"Cut waste and bureaucracy" and raid reserves to pay for parks, councils told

The Government has said that cash-strapped councils should find the money to run parks by “cutting waste and bureaucracy” rather than front line services.

A neglected park. Photographed by Peter Neal
A neglected park. Photographed by Peter Neal

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) responded to research by the Heritage Lottery Fund this week which warns parks are on the brink of serious decline after being hit by widespread funding cuts, by saying that councils should find the money to look after them.

A DCLG spokeswoman said there was no excuse for councils neglecting or selling off parks and green spaces.

"Some councils are seeking to cut park provision locally and there is no excuse for this," she said.

"These councils should instead be protecting parks and other frontline services by cutting waste and bureaucracy, sharing back office functions with neighbouring councils and drawing sensibly on their significant cash reserves rather than building them up."

She said parks had improved since 2001 and were used by millions of people. Parks get 2.6 billion visits a year, according to the HLF.

The Local Government Association, which represents 415 local authorities countered by saying councils had been forced to make tough choices.

Chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board Councillor Flick Rea, said: "Since 2010 councils have had the biggest cuts in living memory and have had to make tough decisions about the services they prioritise, such as caring for vulnerable elderly people.

"Councils are enormously proud of this country’s green spaces and there are many examples of how parks are used in the community, such as health and fitness, local heritage, public art, festivals and wildlife walks.

"Our parks are in a better condition than ever before and play a huge part in keeping people healthy and active, creating an attractive environment and contributing towards quality of life."

The HLF report states that 45 per cent of councils are considering selling some parts of their green space portfolio, or transferring management to another body, over the next three years.

Cllr Rea said it would be "untrue to suggest that this inevitably means those parks will close".

The HLF research found that 20 per cent of councils have already transferred some parks management to other organisations.

The HLF has awarded more than £620m in parks grants since 1996 and will continue to fund projects until at least 2018.

Its research found that 59 per cent of parks managers thought their parks were currently in good condition, against 18 per cent in 2001. But HLF chairman Dame Jenny Abramsky said the parks renaissance sparked by lottery funding was now at risk.

Parks professionals have welcomed the HLF's report but say the real hard work to save parks starts now.

Director of The Parks Agency David Lambert said the full extent of cuts to parks services revealed was shocking.

"The average local authority parks maintenance budget of £4m has lost £1m in two or three years. That disguises the turmoil in terms of park management structures with reorganisations, redundancies and loss of skills from top to bottom."

He added: "There is a weird disconnect in public opinion - voters will go for frozen or reduced council tax, will rail against town hall 'waste' and generally have a low opinion of the public sector after four years of rubbishing. And yet the public loves parks. Somehow we need to connect parks to councils - without a decent council you're not going to get a decent park."  

The HLF research found that 86 per cent of parks departments had seen cuts to their revenue budgets while 77 per cent of parks departments had lost frontline staff, with 81 cutting management positions.

Consultant Bob Ivison, former head of parks and green spaces for Enfield Council, London, said he thought the research, to which 41 per cent of UK local authorities responded, gave an accurate picture.

"In general terms the headlines that have come out of it does reflect what parks experts and parks managers have been saying for some time. There’s a steady decline and we’ve got to a point where if we don’t do something quickly and substantially we’ll be getting to a point of no return. Things need to happen now and they need to happen quickly."

Lambert added: "It's great that the HLF is issuing this wake-up call and drawing attention to the extremely heavy and disproportionate cuts to parks budgets. The positive of course is that parks are generally in good condition and an encouraging level of political and public support but that support means nothing if it does not result in protecting budgets."

The HLF’s parks policy adviser Shaun Kiddell, former head of parks for the London Borough of Camden, told BBC Radio Wales radio morning that the country was "on a tipping point".

"What we’re trying to avert is heading into a crisis there are really big reductions in maintenance budgets. We estimate that there are 27,000 parks across the UK and councils are in a very difficult position. Sale is the extreme case but what we really are going to see is reduced maintenance, reduced numbers of staff, the frontline gardeners, the experienced parks managers, less litter collection, less graffiti cleaning, closure of facilities, charging for facilities going up, increasing use of weed killer."

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