Park Facing A Funding Crisis “Nightmare”

Britain’s public parks are locked in a “nightmare scenario”, “facing their jaws of doom” and have “reached the tipping point”, according to parks professionals preparing for Monday’s opening of a select committee inquiry into the funding of parks.

“Since 2010, public parks have been in the cross-hairs of austerity,” said Peter Neal, author of two influential reports into the state of Britain’s parks. “There is increasing use and demand coupled with a decrease in funding. Many public parks are facing their own jaws of doom.”

Standing at the edge of the lake in Bristol’s Eastville park, Joe McKenna watched as the ducks adopted a V-formation in the water. “Until last week this was all weeds,” he said, admiring the clear water. “The clearing used to be done by the park keepers but with the scaling down of park operations there aren’t dedicated park keepers to do this.”

McKenna is in charge of the day-to-day operations of ParkWork, a community initiative run by the city council and Bristol Parks Forum, an umbrella group bringing together the city’s voluntary parks groups. Four days a week, ParkWork, based in the park in the shadow of the M32, gathers up volunteers from the city’s unemployed and takes them to tackle the bits of park maintenance that the council can no longer manage.

“If you close a library or a museum, everyone notices, but with parks it’s almost invisible,” said Drew Bennelick, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s head of landscape and national heritage. “A lot of park managers are doing a brilliant job to keep things tidy but it’s when you start looking under the skin – lakes not being drained, bedding disappearing, trees not being pruned – that you can see the real decline.”

Even in well-heeled Cheltenham, the Cotswold town’s thriving Pittville park relies on volunteers as well as branching out into commercial partnerships with the Pushy Mums jogging group and British Military Fitness.

“We have an army of volunteers who do the nicer bits of maintenance that we struggle to do ourselves,” said the town council’s green space manager, Adam Reynolds. “We’re cutting the grass and strimming but the shrubbery, the old-fashioned bits of gardening, get neglected.”

“People always say NHS when you think about money for public services, and parks will be at the bottom,” said Reynolds. “If you spend it on parks and green spaces, people will be healthier and not need the NHS so much.”

‘If you spend money on parks and green spaces, people will be healthier and not need the NHS so much.’
‘If you spend money on parks and green spaces, people will be healthier and not need the NHS so much.’ Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

Neal’s most recent State of UK Public Parks report, published this month, found that, in the two years since his last report, the average council revenue funding for parks and green spaces had fallen from £3.1m to £2.6m. This comes at a time when councils are facing increasing pressure on their spending. In 2010, central government financed almost 80% of council spending; by next year that is expected to have dropped to 16%.

“Funding issues are taking us all the way back to the 80s and 90s,” he said. “Commercial use has been increasing across the country to limit the impact of further cuts, but when public parks become private spaces that is not acceptable.”

The pressures have led to calls to make parks a “statutory service”, effectively ring-fencing their budgets. More than 270,000 people have signed a petition started by the group 38 Degrees calling for park funding to be made statutory, and the communities and local government committee has received nearly 400 written submissions, from schoolchildren to the Lawn Tennis Association to the Parks Alliance, which warned that the sector is at a “tipping point”.

“We’re facing a nightmare scenario,” said Dave Morris, chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces. “We’ve been through this before, 30-40 years ago, when massive cuts resulted in a crisis of public services, particularly public parks. Public parks need to be given a statutory status so that we don’t have this boom and bust, and that needs to be backed by adequate public spending.”

For some, however, statutory status is not the answer.

“I’m not convinced that adding parks to statutory duties will be particularly effective,” said the HLF’s Bennelick. “It could actually threaten parks. If it is a statutory duty it could have a lower priority than some of the other 1,300 statutory duties. There are statutory duties for local authorities covering the protection of nature and rights of way, for example, and they are not necessarily particularly effective. Local authorities will just have to rank statutory duties against one another.”

That analysis is borne out by Asher Craig, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods. “I’m not going to spin this,” she said. “It will be a major challenge to keep parks at the current standard. What is the priority? We’re already overspending on children and young people and faced with the budget for green spaces the emphasis has to be vulnerable children. Nothing is safe.”

Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts, the select committee’s chairman, said that the level of interest in the inquiry, showed that it was something close to people’s hearts. “It’s very timely,” he said. “We’ve had more submissions than any inquiry we’ve ever done. Clearly there is a love of parks and a feeling that they are under threat. Even people who don’t go and do things, who may not even go into them, have a sense that having a park near them is important. If you went to them and said were going to get rid of it and build on it there would be uproar.”

The website for Bristol Parkhive, one of the city’s community groups, takes John Ruskin as its muse: “A measure of a city’s greatness,” the Victorian critic and philanthropist wrote, “is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares.”