Parks professionals have issued a plea to MPs to help tackle the parks crisis at the first oral sessions of the Communities and Local Government Committee parks inquiry this week.
Committee members heard how the parks sector was blessed with talented and innovative people but was haemorrhaging skilled staff at a time when parks managers need more wide-ranging skills than ever, with those remaining operating in a fragmented sector without the support they require.
Giving evidence, Parks Alliance vice-chair Sue Ireland said of parks' importance: "If we were to sum it up, it's all about quality of life. As a sector we've been trying to resolve these issues by ourselves and it's not getting any better. We need help."
Ireland told MPs about the lack of useful parks data, a longstanding concern of parks professionals, and outlined sector fears about cash-strapped parks becoming semi-derelict no-go areas.
Mary Robinson MP asked if local authorities had the right skills for the huge parks challenge. Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) head of landscape and natural heritage Drew Bennellick said: "I don't think they do. Parks managers to some extent are rabbits in the headlights, there is need to help people through this transition over the next three to five years. They have to make big decisions with very little resources." He called for a parks "centre of excellence". Ireland said that sector professionals needed new skills and were keen to learn them but that there is a desperate need for a shared resource.
National Trust assistant director of external affairs Ellie Robinson said that the loss of CABE Space and Greenspace had made life difficult for local authorities, who are "all reinventing the wheel", and said the committee had the knowledge and skills to look at the issue strategically and suggest national solutions.
In three sessions at Parliament's Portcullis House, lasting two hours, the Communities and Local Government Committee covered issues including park deterioration, physical and mental health and well-being, the obesity crisis, loss of skilled staff, whether parks should be a statutory duty, green infrastructure, housing and green space and the importance of parks to groups including wheelchair users, dog walkers and children.
Ireland, who gave evidence alongside parks consultant Peter Neal, Bennellick and Robinson, said after the session: "I think we were very fortunate in having the four of us, between us having a wide range of relevant experience. All the issues we wanted to cover, we were able to cover."
The committee was particularly interested in hearing whether parks should be made a statutory service after receiving a 300,000-signature petition calling for this. National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces chair Dave Morris said the general public thinks parks already are a statutory service: "They don't think it's possible not to run a park property."
Sport and Recreation Alliance chief executive Emma Boggis said statutory status would not be necessary if local authorities could be made to realise the value of parks.
Playing devil's advocate, committee chair Clive Betts MP said libraries were a statutory service but were being closed across the county. Bennellick suggested making collection of data a statutory duty, saying there was "a massive vacuum of data". Neal said the quality of parks services were polarised with deprived communities "at the end of the queue". A statutory duty would allow parks to compete more equally with other services, he said. He also called for data collection; for example, spend per head of population. He said there was value in looking at green infrastructure as a whole: "We need to get more out of the planning system."
Speaking after the session, Neal said it was encouraging the committee was looking at the issue of statutory service. "It's also great that the committee is going to take on two more sets of evidence. I hope there will be a clear local authority perspective. The committee needs to take evidence from some of the most challenged and the most successful local authorities in the country."
Alison Thewliss MP asked if there was too much focus on housing and not enough on parks. Ireland responded: "Green infrastructure isn't understood. If you plan roads, green infrastructure should be there right at the beginning. "
David Mackintosh MP was interested in the natural capital of parks, giving Ellie Robinson an opportunity to speak about research by Vivid Economics which valued Sheffield's parks as worth £1.2bn and the National Trust's work on parks trusts (News, p5). Other funding options were touched on, including a real estate transfer tax and business levies.
Thewliss asked why people had not noticed the effects of the crisis yet. Morris said parks were facing the same serious crisis they faced 30 years ago and from which they had still had not recovered. This time, however, parks had the "canary in the mine" of friends groups.
"This time we can act fast. We are having this crisis meeting now as the crisis is beginning to bite. People aren't seeing behind the scenes. All the pillars of support for frontline staff and friends groups are collapsing. We are facing a very bleak future that needs to be resolved."