Barber on ... Trusts needed for green spaces

Our coalition Government believes that if people were more community-minded and did more voluntary work, there is a great deal more that neighbourhoods could do for themselves and be less reliant on expensive public services.

It needs to take three things into account. The British are already good volunteers. It is one of our more desirable national traits. Most people see themselves as time-poor. Volunteer projects need a structured framework and proper resourcing to be successful.

Public parks ought to be at the centre of this debate. Government-commissioned research has shown that urban green spaces can act as catalysts for wider community initiatives in ways that no other public facility seems able to. Again and again, people involved in these initiatives said that if it wasn't for the park (or other green space) nothing would have happened. When the University of Manchester analysed feedback from CABE's Manifesto for Public Spaces, it found that community value scored higher as a perceived benefit than recreation.

The Government has inherited Labour's asset transfer proposals, which could see public parks passed over to community groups to run. A howl of objections has been heard. At worst, it would fragment their management, make them even more dependent on handouts from local authorities and suffer a loss of expertise and careers.

But no local government service has been treated as badly as parks - they face a bleak future in their care. Milton Keynes offers a superb example of an independent charity managing a portfolio of parks. Several parish councils manage them quite well.

We need new green space trusts that are rooted in the local community and with their own call on local taxes or an endowment. It is time for CABE Space, GreenSpace and the new Land Trust to develop a proposal to involve local park support groups in the setting up of new bodies to take over. Whatever the "Big Society" means, it is not a vote of confidence in today's local government.

Alan Barber is a parks consultant.

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