Lib Dems blocked in bid to grill council over ‘bailout’ for Newcastle parks charity

Leazes park in Newcastle
-Credit: (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

Councillors have been blocked in an attempt to put the future of Newcastle’s parks under the microscope, amid financial worries for the charity that runs them.

Newcastle City Council is set to hand Urban Green Newcastle (UGN) just over £1 million to balance its books for the next 12 months. That comes after a warning that the charitable trust, which was handed control of 33 parks and more than 60 allotments in 2019 by the Labour-run council, has already used up all of the funding the local authority was meant to provide in its first decade of existence and predicts a £6.7 million shortfall predicted between now and 2029.

Liberal Democrat councillors have now sought to ‘call in’ that decision, a process which would bring senior council officials and responsible politicians before a scrutiny panel to be grilled about the plans and UGN’s future. The opposition party said it had “significant concerns about the ongoing viability of the existing Urban Green Newcastle business model and the implications for the city and the council if the current arrangements fail”.

However, their request for a call-in hearing has been rejected by civic centre officials. In an email seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), council monitoring officer John Softly said the Lib Dems did not present “valid grounds”. In their request, the opposition councillors said they did not oppose the principle of giving UGN the bailout it needs to see it through to the end of 2024/25.

But, they argued that the charity’s financial predicament raised bigger concerns that need to be scrutinised – particularly if, following a £50,000 review expected to be carried out by external consultants, the council decides to bring parks services back in-house at the civic centre. Coun Doreen Huddart told the LDRS: “Lib Dem councillor colleagues and I are understandably concerned at the news of Urban Green’s financial situation and the council’s proposed bailout, especially in light of ongoing pressure on the council’s reserves.

Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Doreen Huddart
Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Doreen Huddart -Credit:Newcastle Chronicle

“Council taxpayers and park users deserve clarity about the use of council funds and the future of the city’s parks, but opposition backbench councillors are being told we may not ask questions about the use of £1.026 million to keep the organisation going until the end of this financial year, about what happens next year, or about the spending of £50,000 on consultants to identify options for the future.

“The decision to refuse the scrutiny call in request is particularly disappointing when many park users and allotment groups complain about poor communication and consultation. It smacks of locking the park gates after the flowers have been stolen.”

Having offloaded its parks to Urban Green in an effort to protect their future at a time of major cost-cutting, the council has now said that it “requires more control” over how its money is spent if it is going to be giving the charity more funding than was planned. The council had originally agreed to give UGN £7.7 million in subsidies over its first decade, after which it was meant to become self-sustaining, but that cash has now been used up already and the charity has told the council that “financial self-sufficiency is not achievable within the foreseeable future”.

A council spokesperson said: “We have received a call-in request from members in relation to Urban Green Newcastle (UGN). A request to call in a decision must show that there are concerns relating to that particular decision. In this case the call-in request related to the decision to award UGN grant funding and carry out an options appraisal. However, the call-in request did not object to the award of grant funding to UGN or the carrying out of an options appraisal, therefore, it was not a valid call-in request.”

A council source indicated that the future of Newcastle’s parks and UGN could still be publicly scrutinised and debated through other local authority meetings.

Urban Green said in March that Covid-19 had hampered its income generation and that its finances had also been hit by increased energy costs. It added at the time: “Our ongoing discussions with Newcastle City Council will have no impact on the city’s green spaces. Urban Green Newcastle will continue to care for city parks and allotments; ensuring everyone across the city can access safe, clean and welcoming green spaces where they live.”