In 1995, an influential Demos/Comedia publication called Park Life: Urban Parks and Social Renewal asked: "Is the keeperless park - along with the unstaffed railway station, the poorly-lit underground car park, the unsupervised playground and the deserted town centre - going to become another ghost zone of modern Britain?"
A report for the GMB trade union by ADLO in 1997, More Grounds for Concern, explored the impact of reduced spending on parks and open spaces. It concluded that declining resources and compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) had fragmented the management and maintenance of our parks, led to falling standards and damaged employment and training in the industry.
Since then, CCT has been replaced with best value and there has been increasing recognition of the role of parks and public open spaces in enhancing quality of life and improving health. Performance in parks services has improved as a result of increased investment and there has been a knock-on impact on individual health and well-being and local communities and economies.
The worry is that we are again facing a squeeze on public resources and expenditure that could damage the mini-renaissance in many of our public parks and open spaces. It is therefore up to all of us in the sector to garner the facts and put the case as strongly as possible for the real value investment in parks can bring.
As non-statutory services, parks and open spaces have had to compete for scarce resources with other higher-profile services. Record investment in public services by the previous Government has mainly been in education and health. This means any additional investment in parks has primarily been as a result of local political and community priorities and decisions.
At a local level, there has been increased investment by local authorities working in partnership with communities to drive up standards in parks and green spaces. Some of this has been achieved through European and lottery funding, but much has been through increased direct investment by councils themselves.
The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) has been collecting data for its Performance Networks service for more than a decade. It shows that additional investment in parks and open spaces has not been wasted. Most local authority parks, horticultural and open spaces services have achieved high levels of productivity and managed their costs well. For instance, between 2004/05 and 2008/09, costs per 1,000 head of population increased by less than 15 per cent to £27,258.
Our figures, which are collected from local authorities annually using standard datasets and robust collation methodology, also show that productivity in parks has increased from a ratio of 7.47ha per full-time employee to 8.38ha, representing an 11 per cent productivity increase.
While cost increases have been kept below inflation and labour productivity rates have increased, the quality of the service has been maintained or, in most cases, improved. APSE's performance indicator for output specification for grounds maintenance looks at factors such as turf, amenity grass cutting, shrub bed maintenance and chemical control. This found steady rises in averages overall and many local authorities have achieved much higher levels of performance, with some increasing by as much 40 per cent in three years.
The high priority placed on the local environment means that reported scores on environmental practices have increased by 15 per cent on average, with some rising by as much as a massive 126 per cent over a three-year period.
Nearly three-quarters of all local authorities now carry out community/customer surveys involving parks. These continue to show high levels of overall satisfaction. APSE's own data from customer surveys shows half of the councils involved achieved more than 75 per cent satisfaction, a third have achieved more than 80 per cent and some as high as 95 per cent.
Another major issue is skills. Last year's Skills to Grow report by CABE set out seven priorities to improve green space skills. It pointed out that people employed in the green space sector often have low pay and status in comparison with other sectors. While the damage done to skills and training during the 1980s and 1990s has been profound, APSE's data shows evidence of an increased premium placed on skills and training in the green space sector.
Our data for parks and green space services shows that 55 per cent of local authorities now have apprenticeship schemes in place. More than 60 per cent have Investors in People accreditation and 72 per cent are working towards it. A total of 91 per cent have allocated staff training days.
CABE's national employer survey findings, published in March, also showed that of 522 organisations providing information relating to training expenditure, each spent an average of £5,671 per year on training, with the public sector spending significantly more than other sectors at an average of £15,400 per organisation compared with £3,000 for the private sector and £6,000 for the third sector.
This emphasis on training is good news because it means parks services can offer high-quality jobs and skills, which has a positive impact on the national tax base and economic competitiveness. If we fail to invest in the parks workforce, it will have a calamitous impact on the quality and accessibility of the green environment. We cannot afford for the hard-won gains of the past decade to be jeopardised because of threatened cuts in public expenditure. This would be short-termism of the worst kind.
Impact on health
There is no shortage of evidence to show that quality parks and open spaces have a positive impact on the health of the population. Natural England has pointed out that the green environment can help to reduce stress levels, encourage people to live more active and healthy lifestyles and that people live longer if they live near areas of green space. The costs of obesity and physical inactivity are enormous. In England alone they are £2.5bn and £8.2bn respectively.
The NHS spent £6.5bn on mental illness in 2002/03 and local authorities spent £1.4bn - and informal carers contribute the equivalent of £3.9bn. Surely, given what we know about the palliative and beneficial health impacts of green space, it makes sound economic sense to sustain long-term public investment to help to reduce the massive costs of poor health and disease on the public purse. This is why investment in parks really is a sound "invest to save" initiative.
What of the local economic consequences of such investment? APSE's research on the "local economic footprint" of public services uses an "economic multiplier model" to demonstrate that strong local employment and supply chains can mean that for every £1 spent on local public services a further £1.64 circulates within the local economy. There is a virtuous cycle resulting both from procurement spending on local supply chains and spending by employees in the local economy.
The latest "economic footprint" research by APSE in West Lothian Council, looking at its neighbourhood environment teams and land services, found an even higher ratio of £1.71. This means that for every £1 spent directly on local suppliers and local employees, a further 71p is generated for the local economy by supplier and employee re-spending. Thus, every £1 spent on parks has the potential to not only benefit individuals and communities but also the economy. In an age of financial austerity, it surely pays to sustain local economies, business and employment in positive ways that benefit local residents.
The truth is we cannot afford to cut back on public investment in parks and green spaces. It makes neither social nor economic sense. We know what the consequences for the industry would be. We have enough knowledge of the impact of cutbacks and CCT in the past to be able to point out the pitfalls of such punitive medicine.
APSE is working with CABE and other bodies to demonstrate the value of green space. We believe there are enough strong voices in the sector at a national and local level prepared to speak up collectively and we have qualitative and quantitative evidence of the wider benefits of investing in our parks and open spaces to make a compelling case for the future. We must not allow those voices to be drowned out by the cacophony that is the current consensus on the need for deep cuts in public spending. There is a rich municipal parks heritage to advocate and an important legacy to leave to future generations.
Mark Bramah is assistant chief executive and Debbie Johns is principal adviser on parks at the APSE. Bramah will be speaking alongside the Improvement & Development Agency's Martyn Allinson and leading green space managers at the APSE seminar Managing Parks in the Age of Financial Austerity on 29 July.