Two years ago the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) warned that UK parks were "on the brink" of serious decline after suffering year after year of funding cuts. Now it believes they have gone over the tipping point and are in danger of, as HLF chief executive Ros Kerslake put it, falling back "to a state of decline and neglect".
In its second State of UK Public Parks report, the HLF - which has, along with the Big Lottery Fund, invested more than £850m in 800 parks over 20 years - has again highlighted the growing parks crisis. While it found that park use and volunteering have risen - the number of friends and user groups is up by around 1,100 to 5,900 and annual fundraising by such groups is up from £20m in 2013 to £50m this year - the parks and green spaces themselves are experiencing heavier cuts in revenue, capital, staffing and skills.
The results are close to as predicted in the HLF's first State of UK Public Parks report, published in 2014, both written by parks consultant Peter Neal. HLF head of landscape and national heritage Drew Bennelick said grimly: "This report absolutely reaffirms these trends are as expected. It shows us that we were pretty much bang on the money."
The HLF commissioned surveys of 418 local authority parks managers, 407 park friends and user groups plus others and a representative sample of 2,130 adults from the general public. Many of the questions were the same as in the last set of surveys in 2013, allowing the HLF to track data and views over time.
The local authority response rate was 46 per cent - five per cent higher than the last survey - something Bennelick was pleased and slightly surprised about given parks managers' increased pressures. It was a good response from friends groups too, with 441 returns.
While those working with parks are pessimistic - parks managers and friends/user groups recorded a higher expectation of decline in 2017-19 than they predicted for 2014-16 - this concern does not as yet seem to have reached the public. In this year's survey, 49 per cent consider their parks to be in a good condition, up five per cent on 2013, and 53 per cent stable, the same as 2013. The percentage of the public surveyed who think parks have improved over the past three years did drop, however, from 25 to 20 per cent.
It is something that The Parks Alliance chairman Mark Camley finds "slightly worrying". He said: "It's still a bit of a hidden crisis. The public hasn't noticed a decline yet. That's down to the ingenuity of parks managers and the hard work of volunteers. The skills gap is increasing and the basic infrastructure will not be invested in. We still face an increased threat."
While the HLF research shows clear evidence of the threat to parks, Camley conceded that getting through to the Government when public satisfaction is still so high is not easy. "When it isn't directly facing you, it's easy to put it off," he added. "It's something like climate change - if people aren't experiencing it in their daily lives, it gets overlooked. It's a challenge because if I was in Government I might believe it all looks okay. But it's a case of when, not if."
The average revenue budget for all parks and green spaces has dropped from £3.1m to £2.6m between the two surveys, a cut of £578,500. If multiplied by all 418 parks authorities, this would represent £240m across the UK.
This year the HLF also surveyed parks trusts. While Neal conceded that the sample size of 19 different independent organisations is small, the results show parks trusts are doing better than those under local authority control. From 2013-15, 37 per cent of parks trusts actually saw an increase in their budgets and 12.5 per cent said their budgets have not changed. However, 18.8 per cent lost more than 20 per cent of their budgets, so the picture is mixed.
It is not only parks funding that has been cut, of course. Over the past three years 91.6 per cent of councils have faced budget cuts overall. At the start of 2010, almost 80 per cent of council budget expenditure was financed by central Government. By 2017 the revenue support grant will account for only 16 per cent of spending and by 2019-20 it is projected to be only five per cent, according to the Communities & Local Government Committee, which has launched a parliamentary inquiry into the future of parks and how to fund them.
Headed by committee chair Clive Betts MP, the inquiry will take an overall view of who uses parks and why, and look at alternative management and funding models including mutuals and trusts. A parliamentary inquiry was the key aim of Horticulture Week's Make Parks a Priority campaign, launched in the Commons in 2012 when HW editor Kate Lowe called for a place where green space professionals could "go with the issues they are facing, their ideas and their solutions".
The campaign led to the formation of The Parks Alliance, which took up the inquiry baton, eventually succeeding earlier this year after a sustained campaign. Camley said: "This report gives ourselves and others an information base to take to the inquiry. We will support the issues that are in there. We will go in with a set of asks of the inquiry.
"Dave Morris of the National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces will be asking for parks to be made a statutory service. We will say that if Government doesn't address particular issues the statutory ask is what we would look for, but at the moment our view is that getting parks classified as a statutory service doesn't provide a silver bullet. Other statutory services are suffering as well."
As green space professionals have maintained all along, decline is not inevitable. In among the grim reading of the fund's second report are chinks of light, shining through the prism of a number of case studies - a vision of where our parks could be and how they could flourish in the future.
