Parks inquiry: evidence stacks up

The importance and value of parks remain undiminished.

Need for park management plans and adequate resources requires continued address (credit: Peter Neal)
Need for park management plans and adequate resources requires continued address (credit: Peter Neal)

Parks experts have expressed their satisfaction with the scale and quality of evidence submitted to the Communities & Local Government Committee, after it received nearly 400 written submissions, but sounded a note of concern at how little the parks debate has moved on since the last inquiry in 2003.

Committee chair Clive Betts MP said an "excellent response" to the call for evidence proved how much people value open spaces. Most submissions give a detailed and depressing account of the damage caused to parks across the country by severe budget cuts, with many also suggesting ways of stemming the devastation. Issues raised ranged from fears over the commercialisation of parks to the need for new funding models.

As well as input from organisations, some of the most respected names in parks and green spaces gave disturbing examples of the plight of our parks. Consultant and former director of Mile End Park Mike Rowan spelled out an all-too-familiar spiral.

"A park falls into decline as resources are withdrawn," he wrote. "Staffing and maintenance of infrastructure is reduced and standards of horticulture plummet. Graffiti, vandalism and litter are left unchecked and the site is abandoned."

Parks consultant Dr Sid Sullivan told Horticulture Week: "My impression of the published evidence to date is it is far superior than I have previously seen from other reviews. Evidence is well structured and argued, especially from friends groups. They are a force for good, intelligent and resourceful. But they need professional and political support, money and skills building."

However, he said there was too much history and too little future-based commentary, adding that the inquiry needs more opinion on how future needs might be arranged, financed and led. The debate, he said, is "far more profound" than a "parks issue". It is a huge urban dilemma on how to meet physical and community needs in an age of unremitting pressure on communities and limits on private space.

"There is acknowledgement of funding models used in the US and the need to exercise caution about importing wholesale so called 'solutions' from other countries that may not fit the cultural and aesthetic mores within the UK. There are, however, other approaches applied in the Far East and the Nordic nations that are not mentioned but are worthy of review."

Sullivan added: "One group submitting evidence was against 'naming rights' as the concession for private donations. This will have to be reconsidered; if a large private donation is given the funder will expect some acknowledgement. But I'm surprised there are no references to the possibility of a borough-wide alliance of park groups to submit bids and funding requests. Friends groups and councillors could be tasked with income generation, match funding and seeking philanthropic contributions."

He said he has still seen no mention of who is supporting the inquiry, technically and professionally, to help its members draw out the primary issues. A spokesman for the committee said there "is no adviser and no plans to appoint one for the inquiry". Following October's oral session there are likely to be two or three more public sessions before Christmas. The report is likely to be published in the new year.

Parks Alliance vice-chair Sue Ireland, who gave oral evidence to the committee on 24 October, told Horticulture Week: "The number of submissions is excellent and wide ranging. It really shows the level of interest, importance and value that people place on parks; they are clearly important for everyone. The alliance was pleased to be invited to present to the select committee and I think we will be able to say more in the weeks following oral evidence from all those taking part."

Statutory public service

Also giving evidence was National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces chair Dave Morris, who told Horticulture Week: "Having campaigned for such an inquiry we are encouraged by the volume, detail and passion of the responses. Most significantly we welcome the widespread calls for parks to become a statutory public service and be properly funded.

"These crucial demands are given even greater weight by the hundreds of thousands who signed a special September petition to this effect, and a following opinion poll showing 75 per cent of the public agree. We are calling on the committee to adopt these recommendations, which simply mirror those from 2003 put forward by their forerunners from the last select committee on the future of parks."

But Parks Agency director Dr Stewart Harding, who co-wrote the agency's evidence to the inquiry, was "irked and depressed" that nothing could seem to stop parks from sliding back into the "woeful condition we found them in back in 1996". He said much of what is emerging from the pool of new evidence is "very deja vu".

"I wish the lessons we learned in the subsequent years about the need for staffing, management plans, adequate resources and top-quality presentation had been heeded instead of being ignored by decision-makers. We get the parks we pay for. It was always that simple and always will be. There's no mystery in either the problem or the solution."

Landscape consultant Peter Neal, who wrote both the Heritage Lottery Fund's State of UK Public Parks reports in 2014 and 2016, was more upbeat: "The volume of written evidence is massive. Yet more is to be published, but this already far exceeds the 60 or so written items submitted for the Town & Country Parks Inquiry in 1999.

"Add to this over 13,000 responses to the House of Commons survey, extensive posts on social media and over 270,000 petitioners for statutory protection and it is a clear indication of the immense passion and concern people have for their parks.

"This evidence provides a wealth of insight from many individuals, large numbers of friends groups, specialist interest groups, park managers, agencies, trusts, professional bodies and even letters from primary schoolchildren. With the oral evidence to follow, the committee will have its work cut out to distil the salient and strategic measures that can secure the future of our parks."

Author and expert on children and the environment Tim Gill helped the Children's Play Policy Forum prepare its submission. Children and families are the biggest user group and the forum is most concerned about cuts.

"Yet a Freedom of Information request three years ago showed spending on play provision by English local authorities fell by nearly 40 per cent between 2010 and 2013," he said. "Our submission recognises the potential for new funding streams and other opportunities to lever in resources such as volunteering. However, these are likely to be hardest to secure in the communities that are most disadvantaged."

Park life: Meeting community needs in an age of pressure

- There an estimated 27,000 public parks in Britain.

- Local authorities have no statutory duty to fund and maintain public parks.

- A 2014 report by the Heritage Lottery Fund found 86 per cent of parks managers had seen cuts to their budgets since 2010.

- An estimated 2.6 billion visits are made to public parks each year.

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