A recent national newspaper story has reported that “thousands of parks are falling into disrepair or being sold off by cash strapped councils as they become 'no go' zones plagued by drug users and anti social behaviour.”
The report in the Mail On Sunday said children’s play areas are being closed, grass is being left to overgrow, and flowerbeds are being removed at hundreds of sites across the country. Other parks are becoming ‘no-go zones’ plagued by drug users and anti-social behaviour as staff are withdrawn.
In the worst cases, councils are flogging chunks of parkland to housing developers to raise money – despite huge protests and while wasting millions on vanity projects elsewhere.
Their investigation found that almost one in three councils had sold off green space in the past 12 months - and one in five planned to sell off land within the next three years.
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Critics say the crisis poses the biggest threat to Britain’s parks since they were founded in the Victorian era to promote health and wellbeing.
- One in three parks no longer has any staff on site, fuelling fears of a rise in crime;
- Three-quarters of councils say they have cut back on park maintenance;
- 214 play areas across England have been shut since 2014, with 234 more planned;
- Park funding has been slashed by at least £15 million in the past two years, with some councils cutting budgets by as much as £750,000;
- 95 per cent of councils expect to make further cuts to parks in the next five years.
Having spent much of my working life managing parks, I personally find it very disturbing that it has come to this. We have so much evidence available, on the value and role parks and open spaces play in improving people’s health and wellbeing. It was this reason why the Victorians introduced them in the first place during the mid-19th century.
These cut backs have been going on for far too long - it was one of the reasons I left my role as parks officer back in 2003. That’s when it really began. Since then we have seen a constant reduction in parks funding.
However, I fully understand many of the issues councils are facing in the light of the government’s tight rein on councils budgets and notably understanding the frustrations of many practicing parks mangers who for many years have been forced to reduce service delivery in their parks and amenity open spaces.
However, to combat these cut backs, councils are now seeking new ways of working and obtaining funding from other sources. Without doubt the National Lottery and Heritage Funding Schemes have helped enormously in recent years, with millions of pounds filtering down to councils who have been savvy enough to understand and learn quickly how to make the most of these funding opportunities.
Another way of saving money and working effectively is by working with new partners who are willing to take on the maintenance and management of some of the land assets. For example, in recent years we have seen local councils pass on this responsibility of these to town and parrish councils and local sports clubs.
However, this can only be achieved, after investing in a detailed survey and consultation with many organisations, sports clubs and evaluating current working practises and costing of any proposed schemes.
This usually is achieved by the process of the council formulating and producing a ‘parks strategy’ to evaluate the way ahead. These strategies are usually set between 5-10 years depending on the size and scale of the park. For many councils these strategies have worked. However, there are many councils who have chosen a different route by reducing cuts further thus leaving the park devoid of any effective maintenance - which in turn as made them vulnerable by reducing parks services to the bone and worse still selling off these wonderful assets to the highest bidder!
For many years local authorities have relied on developers Section 106 monies to help fund parks projects. Generally, this sees a builder pay a proportion of the value of the building plot back to the council. I am not a great fan of this system, mainly due the fact that in my opinion the developer gets away with paying as little as possible, with too many rules working in the favour of the developer.
The net result sees the council receiving a pittance of a payment against the real value of the land assets being developed. We must somehow make a stand against these derisory offers and a get a better deal for local authorities.
Another problem has been the fact that we have for many years not had a strong voice or body to represent us and convince the government to find appropriate funding to ease the plight of parks.
This has been the consequence of being a fragmented industry, with many organisations looking after their own interests and not often coming together to forge a real voice for our industry. However, there seems to a light at the end of the tunnel with the recent forming of a new Parks Action Group in 2017.
The Parks Action Group comprises of experts from organisations across the sector, including Groundwork, to help England’s public parks and green spaces meet the needs of communities now and in the future. They will be working closely to deliver an ambitious response to the select committee inquiry into the sustainability of parks and green spaces.
Having read a recent article published by Rishi Sunak a Conservative MP for Richmond (Yorks) and minister for local government, parks and green spaces it seems we may finally be seeing some progress in the support for parks. In his article he states some interesting facts to support parks.
“Parks are huge assets to our towns and cities. They play a valuable role in our communities,” writes Rishi Sunak. “Visits to city parks and green spaces in England rose by 25% between 2010 and 2016.
“Our wealth of parks and green spaces are huge assets to our towns and cities. They are at the heart of our communities and provide precious spaces for all of us to enjoy and are particularly important in urban areas where many residents don’t have gardens of their own.
“Parks also help to bring communities together, as I see for myself regularly at our local Parkrun in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. This fantastic weekly event is staffed by an army of local volunteers, and many of my constituents of all ages and abilities get involved.
“With new research from Natural England showing that visits to city parks and green spaces in England rose by 25% between 2010 and 2016, it is no surprise how much we all value them, and this government is committed to doing all we can to protect and improve them.
“Our Green Flag Award scheme, for example, led by Keep Britain Tidy, has done great work in championing our parks and green spaces, and the hardworking people behind them. The awards are valuable because they reward local authorities and communities for their dedication, set standards for park managers across the country, and give locals and visitors alike an easy way to find quality spaces to enjoy.
“Over 1,500 parks were recognised last year and are now proudly flying the flag. They include Pannett Park in Whitby, moments from my constituency, which has also recently benefited from a £1.4m restoration through the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“There are huge health benefits to parks and green spaces, too. Earlier this year, we set out our 25-year environment plan, including looking at long-term approaches to our precious spaces and the impact on health. We know that spending time in our natural environment boosts strength and wellbeing by reducing stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. This is why we continue to champion them.
“I am extremely impressed by the fantastic work going on across the country. We must continue to work together with parks communities, authorities and academics to explore new approaches that will help us to appreciate the real benefits they bring to our lives”.
As a Green Flag judge myself I see plenty of evidence of the good work being done by a number of local authorities who are trying to buck the trend and made good use of the resources they have available. Also APSE (Association of Parks Service Excellence) has also been instrumental in supporting local authorities on relevant training needs and for many years being championing parks and open spaces.
And finally, I am worried by the demise of the park manager - especially the ones who had worked their way up the ranks, having plenty of hands-on experiences. In recent years many of the parks departments have been amalgamated into larger service departments, such as road and highway agencies, often seeing managers with no horticulture experiences taking on the management of parks. Over time this has led to the parks department losing its voice and being dumbed down yet again with further reductions in service.
There is no doubt managing parks and open spaces comes at a cost. I personally think government should recognise the value of these parks and set aside appropriate funding for ongoing maintenance of these assets. It may mean that we all have to pay more taxes - which I personally do not see a problem with if it safeguards the future of our parks and open spaces.
Let us hope that these new initiatives will change the fortune of our parks and open spaces in the coming years. I personally will also be looking forward to seeing what effects this new Parks Action Group will have, persuading the government to begin investing in these valuable national assets.
With over 27,000 parks it is going to be vast challenge to get the government to force local authorities and town councils to set aside relevant budgets for their upkeep.