A key finding of the first State of UK Public Parks report was how well-used parks were, with 54 per cent of adults surveyed using them at least once a month. That figure is now 57 per cent. When children are added, 90 per cent of households with children under five visit their local park at least once a month (up seven per cent from 2014) and 38 per cent of children under five are taken to a park at least once a week. Only 12 per cent of adults said they never visit parks and they are spread out among the age groupings.
The report shows that the demographic using parks most regularly are 16- to 17-year-olds, with 44 per cent visiting a park at least once a week, closely followed by the 25-34 age bracket, 32 per cent of whom visit at least once a week.
On average 22.5 per cent of any parks budget comes from external sources, rising to 29 per cent over the next three years. Some 67.2 per cent of respondents said part of their budget over the past three years came from charging for services, 46.6 per cent from commercial enterprises, up from 38.7 per cent, and 64.6 per cent from other council departments, up from 51.2 per cent in 2013.
Asked a new question about other funding streams, the survey found that 51.3 per cent got funding from festivals and events, 21.2 per cent from health organisations and 15.9 per cent from other sources. However, only 53.8 per cent were able to ring-fence that income for parks services.
Over the past three years, 66 per cent of local authorities have sold or transferred outdoor sports facilities and 98 per cent expect to continue to do so. Some 79 per cent are considering selling or transferring all or part of parks.
When asked what types of revenue-raising park users support, 79 per cent said the National Lottery, 75 per cent more business sponsorship, 74 per cent more funding from planning and development, 65 per cent community fundraising and 60 per cent commercial use of parks such as concerts and festivals. Only 20 per cent supported increasing charges for using park facilities, while 53 per cent opposed such a move.
The survey found parks managers' top four priorities for generating income are charging for the use of buildings (58 per cent), catering (54.7 per cent), commercial events (49.2 per cent) and increasing cemetery and crematorium fees (45.3 per cent).
Some parks managers have gone further. Nottingham, which along with Newcastle, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Cardiff is featured as a case study in the report, is working towards becoming completely self-sustaining by 2020, under the leadership of head of parks Eddie Curry - a move that earned the Nottingham team the Best Urban Parks Team prize in Horticulture Week's inaugural Custodian Awards.
The Royal Parks, midway through a merger with fundraising body The Royal Parks Foundation to become a public corporation, has also been forced down this route, with some success. It lost 50 per cent of its Government funding over the past decade and increased its own revenue-raising by 178 per cent. Now the new organisation is applying for charitable status, which, a spokeswoman said, "will be increasingly self-sustaining and will allow us to manage the parks more efficiently with better services provided at a lower cost while maintaining excellent visitor satisfaction".
Neal's report reviews the Rethinking Parks programme, which has trialled a number of alternative funding models including increasing relationships with business, crowdfunding and investment from public health, alongside radical approaches adopted by really hard-up councils.
Newcastle, working with a consultant team and the National Trust, is working towards creating a social enterprise to look after parks. This would be an independent self-governing company with mutual values and charitable status, with the associated financial and tax advantages. Sheffield's Urban Nature Project shifts the balance from traditional grounds maintenance to a more naturalistic approach in a plan to convert 300ha of green space into urban nature areas. With Rethinking Parks, Sheffield has also been working on a plan to develop a dedicated endowment for the parks service, again with National Trust help.
"The National Trust strongly endorses HLF's call for innovation, collaboration and new investment," said National Trust director-general Helen Ghosh. "The traditional model for funding public parks is breaking down and we need bold new solutions that can be adapted to work in any city and town." She added that the HLF report is "an important wake-up call".
The trust's current 10-year strategy, "Playing our Part", specifically names green space as a focus of trust activity over the decade. It is hosting two forthcoming conferences, on the role of "natural capital" on 27 September and "Future Parks: How to deliver service transformation" on 20 October.
All of the HLF's report recommendations are around the issue of new ways to manage and fund parks. It says new models of management and funding need to be developed and active partnerships must be promoted. To achieve this goal, more collaboration is needed to share funding and expertise. Communities that are keen to get more involved need to be supported. Data, a key ask from the last report, must be collated. Lastly, continued local authority leadership is also needed.
Bennelick said there are clear examples of brilliant ideas and successful transformation across UK parks services but the lack of a central body since the closure of CABE Space means dissemination is difficult. "It's an incredibly complicated picture," he added. "Even in neighbouring authorities they are doing things in different ways. There's not a lot of sharing. Collaboration is key. In the West Midlands there's a really good forum and there's really good research being conducted by Greenspace Scotland."
Inequality in provision, highlighted in the 2014 report, is shown to continue in the update. When broken down into regions, the survey found Wales has the highest number of declining parks at 70 per cent, followed by the North East at 62.5 per cent and Yorkshire and the Humber at 58.3 per cent. In the South East the figure comes down to 10 per cent and in Northern Ireland it falls to zero. Average revenue cuts reported by parks managers vary from 10.3 per cent in Scotland to 23.2 per cent in the East Midlands.
