Cuts are putting parks on 'road to ruin', say experts

Sector told to continue lobbying Government to alleviate chronic funding shortfall.

Two prominent parks historians are warning that innovation and new income streams cannot rescue the parks sector from the funding crisis it faces - and that the sector must continue to fight for recognition from Government.

Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference held in Sheffield on 11-12 September, the Parks Agency's David Lambert - an expert adviser to the 1999 town and country parks inquiry of the Commons environment, transport and regional affairs committee - said Government "zealots" are refusing to learn from history and repeating the mistakes of the 1980s.

Although the past 20 years have seen parks rescued from free fall, public spending cuts have reversed those gains and are putting parks "on the road to ruin", said Lambert.

While the response of creating programmes such as Rethinking Parks to find alternative forms of income is "entirely understandable", there has been a "disheartening" lack of resistance to the "reckless dismantling of the traditional local authority model", he added.

The 2013 Rethinking Parks report considered a range of options from philanthropy through to community and business involvement in parks. But Lambert warned that history shows there is no alternative to local authority custodianship for most neighbourhood parks.

"I fear that Rethinking Parks foreshadows a Darwinian battle for dwindling resources in which many communities without doubt will see their park entering a spiral of decline - a process that should be all too well understood but we've forgotten about the 1980s," he said.

He called for the sector to continue resisting the "war" against local authorities. "There is still no better place for a public park to be than in the hands of ... a publicly accountable, properly funded public body," he insisted.

The University of Leicester's Dr Katy Layton-Jones also warned that a focus on innovation risks ignoring the past 170 years of parks funding. All funding models that have been tried - from philanthropy to subscriptions - present problems and many have been systemic failures, she told the conference audience.

Layton-Jones, who authored English Heritage's 2014 National Review of Research Priorities for Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes & Open Spaces, said there is a misconception that the parks sector has not innovated in the past. This perpetuates the assumption that the challenge is only to manage public money more efficiently, rather than acknowledging a chronic funding shortfall, she explained.

"The historical record demonstrates quite clearly that parks have baseline funding levels, beneath which even the most innovative and efficient management model cannot function," said Layton-Jones.

Taxation, while unpopular, has been "the most enduring means of funding public green space in Britain". Moving away from that model means that "the picture today is more grim and dangerous than at any point in history", she added. "The past holds compelling evidence that many current policies and approaches to funding are doomed to fail. We must present evidence with renewed urgency and vehemence and hope at some point someone in Westminster will heed its lessons."

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