What's in store for parks and gardens in 2017?

The Government response to the parks inquiry report, funding, staffing and public profile.

Parks: hope that government inquiry will provide shelter from ongoing austerity - image: City of Edinburgh Council
Parks: hope that government inquiry will provide shelter from ongoing austerity - image: City of Edinburgh Council

For parks, a key feature of 2017 will be the eagerly awaited Communities & Local Government Committee's report into its parks inquiry, what it recommends and the Government's response. Parks professionals have been cheered by the pledge from parks minister Andrew Percy - the first minister to add the title to his job description on the Department for Communities & Local Government website - to establish a cross-governmental group of policymakers and stakeholders to look at the recommendations during his inquiry evidence session last month.

Overall there is a great deal of hope and even optimism about what will come out of the inquiry to provide shelter from what parks consultant Peter Neal calls "the fierce headwinds of austerity". But, as Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman says: "We could be in a very serious situation. It could go either way."

Strong response needed

Heritage Lottery Fund head of landscape Drew Bennelick hopes for rather than foresees "a strong Government response and good news for the most used public service after GPs and hospitals".

State of UK Public Parks 2016 author Neal says the report "highlighted that parks have reached a tipping point and hopefully 2017 will be the turning point. Leadership is urgently needed at all levels".

The committee could recommend that parks be made a statutory service. If this is taken up by the Government it will have huge implications for how parks are run, particularly those that rely on commercial revenue-raising. But the committee heard mixed views on whether this would help.

Watford Borough Council head of parks Paul Rabbitts said: "There are plenty of statutory services that are crap. Making parks a statutory service is not really an answer. The answer is we need more money but there is no more money. We're going to get something out of the inquiry, but I'm not sure what that is."

The call for some kind of national "centre of excellence" to collect and share data, best practice, innovation and training was one the committee could not fail to have heard. Neal said achieving such is an aspiration rather than an expectation, but would be "incredibly valuable and important" if it came to pass. He also hoped for a task force to take forward the issue of funding challenges and alternative funding models.

The idea of a corporate minister to cut across ministerial boundaries is "a sound recommendation" and "incredibly important" he added. "There's real concern that things will increasingly start to unravel in 2017 unless the issues are properly addressed. They can't be put off."

Landscape Institute president Merrick Denton-Thompson agreed, saying: "Without that corporate responsibility urban parks are going to continue to be undervalued with a disastrous impact on society. At the moment it's a pig's breakfast. I am confident that the select committee would have listened and understood that need."

There is a hope that the committee will recommend a broader, more imaginative answer to parks funding, diverting money from other departments to help pay for the multitude of societal benefits parks provide. Worman wants to see some of the estimated £520m raised by the sugar tax on drinks to go to parks, which "can make a huge difference to children's lives", rather than all going towards sport in primary schools. Funding parks "will make a difference to the obesity crisis and the spending crisis in the NHS".

Independent trust models

Alternative funding models, in particular trusts, were an important theme of the parks inquiry. Chief executive of The Parks Trust Milton Keynes David Foster said: "If the Government can develop an initiative that provides an incentive and supports local authorities to set up independent trust models to manage their parks that would be a really good start. Locally driven solutions are the answer but for them to take hold they will need a strategic, national approach to the parks problem."

New Parks Alliance chairman Matthew Bradbury, who is chief executive of Nene Park Trust, says trusts and other models "will always be part of the mix" but there is "no silver bullet". "To attract additional investment, public parks and open spaces need to benefit from a secure core grant. The experience of The Parks Alliance is that capital and specific project funding can, in many cases, be obtained but it is revenue funding that is under pressure." Without core funding and skilled parks professionals, creative solutions will be impossible.

At the coal face there will be no getting away from a really tough year for parks. Worman says issues will really begin to come to a head in 2017. Rabbitts adds: "There will be fewer of us. Over the next two-to-three years, with the revenue support grant taken from Government, it will really hit us. The lottery funded parks will continue to do well, but it's the older parks that will really struggle. There will be much more commercialisation. People are going to have to start paying more. People are not happy but you either pay for it or lose it."

Loss of specialism

Head of parks, gardens and cemeteries for Edinburgh City Council David Jamieson says the sector's greatest problem in 2017 will be the loss of specialism and professionalism, which will further diminish the importance of parks within local authorities. Bradbury agrees. "I expect the loss of experienced park staff will continue to be a significant issue," he says.

Jamieson says we will see more naturalisation of parks to save costs on maintenance but despite being driven by economics there are positive side effects. "We're getting more climate-resilient parks, biodiversity improvements and green networks in cities are getting more effective."

Neal says some local authorities will buck the trend, realise the importance of parks and continue to invest. "Those will be the winners in 2020," he points out. "Those that end up disinvesting will have an immense challenge to bring their parks back into working order."

At the same time, experts talk about 2017 being the year of the politicisation of parks. While friends groups and local campaigners have been very active on their local parks, this year could see more of a national movement, as councils draw yet more funds away from non-statutory services to fund social care, a crucial service but used by a narrower section of the population.

Worman says 2017 will see "a sea change" in how the public views parks. Neal adds: "Residents and local communities will increasingly wake up to the fact that they continue to pay their council tax, and at a higher rate in many cases, and realise that they are getting less for that money. They will become more vocal. Parks, because they are incredibly popular, will be a very powerful political policy agenda."

Elections for the seven city region mayors on 4 May could prove significant, if candidates choose to make parks a priority in their campaigns. May also brings local elections in Scotland, where Greenspace Scotland is planning to lead a campaign to galvanise voter lobbying. Jamieson says: "Elected representatives will listen more to their voters than their officers at a time when plenty of people are crying out for funding. For me that's where we as a sector need to focus our attention in helping our communities to help us."

The sector's access to data will also improve in 2017. Based on pilot studies in Manchester, Cumbria, Devon and East Anglia, the Natural Capital Committee is due to produce a form of toolkit to help people start the process of putting a monetary value on the benefits parks can bring, a factor that has not traditionally been costed.

The Royal Parks will merge with The Royal Parks Foundation this year to become a charity shaping its own destiny away from Government control. Chairman of The Royal Parks Guild Mike Fitt sees "a great future for The Royal Parks as the organisation becomes a charity and able to chart its own way forward".

Whatever the impact of the parks inquiry, parks will enjoy a higher profile in the public consciousness in 2017, and maybe this will even, finally, be the year they begin to get the recognition, if not the money, they deserve.

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