By Sam Rkaina, Local Government Reporter
THE political row over Bristol City Council’s plan to sell off green spaces is threatening to erupt again after Labour proposed an alternate way of paying for the scheme.
The council’s £87-million parks and green spaces strategy was supposed to fund improvements to scores of parks across the city by selling off up to 64 other open spaces.
But it prompted a huge public backlash last year as the authority was accused of “selling off the family silver”.
It became a campaign issue during the local elections in May, when the ruling Liberal Democrats that supported the plan lost overall control of the council.
As a result the Lib Dems were forced to make a series of concessions to the opposition parties, to allow them to run a minority administration.
One of these was putting an immediate freeze on the sell-off plan, and hold cross-party meetings to discuss what happens next.
All of these meetings have been held in secret though, and there has not been a single update given to the public since the elections nearly three months ago.
The Evening Post understands a report was due to be produced by officers to look at what progress had been made.
In the meantime, Labour has announced it has come up with a way of funding most of the improvements plan “without selling off a single blade of grass”.
One of the main criticisms of the council’s original plan was that the finances were shaky, and based on assumptions about how much money could be raised from selling land, grant funding and money from agreements with developers building other projects, called Section 106 deals.
The Labour plan is facing similar criticism, as it based on assumptions about how much money could be raised by the new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and what it could be spent on.
The CIL has been introduced by the Coalition Government, giving local authorities funding for every new home built in their area.
Labour says the CIL – which replaces Section 106 money – will produce anywhere between £3.5 million and £13 million a year.
Parks spokesman Ron Stone (Labour, St George West) believes the CIL would raise £39 million over 20 years – if the parks’ share of the levy was raised to 35 per cent.
Adding in £21 million of grant funding, £10 million of Section 106 money and
£2 million from the council makes £72 million in total.
That would be enough to pay for most – but not all – of the £87 million scheme.
Mr Stone said: “Even with a difficult economic forecast the plan looks pretty healthy to me, to the council officers I’ve run it past and several councillors of all parties I’ve discussed this with.
“As well as providing a great deal of money to invest in our parks, the funding makes it totally unnecessary to sell any of the city’s much-loved green spaces.
“There was mass opposition to the green space sell-off plan before the last election – this definitely contributed to the Lib Dems losing seats – I hope they’ll listen this time.”
Mr Stone, chairman of the all-party working group, wants the new funding plan debated at full council.
Councillor Tess Green (Green, Southville) said: “I welcome this piece of good news and as a member of the cross-party working group on green spaces, will be looking closely at the figures to make sure they can deliver the improvements to open spaces that Bristol needs so badly.”
But executive member Councillor Gary Hopkins (Lib Dem, Knowle) believes it’s not a workable solution.
He said: “It’s somewhat disappointing that Mr Stone should show such disrespect to his colleagues. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Labour’s plan is that none of the money raised has been set aside for maintenance and renewal. This is a major reason why standards in our parks were allowed to decline so badly for so many years under Labour.”
Deputy Tory leader Mark Weston said: “I understand the idea of using the CIL is currently being considered by officers to see if this really is a viable alternative funding source.
“The fact that this may be a different way forward for our parks clearly vindicates the action taken by the opposition parties to oppose the Lib Dem land sales.
“In any event, the Conservative group maintains that any decision on such disposals must be determined by the relevant Neighbourhood Partnership.”
However, Tracey Morgan, service director of environment and leisure, questioned whether it would be enough.
She said: “The amount of funding that will come from CIL is not clear and the figures provided to the working group are a broad estimation. When the level of CIL is set it cannot be based on the council spending needs but based on viability of development.
“Parks need to be considered alongside schools, flood defence, highways, community buildings, and libraries as to what funding should be allocated to each. Due to CIL not being ring fenced, other than for the provision and maintenance of infrastructure, there are opportunities to apply it to a range of schemes and there will be a wide range of competing interests.”