Nearly half of UK councils are considering selling off or otherwise disposing of the management of green spaces under their control, while public demand for parks is at a record high, research by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has found.
In its much-anticipated The State of UK Public Parks 2014 Renaissance to risk? the HLF has described a picture of a public parks landscape largely in good health but now teetering on the brink of serious decline, thanks to ongoing funding cuts.
The HLF sets out five calls to action to ensure that does not happen.
As local authorities find ways to balance their books, the HLF research found only 14 per cent of parks managers who responded have not had cuts to their revenue budgets, and 46 per cent report their capital budgets are secure. Further cuts expected by 87 per cent and cuts to capital budgets by 63 per cent, with a north-south divide in funding. For example, Liverpool City council parks department is losing half its £10m budget over the next three years.
Of parks managers surveyed (see box), 45 per cent say their local authority is considering selling or transferring management of parks or green spaces. Of these 19 per cent specify that it is parks which could go.
As well as cutting back, parks departments are revenue raising - 85 per cent plan to charge people to use parks facilities and 83 per cent already are, at a time when obesity is becoming a national epidemic.
The report states "those working in parks voice concern that by 2020 some local authority park services will no longer be viable" and refers to another report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which suggests local government may opt out of some non-statutory services altogether.
And yet our parks have never been more loved, with an estimated 2.6 billion visits a year. A total of 59 per cent of parks managers said their parks were in good condition, against just 18 per cent surveyed in 2001.
Of park users questioned in the IPSOS Mori survey, 50 per cent thought their parks were in good condition and 68 per cent thought spending time in them was important or essential to their lives. This rises to 71 per cent for park users living in urban areas and 81 per cent with those with children under 10. A total of 83 per cent of these families visited local parks at least once a month.
But, the report adds: "Evidence suggests the renaissance of our public parks that has been underway for the past 15 years is fast coming to an end."
Only 21 per cent of parks managers and 32 per cent of park users think their parks will continue to improve in the future and the report expresses concern about "the significant reduction in staffing over the past three years".
HLF head of landscape Drew Bennellick said: "This is the biggest and the largest study since 2001 and the widest study we've ever done."
The HLF commissioned three surveys: an online survey of council and trusts parks managers, a survey of park friends and user groups and a public opinion survey from Ipsos MORI, after asking Land Use Consultants to conduct a scoping study last July. Land Use spent three months trawling through 110 different data sets, Bennellick said.
"One of the things that really frustrated us was getting hold of data, there was a total lack of it," said Bennellick. "It frustrated us so much that all the work CABE Space did on the urban green nation is all gone, and that's when we realised that we were going to have to commission our own research because we didn't have enough data to do it otherwise."
He said that simply drawing up a list of parks managers to survey was tough, as parks come under a wide variety of council departments, from transport to culture. The HLF also relied on The National Federation for Parks and Green Spaces and friends groups who have "been brilliant", the green space fora that survived after charity GreenSpace folded, GreenSpace Scotland who "helped enormously", charities Keep Britain Tidy and Groundwork and the Rethinking Parks Programme Workshops.
Bennellick said these workshops had been really interesting. "There was one guy who was fed up. He'd built his service up over all these years and effectively saw the money disappearing and not being able to continue with the investment in the future. But there were other park managers who said this is exciting, who saw it as an opportunity to think about doing things in a different way.
"I've had some interesting conversations with people who've come into parks management from a different background. I've been excited to see that there's a lot of new faces. People are suddenly thinking, I've got a new idea for a business, I can do this in a park."
In total the HLF got a 41 per cent response rate from local authorities, which Bennellick said was "pretty good, pretty representative".
The HLF plans another survey in 2016 and will post full, anonymous data on its website next week. Bennellick said it did not want to "name and shame" departments as some parks managers were embarrassed about their parks.
The report said the research "provides clear evidence that public parks are at a point of transition and are now facing many significant challenges."
"There is concern the improvements delivered through major investment for more than a decade may now be at serious risk."
It adds: "The decline in spending on public parks is potentially greater and more rapid than that faced during the late 1970s to early 1990s."
