Drew Bennelick, Head of Landscapes and Natural Heritage at the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Public parks play an important part in the social and environmental infrastructure of communities, making neighbourhoods more attractive, healthy and enjoyable places to live. They are a fundamental element of sustainable development.
But the Heritage Lottery Fund has a strong message to say to anyone who loves their local park: it could be under threat. The reason for this concern is found in our recent report the State of UK Public Parks 2014: Renaissance to risk? This study has brought together and reviewed much of the existing evidence base. It makes worrying reading for park lovers throughout the United Kingdom, not least in Wales. The report is wide ranging and drew on date from three specially commissioned UK-wide surveys: a survey of local authority park managers, including 16 of 22 local authorities in Wales; a survey of park friends and user groups; and a public opinion survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI.
Using this wealth of information, the report sets out in stark terms why people are worried:
- 86% of parks managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010, a trend they expect to continue over the next three years. The report suggests this could mean: park facilities such as cafes and toilets are closed or opening hours reduced; grass left uncut, flower beds left empty, play areas less regularly cleaned and inspected and more anti-social behaviour due to less park staff. Wales, along with Scotland and the North West, recorded the largest proportion of park managers who reported that their parks have been declining in condition.
- 45% of local authorities are considering either selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management to others.
- 81% of council parks departments have lost skilled management staff since 2010 and 77% have lost front-line staff, though it is worth noting that Wales’ cuts in this respect compare favourably with most other parts of the United Kingdom including regions of England.
Local authorities have no statutory requirement to fund and maintain parks. Thus at a time of spending reductions, local authorities are looking first at what can they can cut without breaking the law. Parks are therefore an easy target.
Yet parks have a critical role to play in the health and wellbeing of communities. A study undertaken by DEFRA into creating sustainable communities used green space as an indicator of wellbeing and found that people place great importance on having parks as part of their wider neighbourhood. The vast majority of people (95%) thought that it was very or fairly important to have green spaces near to where they live. A similar figure was recorded by Groundwork in a recent Ipsos MORI Survey100 which found that ‘nine out of 10 adults (93%) identify parks, playgrounds and green spaces as important in making somewhere a good place to live or work’. Green spaces also, of course, also have a direct bearing on obesity and health. There is now a growing evidence base from the UK and abroad on the impact parks can have on public health.
The newly formed Parks Alliance, which has been created as a voice of UK parks, believes the report “provides the evidence to back up the experience of park staff and volunteers on the ground that the parks we know, love and use are close to crisis point. “They are not the only ones to greet the report as a powerful wake up call. The National Trust, Nesta, Keep Britain Tidy, the Big Lottery Fund, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Groundwork, and the charity 4Children have all welcomed the publication of the report.
Alliance members know these are financially tough times. We do not dispute tough decisions are having to be made. Yet we also believe that we cannot afford to lose parks without considering the consequences. That is why we need collaborative action and a fresh approach to halt this threat of decline and stop this cycle of boom and bust.