Report of the Cabinet Member for Communities and the Cabinet Member for Economic Growth
The Select Committee considered the recommended approach to develop a sustainable future for Staffordshire’s countryside estate, and the proposed implementation plan and associated scheme of delegation. They considered the management solutions which had been explored, in line with the four preferred delivery options previously agreed by Cabinet in October 2015, namely:
· Retain in-house with a new operating model;
· Transfer management externally;
· A partnership of landowners/managers; and
· Not-for-profit body or charitable body.
The County Council had undertaken a review of its countryside estate in order to address increasing challenges facing the service and to find a more financially sustainable delivery model. Early in this process it had been agreed by Cabinet that there would be no sale of countryside estate sites, and that the review would focus on the future management of these sites. Through the County Council’s Medium Term Financial Strategy, Rural County was currently committed to delivering further savings of £318,000 from its net operating budget from 2019/20 through to 2020/21.
Members considered a detailed report on the steps which had been taken in the review and the wide range of options which had been explored. Based on the outcomes of the options appraisal and considering how options might work in combination across the estate, three potential management proposals were identified:
Management Proposal 1 – Default Option
This approach would be to retain management of the entire estate in-house under a revised operating model. However, based on consideration of the financial sustainability of the estate and the outcomes of the appraisal, this option should include the following measures:
a) A revised operating model through restructure of the staff unit;
b) Development and investment in volunteering and community capacity building;
c) Exploration of external contractual arrangements to deliver some maintenance operations where this proves cost effective;
d) Development of income streams (e.g. car park charges at key sites, visitor centres and cafes, more effective utilisation of buildings, donations and philanthropy) and retention/ring-fencing of generated income within the service to support maintenance and improvement of sites, supporting future financial sustainability.
Based on the outcomes of the options appraisal, this proposal would explore the transfer (a long-term lease) of the country parks and major local sites to environmental bodies as a preferred route. The first step would be to run a detailed procurement exercise to determine which sites have potential to transfer to established and suitably skilled bodies and to determine whether this is cost-effective. If a number of sites remain, the second step would be to explore the potential viability and cost of establishing a bespoke charitable body to manage the sites. Otherwise, remaining sites would be retained in-house. Under this management proposal, minor local sites, greenways and rights of way would be retained in-house, and incorporate the sustainability measures outlined in management proposal one above.
Management Proposal 3 – Transfer Management to a Trust/In-house
Under this proposal, a charitable trust/not-for-profit body would be established to manage all the country parks and major local sites via a transfer (long-term lease). The minor local sites, greenways and rights of way would be retained in-house with the sustainability measures outlined in management proposal one.
Based on the options appraisal, management proposal two was the preferred option and the Committee’s views were sought on this.
A member commented that they agreed that proposal two was the best option and questioned whether officers were aware of any organisations that were willing to take this on. They expressed concern that introducing car park charges may deter people from visiting sites and that it was important to be mindful of possible negative effects. It was also queried whether the option of holiday accommodation was missing an opportunity, as this had generated a considerable source of income elsewhere, as had music concerts and other events. Officers confirmed that there were a number of organisations that had expressed interest in the countryside estate. Work done previously, for example with the Shugborough Estate had evidenced that this could prove very successful. Many of these organisations had access to a wide range of funding which would ensure the sustainability of the Estate in the long term. In relation to car park charges, members were informed that charges had been introduced at Chasewater and this had not attracted any complaints. The key issue was to handle the introduction of charges well and keep costs at a reasonable level. The difficulty around holiday accommodation such as caravan parks or a Center Parcs style development was that the sites suitable for these were areas of highly designated environmental interest.
Concern was expressed that any proposal other than number one would mean that the County Council would lose the ability to control what happens to the estate, and that flexibility was needed to deliver across a large number of sites. Officers responded that proposal two offered significant opportunities to develop the visitor offer, whilst under proposal one the County Council had limited ability to invest in the estate. Several members spoke in support of proposal two, although a concern was raised that transfers to environmental organisations could potentially lead to restrictions on access and consequently could reduce visitor numbers.
In considering the key milestones and estimated time frames for implementation of the recommended proposal, a member commented that this seemed a long time and that he would want to see more starting now. Several members expressed concern about the possibility of the best sites being “cherry picked” and the viability of the sites that may be left in-house and also questioned the achievability of the suggested timescales. It was also important to be sure about the projected savings. Officers responded that under proposal one the timescale was realistic and the savings would be realised through staffing restructure. With regard to proposal two, the previously undertaken Expressions of Interest exercise had provided valuable insight, although a detailed piece of work would need to be undertaken to identify a sustainable way of managing sites for the future, as in the long term the County Council was unable to do this.
RESOLVED – That the Prosperous Staffordshire Select Committee support Management Proposal 2 – Transfer to Environment Body/Trust/In-house, whilst acknowledging that there was still a detailed piece of work to be done.