Parks Inquiry report calls for national leadership to save parks at 'tipping point'

The long-awaited parks inquiry report has stopped short at calling for a national agency for the parks sector, instead recommending the parks minister work with local authorities to establish a park managers' forum and 'online hub'.

Newcastle is one city looking at alternative funding models for its parks. Image: Newcastle City Council
Newcastle is one city looking at alternative funding models for its parks. Image: Newcastle City Council

The Communities and Local Government Committee parks report, published today, called for "leadership and vision at the level of national Government", recommending that parks minister Andrew Percy should work with the cross-departmental group he pledged to establish during the inquiry to:

  • Issue "very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies". It recommends that the cross-departmental group monitor the preparation and publication of the strategies, and report annually on progress made, through written statements to Parliament.
  • Work 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".
  • Work with local authorities pioneering alternative management models or funding arrangements, to "address the barriers and manage the risks which arise and identify additional transitional support or funding" which may help development of the models. 
  • "Encourage and facilitate" the evaluation and benchmarking of these models and share best practice.
  • Work with Defra to ensure that parks, and green infrastructure more widely, are properly recognised in the Government’s forthcoming 25-year Environment Plan.
  • Publish details of the cross-departmental group’s membership, terms of reference and priorities.
  • Publish annual written statements to Parliament providing an update on the group’s activity, progress made against the committee’s recommendations, and the progress made by local authorities and Health and Wellbeing Boards on green space strategies.

Committee chair Clive Betts said: "Every local authority should have a strategic plan, recognising that parks are much more than just grass and tulips and bringing in resources from outside the traditional budgets. Parks make vital contributions to physical and mental health and bring significant community benefits. They also contribute to biodiversity and climate change mitigation and can assist in local economic growth.

"Parks are treasured public assets, as the overwhelming response to our inquiry demonstrates, but they are at a tipping point, and if we are to prevent a period of decline with potentially severe consequences then action must be taken. The Government have a leadership and co-ordination role to play and volunteers do fantastic work in the sector, but the primary responsibility lies with local authorities."

The committee acknowledged that pressures on budgets may disproportionately disadvantage discretionary services, such as parks but did not recommend that parks' maintenance be made a statutory duty. This "could be burdensome and complex" and MPs were not convinced it "would achieve the intended outcomes".

Chairman of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces Dave Morris, who has long-campaigned on this issue, said: "It is disappointing that the select committee has not insisted on that as the crisis will continue to spiral out of control until the Government takes its responsibility for that crisis and the urgently-needed solutions seriously.

"There is no alternative but for the government to make the management of parks a statutory service backed up by adequate public funding."

The committee also did not recommend that local authorities should appoint locally elected ‘parks champions’, saying that while members recognised the benefits in principle, "in practice, the parks champion title would simply be applied to those senior officers and members who already have responsibility parks and green spaces, and would not, therefore, make a significant difference to the status quo".

It said that Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy payments should be used for on-going maintenance.

It also pledged to return to the issue before the end of this Parliament. Betts said: "We call on everyone who cares about parks to be our eyes and ears on the ground, particularly those who contributed to our inquiry, and keep up the pressure on national and local government."

The report makes clear that parks are "valued assets" and not "problems to be solved". Committee members spoke of their concern about "the 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".

It said that "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".

So far the parks sector has responded with disappointment that the report did not go further, but appreciation of its summary of the issues and concerns expressed by those who took part in the inquiry.

The Landscape Institute (LI) said the report had not gone far enough and called on the Government to review the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to ensure that parks, green spaces and green infrastructure (GI) are "appropriately planned, designed and managed to achieve multiple benefits for society".

The LI said in a statement that "a demonstration of national leadership and commitment at the highest level with the Prime Minister endorsing the parks minister with a corporate responsibility to connect across Government on the issues of health, wellbeing, education and natural capital of which parks are key".

"The Communities and Local Government Committee’s report also called for a government cross-departmental group to assess whether the planning guidance for local authorities on GI frameworks provides both for parks and for their role as a part of GI networks. But the Landscape Institute believes it is the NPPF which must be improved to help reimagine our green spaces and meet the needs of the future. We are not designing, managing and maintaining green spaces for optimum value to society." The Institute, in a joint letter to the Committee with the Town and Country Planning Association, has previously outlined how this might be achieved.

LI president Merrick Denton-Thompson, said: "We need a demonstration of national leadership and commitment at the highest level. I would hope that the Prime Minister endorses the parks minister with a corporate responsibility to connect all the silos in government of health, wellbeing, education, natural capital – including biodiversity, climate change and economic performance that are all impacted by the outcomes of GI. 

"It is clear to us that the NPPF is inadequate in terms of a coherent message which supports parks as a key component of green infrastructure, the green lungs of our towns and cities. I would like to see it improved, not least by strengthening the Duty to Cooperate.  Amending NPPF is unlikely to be an attractive proposition for Government but changes need to be made."

Matthew Bradbury, chairman of The Parks Alliance, said: "We welcome the report but just see this as the start of the process to protect and enhance our parks. It gives all of us, the public, park professionals, local and central government the opportunity to seek solutions and avoid merely nursing our parks into a managed decline.

"It’s important that the committee has recognised that parks are central to our wellbeing but it is bitter sweet to read a report which confirms what we have believed for some time that parks are at a tipping point. They are at the heart of British life yet are a Cinderella service set against competing financial demands.

Chief executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund Ros Kerslake said: "Having invested more than £850 million of National Lottery players’ money in ensuring over 850 of the UK’s historic parks are in good shape, we welcome the recommendations of this report which puts their future front and centre of strategic local priorities. 

"Our State of UK Public Parks 2016 report revealed the immense financial pressures facing our public parks. But it also revealed just how important these spaces are to the health and well-being of local communities and they need to be protected." 

Harry Bowell, director of the north for the National Trust called the report "a 21st century wake-up call to all who care about the benefits parks bring to communities".

"It is full of practical proposals that show the problem can be solved if we act together now, with an ambition and spirit that reflects people’s passion for their local parks.

"We hope the Government rises to the challenge set by the committee today and helps councils secure the future of urban green space for the wellbeing and prosperity of our towns and cities, before it’s too late."

  • For analysis and response to the report see next issue of Horticulture Week.

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