What can we learn from the London Assembly's 'Park Life' report?

Green space professionals have welcomed a parks inquiry and resulting report from the London Assembly Environment Committee into the needs of the capital's parks - but they suggest the committee has failed to go far enough in its recommendations to address funding.

Low Hall Sports Ground in Walthamstow, east London. Image: HW
Low Hall Sports Ground in Walthamstow, east London. Image: HW

The report asks London mayor Sadiq Khan to support local authorities struggling with service transformation and austerity measures - and to do this via a city-wide, strategic approach to green infrastructure.

Information gathering and sharing, volunteering and fundraising are all areas that assembly members think would benefit from the mayor’s oversight.

Recommendations:

  1. The mayor should pledge to run an accessibility audit, noting areas that have fewer parks, clarify plans to increase London’s green space and set out an action plan to improve green space data collection to help target investment in his forthcoming London Environment Strategy.
  2. Examine the feasibility of establishing a city-wide website with crowdfunding capabilities, similar to MyParkScotland.
  3. Collate and share best practice in achieving successful blended finance models. Provide a research framework for documenting green space value.
  4. Help local authorities understand about various alternative delivery models.
  5. Team London to assist green space managers in recruitment and retention of volunteers and diversify membership.
  6. Conduct an audit of the All-London Green Grid, the level of participation and its affect.
  7. The mayor should promote green infrastructure at a city level, including appointing a green infrastructure champion.  

The membership group that represents almost all London boroughs and the City of London, Parks for London, particularly welcomes the report's intention to inform the pending London Environment Strategy and London Plan Review.

Chief executive Tony Leach says: "The report quite rightly raises the need for local provision and access to green spaces but disappointingly fails to tackle the systemic problem of revenue funding for the maintenance and management of London’s more than 3,000 green spaces apart from suggesting that we need more volunteers. The fact that the fate of parks is decided at the local (borough) level is sadly overlooked.

"Currently the mayor has limited powers over green spaces apart from the planning function, through the London Plan. Previous mayors have invested in pocket park initiatives but never for the ongoing maintenance and management costs of existing parks. There is a clear need for a more strategic approach to London’s parks as already raised in the green infrastructure task force report of December 2015."

The Parks Alliance chair Matthew Bradbury agrees, saying: "I don’t think the report addresses the issue of funding for parks, which I think is a big issue at the moment."

Parks consultant and author of the two Heritage Lottery Fund State of UK Public Parks reports Peter Neal says: "It is good to see the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Environment Committee drawing serious attention to the plight of London’s parks. The report clearly sets out seven worthy and well-argued recommendations to audit accessibility, expand evidence, compile cases studies and set up a website.

"It is just lacking a big move of the stature and bravado a global city deserves and should demand. Why not a national park city, a strategic parks authority to drive innovation and investment, or perhaps a commitment to fast-track the completion of the All-London Green Grid within a generation?"

The committee acknowledged the work of the All-London Green Grid, saying the GLA should conduct an audit to discover how many local authorities have included it in local policies and what practical impact the grid has had to date. The assembly could just ask Parks for London. "Sadly, few boroughs can afford staff time to be involved and the requirement to include it in local plans is not mandatory," says Leach.

Assembly members recommended the mayor appoint a green infrastructure commissioner or champion to join together different departments in the council who would have an interest in green infrastructure, an idea broadly welcomed in the sector, again so long as they would have resources to the do the job.

This recommendation is of national relevance, says Leach, but should be done in collaboration with others. "We are not convinced that a single commissioner or champion would be as effective as setting up a green infrastructure commission."

Bradbury also welcomed having a strategic view over London, but warned: "London is already seen in the sector as being better resourced. It could make London seem more exclusive. It’s good news for London but doesn’t address issues in the rest of the country. Findings and learnings that come out of the proposals need to be shared widely with the sector, not just held within London."

A London-wide parks strategy would be "pretty significant", says The Royal Parks chair Loyd Grossman. "London is an extraordinarily green city in terms of open spaces. It’s very important that the mayor’s office should realise that parks are one of London’s greatest assets.

"At a time of Brexit when London’s international status is being challenged, we should remember that parks make London and are one of the reasons people want to work here. There should be a strategy that looks at how London’s parks are going to be funded and sustained because local authority funding is under threat. Any decline in the quality of our parks is a decline in the quality of life."

The committee members called for a pan-London parks website that would give information about the capital's green space estate as a whole and offer crowdfunding, similar to the MyParkScotland site, which has already raised a significant amount of money for capital projects, although none of them big numbers.

The Parks Agency director David Lambert says crowdfunding could be helpful but ultimately such a website is a "non-essential". However, Fields in Trust chief executive Helen Griffiths calls this recommendation "positive", particularly as it came in the same week as the new Ordnance Survey green space map was launched in England.

"This indicates a welcome direction of travel toward more public information sharing, which can only assist rigorous, evidence-based policymaking," she says.

Leach is unsure. He points out that the ‘Your London’ website was established under Ken Livingston’s mayoralty but was axed when Boris Johnson took over. The City Bridge Trust also funded a similar project, www.parklifelondon.org, but this has stalled for lack of sustainable funding. "Such an undertaking needs the commitment of long-term funding to keep it up-to-date and sustainable," he says.

