New proposals for the future of Lancashire's countryside service could see some of the most popular sites, including one in the Ribble Valley, continue to be maintained by the county council.
If accepted, 15 key sites including Spring Wood picnic site at Whalley, plus Beacon Fell and Wycoller Country Parks, will be operated at minimum cost to ensure people can continue to visit them safely, but with less maintenance and fewer services for visitors than at present.
A further five sites, which form part of the county's network of cycling and walking paths, would also continue to be maintained by the county council to support sustainable transport and healthy recreation.
As part of its budget agreed in February 2016 Lancashire County Council resolved to stop funding the countryside service from April 2018, and has since been working to secure alternative arrangements so that people can continue to enjoy free access to the sites. The council invited other organisations who might like to take ownership of any of the sites to submit proposals.
A report published today recommends that bids from charities and other councils for 13 of the county's 84 sites should be accepted, and the sites transferred to their ownership, while a further five bids should be turned down.
A range of further options for the remaining sites are also set out, and include proposals to give back 25 woodland sites which are mostly owned by district councils, and either sell or raise income through forestry from a further 14 woodland sites. The report also recommends retaining a further 12 sites which cost little to maintain, and could not easily be sold or transferred due to their past industrial use.
It is proposed that the county council continue to operate a much smaller countryside service beyond April 2018 to manage the retained sites at an annual net cost of £197,000. Officers would continue to work to reduce costs by generating income, attracting grants, and working with other organisations who may be able to help with maintenance of the sites.
The report will be considered by the council's Executive Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday March 7th. A decision on whether to accept the recommendations is due to be taken by County Coun. Marcus Johnstone, cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services, on Wednesday March 8th.
County Coun. Johnstone said: "I know how much people value our countryside sites, and the contribution they make towards preserving our natural environment, however the very difficult financial situation facing the county council means we have to do all we can to protect the most vital services such as adult social care, and reduce spending in other areas wherever possible.
"For the last year we have been exploring how our countryside sites could be maintained in future, ideally at no ongoing cost to the county council. Our 84 sites are very diverse and range from former industrial sites which are now small nature reserves, to big country parks, and it was always going to be difficult to find other parties willing to take all of them on.
"However, I'm glad that a number of organisations have come forward with strong business plans to ensure continued public access and maintenance of 13 of the sites.
"While we have had positive discussions with other organisations which had expressed an interest in some of the bigger, most popular, sites, these have not ultimately resulted in acceptable offers and we need to consider alternatives. The proposal is to continue to maintain them, albeit at a minimal level focused towards ensuring that people can still safely access them. In practice this means there would be no rangers to help people and run events, however we would continue to support volunteers to manage and inspect the sites.
"I'm sure these proposals will be welcomed by those who were concerned about the future of the sites, as they mean that people would be able to continue to enjoy them, however they would not solve our financial problem and we would continue to work to raise income, reduce costs, and look for other parties to help run them.
"We are also proposing to look after a number of former railway lines which pass through some of our sites and are now popular walking and cycling routes. We plan for these to be maintained by the county council's highway service as we recognise their importance to the county's wider travel network. Keeping many of the sites means we could continue to provide facilities such as bins and toilets, and manage volunteers to help with other maintenance and inspections."