When Collin Harker attended a meeting four years ago to discuss the future of his local park, he had no idea of the journey he was about to embark on. “There were 10 or 11 of us who turned up,” he recalls. “And we secured a 125-year lease on the place.”
These volunteers would become the founding directors for an effort to place a council-managed park into the hands of the community — creating, in the process, a space that could flourish at the heart of their community.
Par Track is one of two competition-grade running tracks in Cornwall. When the council stopped managing it, there was the track, three football pitches, a pavilion and a children’s play area. “It didn’t have the kind of facilities that would make it attractive to commercial offers,” Collin says. The most likely possibility was that it would be turned over to housing developers, some of whom were already eyeing the land.
“And yet — it’s a green space at the centre of local life. All the dog-owners walk their dogs there. My kids had their school sports days there.” To the group who attended that first meeting, the loss of the park seemed unthinkable. When they began to speak with the local community, most local residents felt the same.
“The emotional resonance of the park made our mission an easy sell. Almost everyone we spoke to in the initial stage had some kind of connection with the place.”
The hand-over presented some challenges, as it blurred the respective responsibilities of the council and the new volunteer group. “There’s a real argument to be had about whether it’s better for communities to accept this, organise, and take over services themselves — or collectively organise, and make sure they’re run publicly,” says Collin. “We’re not a public entity, but we have a public ethos. It’s a difficult line sometimes. To what extent does a community body complement a public institution?”
The primary challenge of course, was revenue. Some revenue from use of the track and field was already well established when the group took it on. But that wasn’t nearly enough.
“We’ve tried to increase usage whenever possible,” Collin says. That meant learning to share the same space with different groups and activities. One of the latest changes involves allowing cycling on the track, a move Collin admits has “ruffled feathers.” But the benefits are clear: “It’s brought in a healthy amount of money. And a cohort of small kids have now learned to ride their bikes safely.”
Bringing new groups to the park keeps it in local people’s minds, which in turn leads to more volunteering and community-led action. For example, some of the parents of children who are learning to ride bikes have become volunteer supervisors. Having a popular activity draws people who then realise that the park needs their help to survive.
One of the main challenges, according to Collin — one that any similar transfer of management from council to community has to face — was, and still is, educating people about the costs of running something that had previously been taken for granted. “The more transparency for the community, the better. If people really know what these services cost, they can make more informed decisions about how to raise money and allocate resources. They can see that we aren’t doing this for profit but to keep services for as many people as possible.”
Grant funding was a source of early revenue, enabling the community group to build a full-service café and gym. The group has now taken over the local library, too. “Now our café is a library café. And that brings a very different crowd. There are parents with very young children, but also much older members.” For some of them, the library café has become a community lifeline, a hub for news and social interaction.
“As a green space, the park was vital to the community during lockdown,” says Collin. “We had a public service responsibility to keep abreast of the rules and manage expectations.”
Grant funding wasn’t affected by the lockdown, which is a relief, as the park is seeing low take-up on classes and hire. “It might be that [the pandemic] encourages more people to be active, and we can harness the resurgence of community spirit,” Collin says. “But I don’t see how we can make any predictions. There’s the longer term engagement around health, versus the wariness of people returning to social activities.”
Regardless, community activity around the space continues to change and grow in response to residents’ needs. Making health a priority, particularly for older people or those with health issues, Par Track developed a ‘social prescribing’ model, employing someone with an exercise qualification to whom doctors could refer patients in need of one-to-one training and tailored exercise programmes. The doctor is then kept up to date on patients’ progress, creating a more complete picture of health.
Diversifying is key to Par Track’s success, and Collin is keen to extend into other activities, like cooking classes that use the café kitchen. It’s a holistic approach that integrates public services: “If people cook more healthily, if they exercise more, it’s better for them and the NHS.”
Par Track is now a charitable community benefit society, enabling members of the community to buy shares in the park. Each investor will have only one vote at the Annual General Meeting, and shares don’t appreciate in value: they can only be sold back to the park. The main drive isn’t making money, but enabling people to have a voice in the park’s future.
Is this the future of our community spaces? “People have noticed in recent months that shared space is more important than ever,” Collin says. “And there are more community groups taking over what were once public or private services. I’m hopeful that we’ll learn from and share knowledge with other community groups, and keep saving resources for the people.”