I should have written a blog about this much, much sooner. But a while back, you may remember that there was a House of Commons Inquiry into public parks which was led by a Communities and Local Government Committee. The inquiry asked three key questions: why parks matter, what challenges are facing the parks sector, and how we can secure a sustainable future for parks. Having looked at the 91-page report, I see that they answered the first two questions, but fell short of answering the third. No surprise there, let’s be honest. These are debates that CABE was having over 10 years ago, and today’s ‘solutions’ are not very different.
Hang on. Let me backtrack slightly before marking the Committee down for not answering all the exam questions. Many of us contributing to the Inquiry thought that there was a bigger question underpinning the Inquiry – why isn’t it a statutory duty of local authorities to provide and maintain parks? This seemed to be the BIG question, not least because there were repeated calls for it in the Committee’s written and verbal evidence as well as over 320,000 signatures on a petition. And this is not a new call! A recommendation by the last Parks Inquiry in 2003 stated that “statutory duty of care for public spaces might encourage local authorities to give them greater priority when making funding decisions”. Although, of course that didn’t lead to a change in policy, did it?
BUT, page 9 of the Inquiry report made it clear that making parks provision a statutory duty was never on the table. Andrew Percy MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Communities and Local Government – our Minister for Parks, apparently – stated that “I want to look at the alternatives to a statutory duty”.
Cllr Matthew Balfour of Kent County Council (page 56) who “suggested that establishing a statutory common standard could result in a ‘race to the bottom’, wherein budget pressures would mean that parks which currently exceed the standard would be managed down”. I’m not sure how parks are looking in Kent, but this is already happening! In Sheffield, we are already experiencing a de-skilling of parks management staff where some of the most knowledgeable and experienced parks people were forced to take ‘voluntary redundancy’ as cuts continue to be made.
So what does the Committee recommend as an alternative to parks being a statutory part of local authority provision? “We recommend that the Minister issues very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies. ”. For me, this is frankly a weak answer to the question. It doesn’t even make this collaborative working statutory – that is only recommended if local authorities and Health and Wellbeing Boards don’t do what is expected. This would be monitored in annual reports – so who knows how many years would pass before we’d get an idea of whether this is working or not.
And of course, what does this all mean in the midst of a general election? Well, beyond sweeping statements such as “Equality of access to nature and green spaces, to enhance leisure, health and wellbeing” (Green Party), urban parks are not specifically mentioned in any of the major political parties’ manifestos.
The Green Party, Conservatives and Labour make no reference at all to urban parks in their manifestos, focusing on the protection of designated places such as national parks, forests and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Greens don’t specifically mention trees, but the Tories and Labour pledge to plant a million trees. The Liberal Democrats will “create a new designation of national nature parks to protect up to one million acres of accessible green space valued by local communities” but no detail is given as to what that’d mean in practice (i.e. funding). They will plant one tree for every UK citizen over the next ten years, and propose to “pass a Nature Act to put the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) on a statutory footing”. Happy voting...