One area of concern is the skills drain caused by staff cuts and the unequal distribution of funding.
Of parks managers, 77 report cuts to operational or front-line staff and 23 per cent of councils have lost 20 per cent or more staff. But there has been a higher loss of management staff, with 81 per cent of councils cutting back here and 41 per cent losing 20 per cent or more.
Staffing levels have fallen furthest in the north of England and in its big cities. Unitary and metropolitan authorities have faced a greater loss of staff, and in particular management staff.
Bennellick said: "The biggest concern is the cuts are higher to management staff. Management roles are merged with other departments, you start losing those managers and there are a huge numbers of very skilled managers out there.
"There's a real concern that people go to a park, see the grass has been cut and the litter has been picked up and think it's all OK but there is a lot more to a park than that. If those skilled people disappear, you end up where you were back in the 1980s." Managers are needed to work with volunteers and community groups.
Parks are being hit hardest in the north west and north east of England, Yorkshire and the Humber and are at their best in London and the East Midlands.
"Our evidence seems to show that the proportion of cuts is higher in the north of the country but you have to temper that with the fact that there are a lot of parks.
"These big urban councils have huge competition for local authority resources, the needs of children and needs of the elderly, for example."
Parks Alliance chair Mark Camley said nothing in the report came as a surprise but the data allowed TPA to "back up" its advocacy of parks.
"It's evidence of what we thought was going on. On the whole we support the call for action that's in there. We welcome what it's got to say because actually it helps with our concerns with the lack of investment in the industry. We need to move forward - the danger is we're on the cusp of dangerous decline."
"There was concern at the last TPA conference of a north-south divide. It backs up the anecdotal feelings in the industry that that kind of thing is having a real impact."
The HLF pledges five actions:
-It will monitor parks projects it has funded and will invest up to £24m per year to 2018, in addition to £10m per year in England until 2015.
- HLF will use Parks for People start-up grant to support a wider range of organisations.
- It will invest in training and resources to encourage volunteering
- It will encourage the development of a pilot project to help the UK's top 20 cities produce a comparison of green spaces and will commission a parks survey in 2016.
- HLF, The Big Lottery Fund and Nesta will support the Rethinking Parks programme in which they have invested £1 million.
From others HLF is calling for the following five actions:
- Local authorities should appoint a politician as parks champion.
- It asked the public, private and voluntary sectors to "create innovative partnerships to fund and manage parks" and enable parks managers to develop business skills and calls on national government to support them.
- The public and business should support Groundwork's X Marks the Spot campaign and Keep Britain Tidy's Love Parks Week, as well as the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces.
- It calls on government, the local government association and academia to facilitate data gathering.
- It asks innovators to bring forward new ideas for funding and running parks.
Park life More friends than ever
It is not all bad news for parks. The HLF reports that there are 30 per cent more parks friends' groups than in 2011. "Collectively they have raised over £6.6m in funding over the past three years which equates to over £30m annually across the UK," the report says. "On average groups provide 183 volunteer days to support their local park each year. The economic equivalent of this equates to £45.7m of time given in-kind by all friends groups in the UK." Drew Bennellick said the need for good parks managers to assist friends' groups made the brain drain in parks management more of a concern.
Surveys In numbers
CFP Consultants surveyed park managers from 178 (41%) local authorities and six trusts in August 2013. CFP surveyed 436 friends and user groups, representing a membership of 27,802 people in August and September 2013. Ipsos MORI surveyed a representative sample of 1,037 adults aged 15 and over living in the UK in October 2013. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in-home using the Ipsos MORI Capibus. Data has been weighted to the known population.
Additional research was conducted by Peter Neal Consulting and Community First Partnership in association with Peter Harrik from the Centre for City Park Excellence in Washington DC and Ben Hurley Communications.
Call to action
Mark Camley, chairman, parks alliance
"This report does three things. It gives us an evidence base to have a serious conversation either with the public or with government and have a reliable set of figures that we can use. Secondly, the call for action is something we can actively campaign on and support and finally with the launch of the document it gives us some air space in the national and regional press to get parks back on the agenda and back into the public consciousness."