A gathering of many of the most influential champions, thinkers and doers in the UK's parks and allied sectors took place last week to consider the creation of a cross-sector alliance with the capacity to speak up for urban parks at the highest levels.
The professionals met at the Parks Leadership Round Table, hosted by Horticulture Week, in a bid to bring a more unified voice and vision to a sector that is suffering from its third year of devastating budget cuts.
Stressing the urgency of the task as yet more green spaces face the threat of the complete loss of maintenance services, HW editor Kate Lowe said thanks to the presence of so many key figures there was the potential to take significant steps forward.
The round table follows the Make Parks a Priority campaign, launched by HW in the House of Commons last year to draw attention to the crisis facing urban parks.
Participants at the event, which was co-sponsored by Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management chief executive Nick Reeves and green-space consultants Dr Sid Sullivan and Bob Ivison, included senior executives from key professional, trade, environmental and third-sector bodies.
Also present were figures such as Peter Matthew, who was instrumental in setting up parks champion CABE Space. Several were participants in the GreenLink association whose knowledge and expertise was recognised during the debate as vital to the project.
Lowe said we face a perfect storm of vanishing budgets and dwindling skilled front-line staff. Exacerbating those challenges are two interdependent factors. Firstly, the absence at a national level of any department, group or function with a watching brief. Secondly, the need for a single lobbying voice to represent parks and the very diverse range of professional, environmental and third-sector groups that support them.
Environmentalist and broadcaster Professor Chris Baines, a passionate supporter of parks and one of the original champions of CABE Space, which was an early victim of the austerity measures, facilitated the first meeting of the Parks Leadership Round Table.
He said: "Parks are still celebrating the patronage that led to their creation through philanthropists. But we've lost that completely. There are very few examples of the nouveau riches donating to parks, yet where did all the professional footballers grow up? In parks."
Baines matched this missed opportunity with the sector's failure to tap into cash from health or environmental sectors despite the proven benefits of green spaces in the fight against illness, stress and obesity - and the effects of trees and parks on city cooling and rain run-off absorption.
"We are seeing major societal change. Where can children go to do pond dipping or climb trees? Gardens, parks and school grounds are the only places left with a fighting chance of giving children a one-to-one with a hairy caterpillar."
He continued: "People are concerned on welfare and the care of their children. Yet we are talking of reductions of staff levels in the one part of the public realm where parents feel their children can go for these experiences."
But he warned the round table to avoid the pitfall of "just agonising on how grim it is". There is a sense of optimism about the role of parks while the lottery has made a difference to quality and the importance of having parks managers on site is now well recognised.
"You need to think who do you know who is not in this room or the parks community but in health, energy consumption or child welfare that has some level of influence? We need to establish who those people are. If we can do that, we have achieved something," said Baines.
"Maybe there's a champion or ambassador in this room who can help build communication and relationships. In some ways, our prospects are better than they have ever been - we have a better handle on why parks are great for modern UK society."
The need to reach out to other sectors was echoed by many of the round table. One said: "Ultimately, we are saying we need to campaign, to get messages through, but (the question is) to whom? The easy answer is central government but would it be more effective to target local authority and community? That depends on what your proposition is."
Another participant said a strategic overview is critical to success: "A clear strategic approach can knit together all the strands linking green spaces with health, crime, access and quality."
One round table member warned that presenting politicians with a balancing act between parks, housing and other areas risks landing yourself in a "Hobson's choice scenario". He suggested more "complementarity" is needed: "When I had to present options to a council chief executive, I knew little about housing, leisure, health, sustainability or climate change. But I realised something linked them all. If you can get that link and bring about complementarity, you can engage people at higher levels on issues of strategy and tactics. That could take parks to a different level."
Another round table participant gave examples of cities that have successfully launched strategies to meet aggressive sustainability targets, such as a "greener and greater" plan for New York's spaces and buildings. Copenhagen, meanwhile, focused on a green city plan, and such regionally strong policy echoed recent proposals to shift leadership from Westminster to regional and city leaders.
Following the debate, participants were appointed to develop the group's thinking in a number of key areas, including:
- Vision/proposition for an alliance.
- Resourcing a cross-sector alliance.
- Data collection and analysis.
- Health and social welfare.
- Public relations.
- Parks trusts.
Commenting on the event, co-sponsor Sid Sullivan said: "It was impressive that so many of the UK's senior and cross-sector leaders were supportive of forming an alliance to lobby decision makers about the positive contribution that parks make and to ensure this campaign is given a high priority within their own organisations' efforts."
The round table will meet again in three months' time. Contributions to and comments on the initiative are invited and can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parks leadership attendees
Facilitator Professor Chris Baines (picture 1), environmental adviser.
Attendees Dr Heather Barrett-Mold (13), past president, Institute of Horticulture (IoH); Paul Bramhill (3), chief executive, GreenSpace; Ian Brooke (22), board member, Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association; Paul Cowell (15), past president, BALI; Andrew Gill (21), president elect, IoH; Wayne Grills (16), chief executive officer, BALI; Lucy Hares (3), Parks for People, Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF); Sue Ireland (5), head of parks, City of London; Bob Ivison (17), event co-sponsor; Linda Lennon (10), chief executive, Royal Parks Agency; Peter Matthew (6), London Borough of Hounslow; Karen Maxwell (4), Institute of Groundsmanship; James McCulloch (11), chief executive, Nene Parks Trust; Dave Morris (7), National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces; Peter Neal (20), independent consultant; Carole Souter (2), chief executive, HLF; Sid Sullivan (18), event co-sponsor; Nigel Thorne (8), International Federation of Landscape Associations Europe; Paul Todd (23), Keep Britain Tidy; Helen Tranter (19), board member, Landscape Institute; Albert Tucker (12), board member, Big Lottery Fund; David Winn (14), national member for England, Lantra.
Opening the Parks Leadership Round Table, Kate Lowe, editor of Horticulture Week, which hosted the event at its London offices, said there are three reasons why the gathering was taking place.
"Firstly, because our public parks are under threat once more. Secondly, because we need to find a way to more powerfully communicate to Government our concerns. Finally, because we need to do it now."
Describing the challenge facing the sector's professionals, she said as we head into year three of the unprecedented squeeze on public finances, the disproportionate impact of local authority cuts on urban parks services across the UK is now well documented, with more authorities coming perilously close to withdrawing maintenance completely from their parks.
Lowe added: "The experience of the Make Parks a Priority campaign launched by HW last year to highlight to Westminster the crisis facing urban parks suggests there are politicians who get what we are saying. But they need a clear, unified message from across the sector with which to engage. Today we have the opportunity to address this by considering how we might create an alliance to represent the sector and the indisputable contribution it makes."
The Make Parks a Priority campaign is calling on all concerned with parks to ask their MP to sign Early Day Motion 219 calling for an inquiry into the funding crisis. For a template letter and full campaign details, see www.HorticultureWeek.co.uk/makeparksapriority.