Although it has taken a long time, the parks crisis has finally got the attention of Westminster. Last week MPs gave their emphatic agreement with the sector that parks are "at a tipping point" in danger of "severe consequences" in the long-awaited report of the Commons select committee inquiry into public parks. As Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman notes, recognition that there is a problem "is a big, big step". But this recognition is tempered with disappointment in the sector about the strength of several of the recommendations.
Parks experts appreciate the attention and rigour shown by the committee in processing what was a very popular inquiry, with more than 350,000 submissions. There was a widespread appreciation that the MPs have taken all the evidence on board, recognised the value of parks - to health and well-being, the environment, climate change mitigation, community, biodiversity and leisure - and come to conclusions about the status quo that will be recognised across the sector.
"We too are worried about the potential deterioration or even loss of a service which is of great value, both as an amenity and for the contribution which parks make to wider policy objectives including community cohesion, improvement of air quality and biodiversity," the report states. "The actions taken thus far by local authorities and volunteers have mitigated the effect of budget reductions in the short term, but this support may not be sustainable in the longer term."
The report notes early on that parks are "a heavily used, much valued service", "treasured assets" and not "problems to be solved", recognising the strong response and "the strength of feeling and passion with which people described their parks".
Far from being a dry analysis, the report is peppered with the submissions of individual park users from schoolchildren to adults with mental and physical health issues who see their park as a lifeline, bringing home both the positive impact that public green spaces have on our lives and fears over the negative impact of losing them.
Parks consultant and author of the two Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) State of UK Public Parks reports Peter Neal praised the construction of the report, calling it "a good synthesis and summary of all the material that was submitted." He says the report "sets out the challenges, the issues and the value of parks well", something that is important because the parks sector hopes the report will be read in the corridors of power - and read widely. The Parks Alliance chairman Matthew Bradbury says the report "puts parks on the parliamentary agenda. That's the thing that's absolutely vital."
National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces chairman Dave Morris says it shows "vital but vulnerable spaces are being plunged into crisis by savage Government cuts to public services". Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman adds: "Recognition that there is a problem is a big, big step."
He adds: "We will all welcome the acknowledgement at Government level that parks are facing a real crisis. It's also great to finally see them acknowledged for all their wider contributions to society and not just being judged on the cost of cutting the grass. However, this report can only be the start of a much bigger national debate on parks."
Historian Dr Katy Layton-Jones, who published her Gardens Trust-commissioned analysis of the effect of austerity on parks, Uncertain Prospects, during the inquiry, says: "The committee conceded wholeheartedly that our parks are in crisis. It's a fair assessment and they're right, and they don't pull any punches."
Mixed response to recommendations
The report's recommendations, however, have met with a much more mixed response from the sector. Layton-Jones points out that there is no substantial commitment to the central problem of funding, with the focus shifted onto management. Nottingham City Council head of parks and open spaces Eddie Curry, who appeared as an inquiry witness in his role as chair of The Core Cities parks and green spaces group, thinks "some of the recommendations could be stronger. There's nothing radical, nothing transformational."
The committee did not recommend making parks a statutory service or establishing a national agency to fill the gap left by the loss of CABE Space and Green Space. Layton-Jones says this was the least being hoped for. "We needed big answers to a big problem and what we got was a restatement of evidence. It doesn't feel like the document moves the case for parks forward. I'm disappointed by it."
"The sector was looking for more," says Greenspace Scotland chief executive Julie Procter. "One thing we all expected to see in there was some kind of hub for sharing best practice. There's nothing coming through about the skills needed to deliver a parks service for the 21st century." Bradbury agrees, saying: "I don't think it goes far enough. It's the first stage". Curry calls it "a missed opportunity".
No statutory service
Procter says many in the parks sector will be disappointed at the lack of a statutory service recommendation. Bradbury adds: "Some people were quietly hoping it would emerge as a serious option but most probably thought it wouldn't, with so many other things taking precedence and the NHS in crisis."
Instead the committee puts its faith in the minister for parks, Andrew Percy. During the last public evidence session of the inquiry, Percy pledged to establish a cross-departmental group to examine the committee's findings and to release a small amount of transitional funding to support local councils developing alternative funding models.
The committee hopes this will be "made available without delay". Neal welcomes this but adds: "At this point there's little evidence of new money. There's a limited amount that park managers can take away to help them over the next two years."
This move only frustrates Layton-Jones. "Throughout the process people have been saying it's not a lack of strategy, it's a lack of money to support it," she explains. "There's nothing in that document that reassures me that parks will be funded properly in the next decade."
The report calls for the minister and cross-departmental group to look into alternative funding models, provide sector "co-ordination and leadership", oversee strategies, collect parks accident data, investigate the role of parks within green infrastructure, monitor the distribution of green space among communities, investigate accessing public health funds for parks and regularly report back to Parliament.
As Neal points out: "Percy has 12 responsibilities and parks is the last one. He has some really high-profile responsibilities and a very broad portfolio. Does he have the capacity to give this agenda time and proper leadership with all his competing priorities?" He says there is "rather a missed opportunity to commission a task force to really drive this. There's no reason why this cross-parliamentary group couldn't create a task force from across the sector to support their work."