Last year's Joseph Rowntree Foundation report The Cost of the Cuts showed that cuts to unitary and metropolitan authorities around the country varied in value from more than £220 per head down to £40. In some cases this has led to an unequal allocation of resources between statement parks and local green spaces, an effect well-known by the HLF, which monitors the parks that it funds. Ensuring "adequate and balanced funding for different types of parks across a local authority area" is a key challenge for the future, writes Neal.
SALE OF PARKS
Half of all local authorities have sold or or transfered management of their parks and green spaces to other organisations since 2014, up five per cent on 2013. The latest research shows this is likely to increase by 59 per cent over the next three years. At the same time, 57.1 per cent now have more green spaces to manage than before and this is expected to rise to 64 per cent over the next three years. A similar trend, though for a much smaller sample size, can be seen in parks trusts.
In 2013, 43.6 per cent of councils acquired amenity green space, mainly through the planning process. That rose to 74 per cent in 2013-15 and is predicted to rise to 77.7 per cent in 2017-19. More than a third (35.5 per cent) expect to acquire public parks and gardens during this time period.
A West Midlands Parks Forum workshop held in May with 31 participants from local authorities, a trust, a contractor, friends groups, friends forum and residential association looked at the key themes drawn from the first report - external funding, partnership working, asset transfer and community involvement.
The forum agreed that asset transfer is so far only occurring on a small scale, according to the report, as "local authorities rarely have a strategic and long strategy in place for asset transfer. This issue is compounded by the fact that many local authorities no longer have an up-to-date green space strategy that could set out an agreed approach to this issue." Indeed, the research found that the income generated was often "small in scale" but required "a significant amount of officer time and resource to secure", not least because of the contentious and politically sensitive nature of asset transfer, which may not, in the end, even be a permanent solution.
Despite a general view that more community involvement is a good thing, community engagement could be wider, Neal notes. An adequately resourced volunteer co-ordinator would be the best way to achieve this, but "at present councils do not consider they would have the capacity or resources to support such a post even though it is acknowledged that it would be of direct benefit to the wider operation of parks services".
The latest report shows a shocking skills drain. Some 81.3 per cent of councils lost management staff and 77.4 per cent operational staff between 2010 and 2012. This was even more marked in 2013. The previous survey also asked about development staff - 0.7 per cent had increased staffing, 22.6 per cent reported no change, 16.8 per cent lost fewer than 10 per cent of staff, 10 per cent lost 10-20 per cent of staff and 40.9 per cent lost more than 20 per cent.
All of these trends are set to increase over the next three years, with the biggest losses predicted to be a decrease of between 10 and 20 per cent in management and front-line staff. When asked about the types of skills being lost, the biggest area was horticulture (41.1 per cent), followed by landscape design (27.5 per cent) and ecological skills (21.2 per cent), a trend that respondents expect to continue over the next three years.
BALI-NCF chairman Phil Jones said the group's members are tackling the skills decline through "robust and well-funded people-development programmes", but they see the results of the cuts every day. "There is an urgent need for more collaboration at local level to further engage all stakeholders, both public and private," he added. "Coupled with the move to increase awareness at national level of the importance of saving our parks in the UK and the resultant benefits our green spaces provide, this collaboration will generate further credible evidence to support the cause."
At the same time, other skills are in the ascendency. Some 94.7 per cent of parks managers consider that financial management skills will be essential to the future parks service, 90.3 per cent said dedicated partnership working, 88.7 per cent community engagement, 80.6 per cent developing projects and 80.3 per cent strategic planning skills.
"We need to focus on the new things that are emerging. We're really interested to learn what comes out of the inquiry," said Bennelick. "I suspect that there are tons of things happening across the sector that we don't know about. My biggest worry is that some of these councils are better equipped to deal with that than some others."
He added that he hopes the inquiry got "tons of evidence" against the 60 entries that the last one received. People have until 30 September to submit evidence online and can also give views using the hashtag #MyParkMatters on social media and in an online survey.
The long-campaigned-for parks inquiry comes at a highly significant time for our parks and green spaces, according to Neal. "There are great expectations for the inquiry," he said. "Thanks to the HLF and a little serendipity, this new research into the state of the UK's public parks is incredibly well timed. It reinforces the findings set out in the previous study and provides a broad and robust evidence base for the inquiry. This will be an incredibly useful briefing for the committee.
"Constructively, it both highlights the growing crisis facing parks but also sets out new and innovative funding and management approaches that the sector is adopting as a way forward."