The members support the campaign for London to be a national park city and call for a "pan-London natural capital account", quoting GLA environment team lead policy officer Peter Massini, who told the committee that such an account would "unblock" funding and "help with those very difficult decisions about where local authorities and others spend their money".

Government-appointed independent advisory group the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has been working on this since 2011 and has promised a "how to do it" guide by the end of this year. The issue is one of many covered in the University of Leeds' recent Leeds Park project and The Parks Alliance conference.

In the capital, the GLA is already supporting a natural capital account in Barnet and funding a pan-London assessment of green space, which the report says "will provide a high-level evaluation of London’s natural capital and breakdown of the economic value of all the public parks and green spaces by borough".

The results of the pan-London assessment will be launched in the summer, along with the GLA’s Environment Strategy. The committee is calling on the GLA to provide "proper guidance and a simple framework to use".

However, the committee warns that knowing the value of London’s parks will not generate funding by itself, with alternative funding streams needing to be identified. Lambert says this should save a lot of wasted time if this kind of assessment is done by the mayor rather than by the individual boroughs. 

The committee examined the models of joint commissioning, income generation and philanthropy in its inquiry. On local authority funding, the report acknowledges that local authorities under pressure see discretionary services such as parks as places they can make savings, but it says councils "need to be aware that cuts to funding put London’s green spaces at risk and may lead to a spiral of decline".

The report identifies examples of joint commissioning with other public services — for example, the Healthy New Town projects including Barking Riverside, one of 10 Healthy New Towns funded by NHS Clinical commissioning groups — and community garden schemes.

The committee members visited St Mary’s Garden in Lambeth, south London, where users are funded to attend by their local social services. At the Lambeth GP Food co-op, patients from 11 practices with long-term conditions work together to grow food that is then sold to King’s College Hospital.

"Local authorities should look to collaborate in devising co-commissioning strategies," the report recommends. "By identifying common objectives and working together to attract funding streams, local authorities can not only work more efficiently, they can enhance the overall level of benefits created." 

The mayor’s official promotional agency, London & Partners, has recorded that commercial events in parks have increased by more than 20% over the past two years, with the fastest growth being in large events attended by between 5,000 and 50,000 people. The two-day Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park brought in £300,000 to Haringey Council.

But while most people tell researchers they would rather have more commercial activity in parks than have to pay for access, they still do not like too much commercialism, as evidenced in more than 70 submissions to the inquiry.

Several friends groups have expressed concerns about the damage done to parks. But the report says local authorities might need help to "manage this growth". Parks for London set up the Large-Scale Events in Parks Action Group in 2016

"We heard from local authorities who said they needed more help. They simply may not have the resources or skills that are required, or may be unwilling to invest time exploring innovative but potentially risky funding streams."

Following the lead of the Communities & Local Government select committee in its recent parks inquiry report, the London committee called on the mayor "to provide London’s green space managers with the practical guidance and best practice examples that will help them transform their funding arrangements."

It adds: "Local authorities — already dealing with funding pressures and service transformation — would benefit from some guidance and support in choosing how to manage their green spaces under a new approach."

Some guidance is already published, such as the National Trust’s trust toolkit, but the committee believes that the GLA should bring together the available evidence for all the main management models to give local authorities a single guide.

Whatever models are adopted, the committee says volunteering will become more central to London parks and insists that more resources are needed to get the most out of "time-poor or transient" Londoners. The mayor should use his Team London programme to do more and "could play a valuable role in expanding and diversifying London’s green space volunteering community".

Young people in particular should be targeted. In a 2015 survey, nearly 70% of young people across the UK stated that they could be motivated to volunteer to create community spaces, but only 7% actually did so, making them "huge untapped potential" for London’s parks.

This is something recognised by Fields in Trust (FiT) and Groundwork, which successfully bid for a slice of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s £10m Kick the Dust fund to run a youth green space volunteering initiative.

FiT chief executive Helen Griffiths says: "The GLA Environment Committee recognises that in future London parks will be increasingly reliant on volunteers. If we are to future-proof parks we need to engage a younger group of friends and supporters."

She adds that partners in the new project "will help to build the next generation of green space volunteers, provide relevant training and engage more young people in preserving and managing local historic parks and heritage landscapes".

Other commentators say more volunteering should be backed up by funding. Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust chief executive Sue Morgan is "concerned about volunteers being a panacea for everything — it’s too simple", adding that her trust applied for funding from Team London and was unsuccessful. "They’ve only got finite resources. Team London doesn’t even have a volunteer co-ordinator. If we’re going to have volunteers they need support."

Speaking at the Leeds Park Project parks conference, Groundwork chief executive Graham Duxbury said it is important to use channels and discourse that are young-people-friendly, instead of "expecting them to come to us."

The committee notes a general unease from both councils and members of the public about a perceived privatisation of parks. Members agree that public green space should remain under the control of local authorities, even if their management is looked after by a trust, as in the Wandle Valley, or a non-profit-making organisation such as in Wandsworth, both in south London.

Assembly members are calling on the mayor to address the "areas of deficiency" in large parts of London where there is not at least a small public open green space within 400m of where people live. The London Plan states that this should be the case for all homes in the capital but only around 50% are within that distance.

The committee says it is vital that funding to improve access is directed towards the right parts of London. "There is evidence to suggest that this has not always been the case and that a two-tier system of green spaces has developed," it notes. "The most deprived communities are often losing out."


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