Curry says he would have liked to have seen one of the Government bodies assigned to taking a leading role in partnership with a sector organisation such as the Landscape Institute, The Parks Alliance or Keep Britain Tidy. "There could have been some core funding or support to make these organisations expand their briefs a bit more." Bradbury for one will be pushing for a meeting with the minister and putting The Parks Alliance forward as a partner to Government.
Instead of a national agency or centre of excellence, the committee has recommended that the minister's cross-departmental group works with the Local Government Association (LGA) to establish and support a network of park manager forums in England, learning from the approach taken in Scotland, and "an online parks information hub" for local authorities to "facilitate the sharing of learning and good practice, and to provide signposting to other sources of information or advice".
Curry comments: "The reality is a website isn't the best way to engage people. The opportunity to create a national body that had some kind of lead role is something that needs to be worked through." Procter says online has advantages but sometimes people need to get together.
Meanwhile, parks managers' forums need capacity to get going. "We had a productive network of forums under Green Space," notes Procter. Greenspace Scotland had seed funding from the HLF to set up its system. Now it is seeking corporate sponsorship. Procter is not sure how an English network can happen without any support.
Neal hopes the minister and the cross-departmental group "can rise to the opportunity and the ambition". He adds: "We hope we don't just end up with a website. We established the parks movement. We've had a phenomenal track record and history. We have to do that with a centre of excellence to show the way forward with the challenges that we now face. We have pressing issues. We need a centre of excellence to really pool that thinking and build that reputation and profile, and we won't get that with a website."
The LGA's capacity to facilitate these two recommendations is also an issue, particularly since lack of local authority funding is parks' central problem. For Neal the recommendations are baffling: "The LGA has shown no leadership in this agenda. They contributed no evidence to the inquiry and were not called to be a witness. It's quite a significant role for the LGA and their track record has been limited."
The committee also decided not to recommend local authorities appoint local "parks champions", which the HLF called for in its 2014 State of UK Public Parks report. "However, we are concerned that, in practice, the parks champion title would simply be applied to those senior officers and members who already have responsibility for parks and green spaces, and would not, therefore, make a significant difference to the status quo."
Bradbury says The Parks Alliance members are surprised at the committee's stance, while Neal suggests the committee "missed a trick". Curry is one advocate, pointing out that Nottingham's parks champion has been very effective.
Collaborative parks strategies
However, experts do welcome a recommendation for the minister to issue "very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with health and well-being boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies", even though the committee stopped short of recommending this be made a statutory duty.
But it does recommend that the cross-departmental group monitor the preparation and publication of joint health and green space strategies, and report annually on progress through written statements to Parliament. Making this a statutory duty is only recommended should ministerial guidance prove ineffective or the strategies fail to raise the profile of parks, says the committee.
"Being clear about that strong relationship between parks and public health and the strategies' health and well-being boards is excellent. It goes back to the roots of the public parks movement and provides a useful mechanism to formalise that relationship," says Neal. He thinks this recommendation does have the power to be transformational for the sector if taken forward.
The report's focus on inequality in parks provision could also be powerful, he says. But where the report falls short in its recommendations is how they will be implemented, notes Bradbury, who vows that The Parks Alliance will fight on. "Now the sector needs to back the recommendations and make sure something is done about them."
So will Morris and the army of passionate "friends of" parks he represents. "I think the inquiry has been very important in mobilising those that care about public green spaces to speak out on what needs to be done," he says.
There is no time to waste. "If we have another decade of looking and considering and reviewing, it will be too late," warns Layton-Jones. Procter adds: "It feels like they've let the Government off the hook. It's very frustrating. But as a sector we need to focus on what do we need to do next."
Uncertain prospects - Public parks in the new age of austerity
In her report for the Gardens Trust, Uncertain Prospects, University of Leicester academic Dr Katy Layton-Jones found that since 2010 austerity cuts have marked the beginning of the end of a parks renaissance started by the launch of the Heritage Lottery Fund's urban parks programme in 1996.
"The general trend is clear. As a result of austerity cuts we will have more parks in declining condition in 2020 than we did in 1998," she says. "That is a terrible indictment of what Government policy is doing to parks."
The report recommended park maintenance should be made a statutory duty for local authorities, identifying baseline funding requirements for all parks, that local authorities should be enabled to introduce local taxation to fund parks and a recognition that for the vast majority of public parks there is no alternative to local authority ownership and management.
The report was edited by parks consultant Dave Lambert.
KEY FACTS - PARKS INQUIRY REPORT
- Nearly 400 formal written evidence submissions.
- More than 13,000 survey responses.
- More than 900 tweets on its hashtag - #myparkmatters.
- Four formal oral evidence sessions involving 27 witnesses.
- A petition signed by more than 322,000 people calling for protection for parks.
- More than 4,000 emails campaigning against any privatisation of parks.