Coalition consequences: soon Greenwich Park visitors will have to pay to use the loo

coalition consequences logoThe Royal Parks – the government body that runs Greenwich Park – is having to make difficult choices. Their annual budget has already been slashed by 25% by the Coalition Government, and is likely to be cut by another 10% in 2015. To help balance the books, visitors will have to pay 20p a time to use the toilets in Greenwich Park once turnstiles are installed next summer.

Disabled toilets, and toilets in children’s playgrounds, will apparently be exempt. But the charges will stick in the throat given that visitors have already paid for the Royal Parks through their taxes.

One of the toilets in Greenwich Park: currently free, but soon it will cost 20p a visit

One of the toilets in Greenwich Park: currently free, but soon it will cost 20p a visit

After the Coalition Government was elected in 2010, the Royal Parks were told that their annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) would be reduced from £17m in 2010-11 to £15.3m in 2014-15 – a cut of 25% in real terms. In fact the cuts have been even steeper than feared – the grant for 2013-14 is only £14.3m.

Ten years ago, the annual  grant given to the Royal Parks was £22.1m – equivalent to £29.4m today. That means the Parks have had a real-terms funding cut of more than 50% over ten years, with more cuts expected in 2015-16 – not just a bit of prudent belt-tightening. No organisation could withstand this kind of cuts without making difficult decisions.

The cost of running the Royal Parks  – £32.5m this year – is now more than double the grant that they get from the DCMS. So more than half of the Royal Parks’ income now has to be “self-generated”, and they’re hoping to make £18m in 2013-14 from catering, filming, events, car park charges, and so on.

As well as Greenwich, there are eight other Royal Parks in central and west London: Hyde ParkRichmond ParkThe Regent’s ParkKensington GardensSt James’s ParkBushy ParkGreen Park and Brompton Cemetery. Many of these Parks have higher footfall than Greenwich and can make more money out of catering and the like. At Greenwich only a quarter of the Park’s maintenance budget (£200,000 of £800,000) is “self-generated”, not a half.

greenwichpark

So in the next few years we can expect more cuts, and more cultural and sporting events in Greenwich Park – events which make money for the Park and are enjoyed by many, but which can cause noise and traffic problems. Meanwhile, free events like bandstand performances are no longer funded by the Royal Parks, and have to be organised by the Park’s Friends Group.

With most services (grounds maintenance, mowing, and even the locking and unlocking of park gates) already contracted out, there is not much scope to make further savings without hitting park visitors in the pocket.

Some income-generating ideas are sound. In principle there’s nothing wrong with sporting and cultural events being hosted in Parks – indeed that is part of the Parks’ purpose. Few people would argue with the principle of charging commercial dog-walkers to use the Royal Parks (they now have to pay £300 a year for a license, and are sensibly limited to four dogs per walker for safety reasons).

But other ideas are more controversial: sports clubs have been forced out of some Royal Parks by steep rises in pitch fees. A stakeholder meeting on November 20th was told that the Royal Parks made between £30,000 and £40,000 (the exact amount is commercially sensitive so hasn’t been released) for allowing Greenwich Park to be used for the beginning and end of the Run to the Beat race, which caused traffic chaos across much of the borough in September 2013.

If the Parks were given a bit more freedom, maybe they would be able to use this income wisely and wouldn’t have to penalise visitors with toilet charges to balance the books. But amazingly, the Royal Parks are not allowed to carry forward income from one financial year to the next: any “self-generated income” has to be spent by March 31st (the end of the financial year) or handed over to the Treasury.

This encourages short-termist thinking, and makes it almost impossible for the Royal Parks to save to invest. When the Winter Wonderland event in Hyde Park made a bumper profit over Christmas a few years ago, the money had to be quickly spent by the end of March and couldn’t be squirrelled away for a rainy day.

In Greenwich Park, the boating pond needs relaying as it leaks (keeping it refilled with water costs the Royal Parks £15,000 each summer). But because income can’t be carried forward, the Royal Parks will have to wait until next April to see if it can afford to repair it  in 2014.

The Royal Parks  have sometimes made some poor decisions (such as closing the road through Greenwich Park for two months earlier this year with very little prior notice), and the Park’s Police team can sometimes be a little over-zealous in enforcing rules on skateboarders and roller-bladers. But generally the Royal Parks manage Greenwich Park very well, despite the belt-tightening and lack of financial freedom. Almost everyone in Greenwich thinks that the Park’s restoration after the 2012 Olympic events has been exemplary – with the Friends of Greenwich Park saying the Park now looks better than ever.

If the Parks were given a bit more freedom, maybe they wouldn’t have to penalise visitors with toilet charges to balance the books. Charging for toilets is the thin end of a wedge, and until the Royal Parks get a better deal from central Government, we can expect more cuts in funding, and more and more commercialisation of the Park.

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2 Responses to Coalition consequences: soon Greenwich Park visitors will have to pay to use the loo

  1. David Gardner says:

    This is appalling, I often pop by when running between Charlton and Greenwich Park and never have money with me when I run. Is anyone from Greenwich on the new Royal Parks board? And what did they say about this?

  2. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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