Chancellor George Osborne's much-feared Comprehensive Spending Review failed to deliver much relief for parks professionals, with one industry expert saying it will likely herald a return to the disastrous parks era of the 1980s.
The settlement includes reductions to local government grants of £6.1bn by 2019-20, although given forecast increases to other sources of local government income, overall local government spending will be higher in cash terms in 2019-20 than in 2015-16, Osborne insisted.
Julia Thrift, head of projects and events at the Town & Country Planning Association, said the funding cuts were "very tough". She added: "Some boroughs will keep funding major parks and green spaces. But in rural areas and small towns it will be very difficult or impossible to maintain parks in the way that we are used to.
"It is very difficult to sell off parks, but they will not be maintained. They will become shabby, there won't be rangers, there will be litter and people will be scared to go into them. Over the past 15 years a huge amount of money has gone into improving parks. This will be wasted."
Flexibility for local areas to set their own business rates will be "a double-edged sword", said Thrift. Local authorities such as those in the North East are likely to push rates downwards to attract businesses and create jobs, putting further pressure on spending.
Mark Camley, chair of The Parks Alliance, said the organisation is concerned about the risk of closures, sell-offs and a "drastic" drop in green space quality. "Parks are not a statutory duty, so local authorities may be tempted to prioritise other areas, and some councils have been talking about selling off parks and green spaces."
Although Big Lottery received a reprieve, it holds little comfort. "Lottery funding is good for one-off projects but it is far more important to think about long-term funding for the maintenance of existing parks," said Camley.
BALI said members that deliver local authority grounds maintenance contracts would be affected by both the cuts to departmental budgets and by the National Living Wage. "BALI contractors working for public-sector clients will find remaining competitive increasingly difficult," the association pointed out. BALI's National Contractors Forum will be lobbying hard to bring this to policymakers' attention.
"The Government acknowledges the benefits of natural green space with its protection of funding of £350m for Britain's national parks, forests and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and further £3bn investment in the countryside. It is time that 'managed' landscapes, including public parks, housing estate green infrastructure and urban landscapes were given equal priority and adequate funding," said the organisation.
Experts also said those concessions Osborne did make to local authorities should be seized. Green-space consultant Peter Neal pointed out that there are now more opportunities for local authorities to raise extra funds.
"Under the review they will be able to put up council tax by two per cent to pay for social welfare. This could potentially benefit parks and green space," he said. "I think that councils should have greater flexibility to spend money on agreed local priorities."
The review includes a commitment to spending on infrastructure, such as utilities and transport. Green infrastructure ought always to be included in these schemes, said Neal.
Sally Prothero, director at LDA Design specialising in parks projects and masterplanning, said local authorities will need to be creative to find funding sources. "For example, parks - especially those next to rivers or reservoirs - might be able to get hold of some of the money for alleviating floods. Parks departments might be able to get hold of some of the money available for housing - if they can show that the homes need some open space nearby."
More events will inevitably be held in parks, and cafes will become more popular because they make parks user-friendly, bring in revenue and incorporate toilets. But local authorities must beware the privatisation and commercialisation of their green space and will need to work closely with local groups to draw up masterplans, Prothero maintained.
Landscape Mixed reaction to housebuilding measures
Landscape professionals reacted with mixed views to Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of a doubling of the housing budget to £2bn per year, funding 400,000 new affordable homes by the end of the decade. BALI said this will undoubtedly benefit the landscape industry "provided planners take seriously the benefits of soft landscaping and horticulture to the health and welfare of people in the UK when designing housing developments".
Willerby Landscapes contracts director John Melmoe said the impacts on his business will be fairly minor, as did Landform Consultants managing director Mark Gregory. A planned extra 0.5 per cent payroll tax for apprenticeships will be an extra burden "but the economy is fairly buoyant so we can swallow that".
Peter Fane, managing director of commercial grounds maintenance company Nurture Landscapes, was also relieved there were not bigger cuts. But with 400 staff, Nurture will feel the sting of the payroll tax, which comes on top of new pension rules and the planned minimum wage rise.
Marshalls group marketing director Chris Harrop was particularly pleased by the announcement, saying the company will benefit strongly from any house-building bonanza. But Boningale Nurseries chairman Tim Edwards said although he was "relieved" that the cuts were not as painful as expected, he is sceptical about the Government’s housebuilding targets.