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Report: Parks face period of decline

Words: Laura Edgar
Public parks / Shutterstock_397473892

The contribution that parks make to public health, community integration and climate change mitigation needs more recognition, a Communities and Local Government committee report finds.

Public parks: securing a sustainable future suggests that public parks face a number of challenges, including reduced council spending, with parks management budgets cut by up to 97 per cent, and planning policy not giving them enough weight.

The committee calls on councils to publish strategic plans that recognise the value of parks beyond leisure and recreation and set out how they will be managed to maximise their contribution to wider local authority agendas, such as promoting healthy lifestyles and managing flood risk.

The committee hopes these plans will open parks to support and funding beyond their usual budgets and service areas. The government, says the committee, should issue guidance to councils to work with health and well-being boards and other relevant bodies to publish the plans as well as consider making producing such a strategy a legal requirement.

Clive Betts, chair of the CLG committee, said: "Every local authority should have a strategic plan, recognising that parks are much more than just grass and tulips and bringing in resources from outside the traditional budgets. Parks make vital contributions to physical and mental health and bring significant community benefits. They also contribute to biodiversity and climate change mitigation and can assist in local economic growth.”

He said action must be taken to prevent a period of decline that could have severe consequences.

For the committee, the government has a leadership and coordination role to play and volunteers do “fantastic” work in the sector, but the “primary responsibility lies with local authorities”.

“We will return to this to see what progress has been made before the end of the Parliament. We call on everyone who cares about parks to be our eyes and ears on the ground, particularly those who contributed to our inquiry, and keep up the pressure on national and local government."

James Harris, policy and networks manager at the RTPI, told the committee that one of the benefits of considering parks in the context of a wider approach to green infrastructure was the ability to access economies of scale.

Harris said a good evidence base is required to see what assets green infrastructure can contribute. “You can then start having those discussions with health and well-being boards, water and sewage companies, and transit authorities that are looking to take cars off the road, and to promote active travel and people walking and cycling. You can start to bring in those kinds of strategic partners, and then you get towards the point where you can start to request contributions and funding towards the upkeep.”

Devolution with regards to strategic green infrastructure networks, Harris told the committee, would be better done at combined authority level rather than at an individual local authority level.

Public parks: securing a sustainable future also recommends:

•    Public parks should remain under local authority ownership and freely available to everyone.
•    Parks minister Andrew Percy should issue guidance that sets out key principles for the appropriate governance and accountability arrangements, which could be put in place as part of any emerging or alternative models for parks management.
•    Percy should work with his colleagues in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that parks, and green infrastructure more widely, are appropriately recognised in the government’s forthcoming 25-year environment plan.

Julia Thrift, projects director at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) welcomed the committee’s ambition to move parks up the political agenda and create cross-government support for "these vital national assets".

“We hope that the minister responds positively to the committee’s recommendations, including requiring councils to work with local health and wellbeing boards to create green space strategies, and helping park managers measure the real value that their parks bring to society. Over time, this should help attract new funding for parks and green infrastructure.”

However, Thrift said that in the short-term parks are facing a funding crisis.

“Councils will struggle to implement the Committee’s recommendations because they are having to cut their parks budgets and reduce their staff. We welcome the committee’s announcement that it will maintain its interest in public parks and will call the government to account by returning to this subject before the end of this parliament.”

The report can be found here.

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