Government should have a "corporate minister" for parks with the ability to provide "strategic leadership that can make connections," MPs heard as landscape and planning experts joined local authority representatives as witnesses in the second public sitting of the parks inquiry.
The dearth of national leadership and a national professional network for the parks sector, and haemorrhaging of skills from councils struggling with funding cuts were among subjects covered in the session, alongside funding, income generation, making parks a statutory duty, planning, devolution, safety, green infrastructure and volunteering.
Landscape Institute president Merrick Denton-Thompson said a director in the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) to support the corporate minister is the only way for Government "to take green infrastructure very, very seriously, along with all the new demands under natural capital and biodiversity, clean water and clean air".
He said the lack of clarity between Defra and the DCLG with regard to parks - an issue long complained of in the parks sector - is "a real mess" with unclear messages from Government.
Town & Country Planning Association projects and operations director Julia Thrift agreed that it is "a muddle", saying the problem is "parks always come bottom of the list and they are neglected and forgotten", with Defra, DCLG, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, NHS and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy all responsible for different aspects of green space.
She said parks provide multiple benefits "without us really trying" but the potential is enormous if we are "bold and ambitious, realising that we have inherited this fantastic portfolio of assets that we should make the most of".
Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) policy and networks manager James Harris said such co-ordination is needed for devolution negotiations. The RTPI thinks devolved authorities should develop a green infrastructure plan to justify funds.
However, Denton-Thompson pointed out that the public sector has haemorrhaged landscape architects - "we believe it's well over 50 per cent" - the very professionals who could help with green infrastructure masterplanning.
The issue of a professional "national network" to collect and collate data and share innovation, best practice and training came up again at this session. Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow Rushanara Ali hinted that this is something the committee might pursue.
Questioning representatives from local authorities in Stockport, Birmingham, Kent and Camden, MPs also got a sense of the true scale of how the cuts are affecting parks across England. It is not just a case of cutting back - local authorities are withdrawing from some services altogether.
Ali, whose constituent Alexia Walenkaki died after poorly-maintained play equipment in Mile End Park collapsed on her, asked the local authority panel if they are concerned that cuts are making play equipment dangerous.
It is "a major concern", said Birmingham City Council's cabinet member for clean streets, recycling and environment Lisa Trickett, who was due to meet councillors this week to discuss closing play areas because Birmingham cannot afford to maintain or replace the equipment.
Stockport has already lost play equipment in a shift that has seen woodland and meadow areas left without maintenance. Both councils are making play areas "naturalistic"
- boulders or grass lumps that do not require upkeep or fall under British standards for play equipment. Stockport has no money to replace bins or benches, said green space manager Ian Walmsley, and cutting staff has led to a rise in antisocial behaviour.
Volunteers and supervision
Conservative Harrow East MP Bob Blackman asked about volunteers and supervision. Kent attracts around 14,000 hours of volunteer time annually, said Kent County Council cabinet member for environment and transport Matthew Balfour. "We have fantastic teams of rangers and educationalists and we do not want to lose them because they are the lifeblood of that service."
Trickett was also concerned for Birmingham's 60,000 volunteer hours per year, saying park rangers, whose numbers are under threat in the next round of cuts, "have been absolutely critical in terms of supporting the volunteers". But Walmsley, who has already had to cut his park rangers, said Stockport simply has to become less risk-averse and to a certain extent "let them get on with it".
Historian Dr Katy Layton-Jones, representing the Gardens Trust, warned that volunteers are put off by the monetisation of parks, which she said have "special status" that people want to protect. As with the first session, MPs asked council representatives whether parks should be a statutory service, after a 300,000-signature petition calling for this at the first public session last month.
London Borough of Camden green space manager Ian Hinchley said it would be ridiculous to try and set a local standard nationally, while Walmsley said a statutory duty could be a greater threat to parks if it is badly defined. Balfour said making country parks a statutory duty "would be extraordinarily difficult". Trickett pointed out that "the budget situation is so awful" that it would not matter because there is not enough money for even statutory services.