Public parks – soon to be just a memory?

“… Yet Britain’s parks are now facing their greatest dangers for a generation. Their maintenance budgets are being halved or worse. Local authorities, desperate to reduce their costs, are trying to exploit them with every commercial use they can think of, or offload their care on to the private sector, or on to friends’ groups and community associations little more able than the council to look after them on minimal budgets.

The consequences are that parks become shabbier, uglier, more badly maintained and, eventually, more dangerous. Drew Bennellick, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s head of landscape and natural heritage, says that local authorities are losing the skills of ecology, arboriculture, horticulture and landscape architecture, resulting in “random tree planting, a huge increase in herbicides, fountains being shut down, graffiti not being removed, mismatched street furniture and cafes being replaced by mobile food units”. He says that some maintenance contracts only allow 30 seconds to prune each shrub, so they are hacked into small spheres. “You end up with bare soil and a few shrubs in ball shapes,” he says.

Antisocial behaviour creeps in. Cycles of decline start, in which parks get nastier, so their users stop going, so they get nastier still. City-dwellers retreat more to their homes and their electronic screens, with terrible effects on health. Intrusive and inappropriate commercial uses colonise green space and disturb the lives of residents. Fees for sporting facilities – tennis courts and football pitches – go up. In the worst cases, public green space is sold off for development and lost for ever.

Last year, the House of Commons communities committee said that parks were at a “tipping point” and that “if the value of parks and their potential contribution are not recognised, then the consequences could be severe for some of the most important policy agendas facing our communities today”.

The Heritage Lottery Fund noted a growing gap between the rising use of parks and declining funding, a gap that “does not bode well for the future condition and health of the nation’s public parks”. The Commons committee also said that central government should provide “vision, leadership and coordination”.

… To which central government only shrugs. Until June, there was a minister with responsibility for parks, one Andrew Percy MP. He didn’t seem to achieve much, but when I ask the Department for Communities and Local Government who can now speak on the subject, I am told there is no replacement and I am offered the Northern Powerhouse minister or the minister for local government. A week later, I am told that the latter, Marcus Jones MP, is in fact also the new parks minister, even though it is not among the 10 responsibilities listed on his official website.

Nor can he talk to me or respond to the committee’s call for vision, leadership and coordination. I am however told that “parks breathe life into our towns and cities and are spaces for the whole community to come together to exercise, learn and play”. Gee, thanks. The department then boasts of a £1.5m fund – a whole £1.5m! – to deliver 87 pocket parks. Finally, it says that councils have the “freedom” to spend their much-reduced funding on “meeting local priorities, including maintaining local parks”. As far as national government is concerned, in other words, it’s not their problem. They’ve outsourced it to local authorities.

This abnegation of responsibility is the reason why parks all over the country are degrading. Local authorities have had their budgets cut drastically. They have to maintain their statutory duties – to house the involuntarily homeless, for example – which means that everything else gets squeezed even harder. Looking after parks is not a statutory duty. So, even though their running costs might be less than half a per cent of a local authority’s budget, they get cut and cut again.

… Councils go to the private sector, both to run parks and exploit the commercial opportunities they offer. But the profit motive does not have the long-term wellbeing of natural assets at heart. Bennellick argues that, as well as creating those shrivelled shrubs, private contractors have no interest in the bigger picture. To maximise their environmental benefits, he says, parks need a strategic approach that considers them not in isolation but in relation to each other. There’s not much chance of this happening in a minimum-cost maintenance contract.

Strangely, given the importance of this collective national treasure, there’s not much by way of powerful national organisations to fight for their interests. There are valiant voluntary bodies such as National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Parks Alliance and the 90-year-old Fields in Trust, but they don’t command public attention as they should. The Heritage Lottery Fund, whose primary concern is not green space, finds itself one of its principal champions, by virtue of the amount it has invested.

In the end, however much ingenuity is expended on new forms of management and funding, parks are public assets that require public money. The National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces believes that the current expenditure of £1.2bn per year should be more like £2-3bn. It is asking, in other words, for about as much in additional funding as is going on the notorious bung to the Democratic Unionist party.

It might also help, as a number of campaigners have argued, if care of parks became a statutory duty for local authorities. In this patriotic Brexit era, when Britain is learning to again stand strong and alone, parks are a British achievement and asset to be proud of, imitated and envied across the world. If national government had the decency even to notice that they are under threat from their policies, it would be a start.”