Glimmer of hope for new 'national network' from second public sitting of parks inquiry

A new 'national network' for parks to bridge the chasm left by the closure of CABE Space could be one of the recommendations to come from the parks inquiry, an MP committee member has hinted.

Will MPs recommend a new 'national network' for parks?
Will MPs recommend a new 'national network' for parks?

MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, asked witnesses from Birmingham City Council, London Borough of Camden, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, and Kent County Council if local authorities had the skills and expertise to cope with the challenges, particularly budget pressures, the parks sector is currently dealing with.

"Can you shed some light about how we can make sure that lessons are learnt across the country?" she asked.

Witness Andrew Hinchley, green space development officer, London Borough of Camden said: "In London we’re quite lucky in terms of networks, Parks for London runs a number of working groups that we are able to attend and learn from other London boroughs and there’s a good benchmarking forum where you can post questions via email and that’s a really helpful tool.

"But what I think is missing is something at a national level. There seems to be a void since CABE Space and GreenSpace disappeared which isn’t pulling together best practice.

"Because of this shift where we need to look at wider benefits of green space, there’s a need to step back and take that strategic look and that’s more difficult when there isn’t someone who’s collating it for you on a national level. There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel going on at the moment because that isn’t there."

"Perhaps this is an idea our committee might take forward," Ali said.

The issue of a national structure which could conduct research and share best practice, innovation and training, a key ask of sector witnesses who appeared at the first oral evidence session on 24 October, came up again at the second oral evidence session yesterday afternoon.

The comment will provide hope for parks managers, who have long bemoaned the loss of CABE Space, an executive non-departmental public body of the UK government, from 1999 to 2011.

Historian Katy Layton-Jones who wrote a recent report for Historic England on parks funding over the years, also told MPs yesterday: "Everyone’s still quoting CABE Space and I think that’s really important. The responsibilities were meant to go to the Design Council and they’ve done nothing."

Julia Thrift of the TCPA added: "I was first director of CABE Space. I’m proud of what we achieved but I’m horrified that 11, 12 years later the publications are still being used."

The issue of a lack of data for parks and how that impacts on understanding of their benefits and allocation of funding was something that was also discussed at both sessions.

While the recommendations of the committee will not necessarily translate into government action, there is optimism that, despite the dire state of local authority financing, if some kind of national network was established, this one action could make a huge difference to parks management across the country. CABE Space was formed following recommendations of the first parks inquiry in 1999.

Also on the subject of national leadership, president of the Landscape Institute Merrick Denton-Thompson called for a corporate minister for parks, who could work across departments, knitting together the various areas where parks have an impact, and a director in the Department for Communities and Local Government to support him or her.

"We need strategic leadership that can make connections," he said.

For more see next week’s issue of Horticulture Week.

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