The Parks Alliance (TPA) vice-chair Sue Ireland, who gave evidence alongside parks consultant Peter Neal, Heritage Lottery Fund head of landscape and natural heritage Drew Bennelick and National Trust (NT) assistant director of external affairs Ellie Robinson, said she was pleased the panel was able to talk about most of the issues that have been preoccupying the sector for years, in three sessions lasting two hours, in Parliament’s Portcullis House yesterday (24 October).
Ireland said TPA’s call for more data and for data to set strategy at government and local authority level was clear. "If it wasn’t for the HLF we would really struggle."
She added: "Given there were friends groups there, we were able to talk about the importance volunteers provide for us but not taking them beyond where they are comfortable."
Ireland expressed concern at the shortage of written submissions to the inquiry from local authorities.
"I think that demonstrates the challenge that local authorities are facing, they haven’t got resources to do anything. The TPA are keen to support local authorities at this time. This is about supporting them for the future."
However she said the NT getting involved was "a big win" for the parks sector.
Robinson said: "Today was a really useful scene setter and it got a lot of the key issues on the table. We’re really grateful to the committee for running this inquiry. The biggest worry is that this is a silent crisis."
She said the committee were used to drilling into issues affecting local authorities and would be able to draw parallels with other inquiries. "They can help reposition parks. It isn’t just a communities and local government issue. They can see the issue for health and wider well-being."
Parks consultant Peter Neal, who wrote both Heritage Lottery Fund State of UK Public Parks reports, said it had been a wide-ranging discussion with the question of whether parks should be made a statutory service central. He said he hoped the committee would also hear from "the most challenged and the most successful local authorities around the country".
Park deterioration, physical and mental health and well-being, the obesity crisis, loss of skilled staff, lack of data, social cohesion, whether parks should be a statutory duty, planning, green infrastructure, housing and green space, alternative funding models and the importance of parks to groups including wheelchair users, runners, dog walkers and children were all explored during the sessions.
Before they started, committee MPs received a petition of 317,740 signatures from campaign group 38 Degrees, calling for parks to be made a statutory service. It was delivered by 10-year-old regular parks user Baxter, who gave evidence alongside signatories and 38 Degrees campaigns director Charlotte Woodworth.
Baxter said he spent hours playing in the park every week, spent birthdays and met friends there.
"If we didn’t have parks I don’t know what I would do," he said. "I’d have to go outside Lambeth, maybe even outside of London to get some fresh air."
Signatory and wheelchair user Ceri Love made the point those well-maintained parks provided wheelchair-friendly access to nature because paths are safe and smooth, not the case in the countryside. She added that they provided spaces for people from all cultures to meet and relax together.
Also giving evidence were chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces Dave Morris, Chair, Ben Shimshon, founding partner of Britain Thinks, Emma Boggis, chief executive of the Sports and Recreation Alliance, and Will Smithard, strategic projects director of ukactive.
For an in-depth report, see the next issue of Horticulture Week, out on Friday.