Can national indicators work for parks?

April's local authority reforms could offer opportunities for green space managers. Magda Ibrahim reports.

Next month, Communities & Local Government (CLG) will replace its system of performance targets for local authorities with a new system of national indicators - a move that will have important implications for parks managers seeking to secure the best possible funds.

Through the Local Area Agreement arrived at with central government, each local authority will choose 35 from the 198 indicators - or targets - developed by CLG on which they will be judged.

The bad news is that there is a lack of specific provision for parks and green spaces in the new national indicators. But parks specialists believe there are, nevertheless, a significant number of indicators where green space managers can and must emphasise the contribution of their parks.

One way to do this is through creating a parks and green space strategy to map out quality standards and provision while developing a vision for the future - something that an increasing number of local authorities are doing.

Experts agree that creating a strategy could be a tentative step towards gaining more funding and even help give green places a statutory footing, particularly if the Local Area Agreement made between their council and central government prioritises open spaces.

Figures released by CABE Space last month show that only nine per cent of local authorities now have no green space strategy, with the others at some stage in the process of creating or having completed such a plan.

Natural England's senior enabling adviser Lucy Heath hopes that green space strategies will go on to form part of each area's Local Development Framework, the overarching folder of documents that outline how planning will be managed.

Indeed, the new Bristol strategy, adopted last month, states: "Work is currently taking place to produce the Bristol Development Framework (BDF), a new planning framework for the city, and it is anticipated that the standards will be incorporated into the adopted BDF."

The framework can help to inform which targets the local authority agrees to meet, under its Local Area Agreement.

Heath says there are six of the national indicators that are really important in relation to green space.

She explains that these include targets such as improved local biodiversity and access to facilities by public transport, walking and cycling.

The national indicators are categorised into four main headings: Stronger and Safer Communities; Children and Young People; Adult Health and Well-being and Tackling Exclusion and Promoting Equality; and Local Economy and Environmental Sustainability.

GreenSpace general and business development manager Dave Tibbatts believes parks teams should make sure they emphasise the role parks play in all four themes. "A good park that's a focal point for communities should bring people together and add to community cohesion. There's a very strong argument for parks in local area agreements because they can hit every theme that covers the national indicators," he says.

Tibbatts stresses that a green space strategy must be of such high quality that it recommends the service to local authority decision makers and safeguards it for the future.

The 2002 Planning Policy Guidance 17 (PPG 17) from the Government has been a significant factor in ensuring that quality, agree Tibbatts and Heath.

Tibbatts adds: "We're required to associate ourselves with indicators that don't deal with parks specifically, so we have to be more strategic about getting parks measured in several indicators.

"That comes down to getting recognition from colleagues at the local authority that parks have a role to play; a strategy can show how you're fitting into those themes."

Land Use Consultants environmental planner Emma Deen has been researching the extent to which green space strategies are delivering access to nature, assessing access to natural green space and contributing to delivering national indicators.

She says: "There is now considerable evidence available on the numerous social, economic and environmental benefits of green-space provision."

Deen adds findings from the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, coupled with the National Audit Office's 2006 report on green space strategies, show that where urban local authorities had compiled strategies, over 70 per cent of green space managers thought they helped strengthen support for green space among other officers and local politicians.

Collaboration between parks teams and other departments of local authorities seems to be a key message in emphasising the critical importance of green spaces, and in accessing cash.

CABE Space's head of public space Peter Neal highlights the possibility of giving green spaces some statutory clout through seeking adoption of a green space strategy as a Supplementary Planning Document.

He says this can be achieved by closely working with the local authority planning department. "Quite clearly local authorities have statutory objectives and responsibilities," explains Neal. "Having a good strategy allows you to work with the statutory planning system to deliver a good parks service. The important thing is to work collaboratively with the planning department, which will really help get that statutory basis."

The University of Sheffield's Department of Landscape senior lecturer Helen Woolley has researched green space strategies and agrees that a statutory grounding could be achieved through working with planning departments.

"A lot of authorities are a long way down the road with these strategies and they can become part of the Local Development Framework by virtue of becoming a Supplementary Planning Document," explains Woolley.

The lack of specific provision for parks and green spaces in the new national indicators concerns Woolley greatly, but she says the Government has been paying increasing attention to the sector.

"The Government has listened to some extent and when PPG 17 was last revised, the quality issue came up as well as the quantity and that has come out in the strategies."

But she stresses: "I am disappointed that the indicators don't include something to do with parks and open spaces - we are still taking our parks too much for granted."

"The social and health benefits of parks and green spaces can't easily be turned into an economic value."


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