programmes designed for the community. In some cases local business and community groups adopt a particular geographical area and help the Trust to improve it through a conservation project.
Successful management of assets
The original endowment of commercial properties given to the Trust were estimated to be of enough value to ensure the Trust would not need to rely on any outside funding and would be able to generate the income it needed to maintain Milton Keynes' green spaces. However, since its creation the Trust's robust financial strategy has allowed it to diversify its assets and increase its property portfolio from around £18 million to a total of £80 million, £45 million of which is commercial property and £35 million of which is currently invested in other financial assets (mid-2008 values).
The financial strategy the Trust has employed has involved forecasting expected expenditure against the income that it was able to generate. From this forecast, the Trust is able to determinate the size of the asset base it will need in the long term and the standards of grounds maintenance needed to keep public spaces in good condition. Over time the Trust has put money into a sinking fund, which will ensure that if, in the future, substantial work is needed to renovate any of the Trust's assets there will be reserves available to carry out this work.
The Trust has taken a flexible approach to working with other organisations. Most work is undertaken by contractors from the local area although the Trust has recently started it own direct works team to give it greater flexibility and as a way of training and developing the workforce of the future. The Trust has been careful in directing the terms of these contracts to help manage its outgoings, even at a time of increasing labour costs.
The Trust's core activity is the physical maintenance of green areas and open spaces for the benefit of Milton Keynes residents and visitors. However, in more recent times, the Trust, having grown its financial resources, has been able to take on new activities for the benefit of the community:
- The Trust organises low-cost educational activities for local schools, such as sensory walks or trips to explore life in many of the Trust's ponds.
- Guided walks are provided for interested groups, including tours geared towards children's brownie and scout groups.
- The Trust's website has a range of activity sheets that can be downloaded and printed out, helping local families look for interesting flora and wildlife.
- There are a range of volunteering opportunities for local people, including conservation work, helping to manage events held in the parks and monitoring the condition of the open spaces. Over 200 people regularly engage in these activities.
- There are now a number of events to promote sports in the parks, including walking, running, cycling and horse riding events.
- The Trust is now developing ‘productive landscapes', producing food and wood products for sale.
- The Trust has offered an apprentice scheme offering training to young people in some of the most deprived areas of Milton Keynes.
Adapting to changing times
The way in which people use green spaces evolves over time and the Trust has needed to respond to those changes, whilst still responding to the best interests of the community. In some cases this has meant selling land for residential development or redesigning green spaces, particularly to respond to the fear of crime by creating more light and open areas with greater visibility. Such decisions are part of the Trust's work in ensuring that its assets continue to be valuable for the community long into the future. Trust has also created sinking funds to help cover cost of long term replacements such as bridges and other structures.
Milton Keynes is now part one of the four major growth areas in England. Up to 49,000 new homes are planned in and around the city between by 2026. The Trust has been involved in a process of consultation on how best to plan these future homes, and is working with Milton Keynes Council, Milton Keynes Partnership and developers on the design and layout of the new green spaces which will create an estimated 700 acres of new green space. The Trust's main interest is to ensure that all future developments will be well integrated with the existing green space, and to protect the feeling of closeness to nature that characterises Milton Keynes.
- Strong management of the Trust's property portfolio over the past 16 years has generated enough funds to maintain Milton Keynes' green spaces to a high standard with enough surplus to set up a sinking fund which will be available in the future for any extensive refurbishment that may be required.
- The Trust has been able to provide additional activities for the community, which were not expected at the time the Trust was created but that were made possible by the successful management of organisation's assets and increased profits.
The work done by the Trust has been well respected both by professionals and local people. The Trust has proved that it can provide good value for money. In recent consultation, local people said that they would like the new open space in Milton Keynes to be owned and managed by the Trust.
Maximising the benefits for the community
- The Trust has been able to generate a substantial financial asset base, enabling it to provide services for local people beyond only maintaining the network of green spaces to a high standard. This includes provision of environmental education, a varied events and activities programme and initiatives to promote local food growing
Transferable lessons for new communities
Some new communities might well have unusual characteristics, perhaps having, like Milton Keynes a particularly high proportion of green public spaces, or innovative new environmental technologies, for example an underground ‘Envac' style waste collection system. In these circumstances local authorities and other stakeholders may feel the community's assets would be best managed by an organisation similar to the Parks Trust. In that case:
The stewardship organisation will need to have a guaranteed income. In Milton Keynes this was successfully achieved by endowing the organisation with assets from which it could generate an income. It was able to take an entrepreneurial approach to developing these assets, resulting in a substantial financial portfolio. It also needs to be free and independent with a culture of entrepreneurship so that it capitalises on opportunities, has a clear remit to grow its assets so as to enable it to do more and safeguard the long term future.
Any stewardship organisation will need to be managed by a proactive board of people with the right mix of skills and experience for the task in hand, not chosen only because they represent the local community. In Milton Keynes this was a group of people from the local business community as well as the residential community and from other governmental and non-governmental organisations with expertise in managing property and landscape assets. This range and combination of experience and knowledge has proved successful.
The promotion of ecological diversity and the promotion of wildlife and nature conservation have helped encourage people to value and care more for the environment.
Enhancing the liveability of parks by engaging local people in events, activities and improved facilities has resulted in parks and green areas attracting more people in to use them and, this is the important point, being more highly valued and respected.
For more information see: the Parks Trust
images: ©Parks Trust