Submissions to parks inquiry reveal big park concerns

Parks managers, staff, charities, community groups and users have urged MPs to recommend that parks are better funded and protected in their submissions to the Commons Communities & Local Government Committee parks inquiry.

Parks: inquiry submissions include fears that constant cuts to green space budgets will mean further deterioration - image: Peter Neal
Parks: inquiry submissions include fears that constant cuts to green space budgets will mean further deterioration - image: Peter Neal

Deteriorating parks, rapidly-disappearing skilled staff, an over-reliance on volunteers and a general feeling that the importance of parks for well-being, children's development, biodiversity and the environment is obvious yet being missed are common themes throughout.

Many submissions call for a more joined-up approach to parks policy, with a parks lottery, taxing unhealthy food and levies on business among the suggestions made for the future viability of our parks and green spaces.

The committee received nearly 400 formal written submissions, more than 13,000 surveys completed online or face-to-face in parks and more than 4,186 templated emails as part of the We Own It campaign calling for parks to be made a statutory service. It published the first 250 responses online this week, with more to go online next week and the week after.

Many individuals and friends groups described harsh effects of austerity cuts on their parks. Birmingham resident Jane Edwards said: "In the last eight years I have watched their staff and resources cut to the bone. If we are not careful our parks will return to their late 20th century place in the community - a haunt of local gangs and drug dealers, littered with cans etc and shunned by the rest of the community."

Friends of Moss Bank Park in Bolton described buildings being condemned as unsafe, a pitch and putt course abandoned because of reduced mowing, an increase in Himalayan balsam, failure to unblock drains and resurface slippery paths and the closure of a wildlife garden and a mini zoo.

The friends pointed to "the lack of will and or resources by both the local council and police to deal with vandalism and crime in the park, especially overnight."

Friends of the Vines, a green space leased to Medway Council in Kent by the Church of England, described falling maintenance standards leading to a reliance on volunteers, which the group called "unsustainable". It added: "This important feature of well-being is unlikely to survive too long under the present modus operandi."

The Parks Alliance echoed this concern in its submission: "There is a thin line between drawing on the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers and exploiting their time and energy, and it is important that budget cuts do not force park managers over this line." The alliance recognised this same slide into decline in 2003. "The decline was not pronounced at first, but by the time it really impacted it took a colossal and concerted effort, backed up by sustained and substantially increased capital and revenue resources."

Despite 2.6 billion visits being made to the UK's parks each year, the alliance said it "is difficult to get a full understanding of how these assets are being used, managed or invested in. The lack of adequate data contributes to a situation in which public parks and open spaces are much loved by the public but are given a relatively low priority when it comes to policy and decision making at national level."

Health is a key feature in most of the submissions seen by Horticulture Week, particularly the role of green spaces to help combat our growing obesity problem. The Parks Alliance called parks "vital components of the NHS" with many members of the public using them as "free gyms".

Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman, who made a personal rather than professional submission, suggested new "green" taxes on fast food/sweets/soft drinks, mobile phones, alcohol or gambling, or refocusing the sugar tax levy to support parks rather than supporting organised sport, "which just supports fit people getting fitter". He said that for every £1 spent on establishing healthy walking schemes the NHS could save £7.18.

Charity Learning through Landscape (LTL) and the Association of Play Industries (API) both focused on parks as essential places for children. LTL said it is concerned that declining maintenance will lead to parks falling into disuse, while API said parks are often the only places children can go to play in a safe environment. LTL also pointed out that new legislation allows schools to open without school grounds and schools needing to build on existing grounds to accommodate more pupils, making parks all the more important.

The call for parks to be made a statutory service was a common call throughout. The Parks Alliance, which has previously said such a move would not necessarily solve parks' problems, pointed out in its submission that it would support it if there was no other "credible plan for ensuring the viability of our public parks and open spaces".

It added: "It is significant that public parks contribute to many statutory outcomes - for public health, biodiversity, flood control - without having statutory protection themselves."

The committee will also take into account 272,551 signatories to a 38 Degrees online petition and 4,186 templated emails organised by anti-privatisation pressure group We Own It, calling for parks to be made a statutory service.

Director Cat Hobbs said: "I think parks are a hugely emotional important issue for people as they are so vital to our quality of life. Any threat to parks is something the public gets very upset about and rightly so. We don't need all these different new funding solutions. We just need funding and lovely parks. That's what people want."

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