Putting public parks on a sustainable path

As MPs examine the impact of local government cutbacks on public parks, Jamie Veitch looks at their true value to towns and cities and possible models to sustain them

parks
Norfolk Park, Sheffield. Photo by Ben McFarlane

Readers of a certain age may remember a dastardly villain from 1970s and 80s comics: the park-keeper. Determined to prevent ball-games, shouting, and children from playing on the grass, the ‘parkie’ was depicted as the dour fun-police. Kids did everything they could to outwit the parkie, but often got their comeuppance.

Publications like The Dandy have declined (it closed in 2012 after sales plummeted from two million to 8,000 copies per week), and the loss of staff from parks has been nearly as dramatic.

Three-quarters of local authorities have reduced their parks management teams over the past three years, and this is expected to continue over the next three years, according to research from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). They surveyed local authority park managers (and park friends and user groups; independent park trusts; and the general public) for their State of UK Public Parks report, published in September.

The parkie’s demise may not be lamented by modern (or former) youth, yet of course parks staff play a crucial role in maintenance and upkeep. ‘The most distinctive trend is the decline in frontline skills,’ according to the report’s author Peter Neal, an independent landscape consultant. In HLF’s survey, 41% of park managers reported that horticultural skills have fallen over the past three years. Managers also reported declines in landscape design and ecological expertise.

What does this mean for parks for the future? This autumn the communities and local government (CLG) committee launched an inquiry into public parks, to ‘examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on these open spaces and consider concerns that their existence is under threat.’

Giving evidence to the committee in October, Dave Morris, chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, described a crisis: ‘We have an immediate situation where 27,000 urban public green spaces are under threat because of underfunding and lack of statutory recognition.’

And HLF’s report says it’s ‘clear there is an increasing priority for financial and partnership skills that focus on funding and resources’.

Squaring the circle of financial management won’t be easy when budgets are continuing to decrease but use is rising – 92% of park managers’ maintenance budgets have reduced in the past three years; meanwhile frequency of use is increasing, according to HLF.

Drain on resources vs asset for local authorities

The CLG committee wanted witnesses to explain how the economic value of parks can be measured. Among them was Ellie Robinson, assistant director of external affairs at the National Trust, who talked about new research commissioned by the Trust and undertaken by Vivid Economics.

The research, based on parks in Sheffield, used the ‘natural capital accounting’ methodology, an accounting framework ‘consistent in its form and principles with financial reporting so that it can be read alongside the city council’s financial statements’.

Talking to Environment Journal, Vivid Economics’ Robin Smale makes the point that within standard management accounts, absence of valuation is treated as zero value, but natural capital accounting is ‘designed to capture the overall economic, social and environmental value of the public parks and greenspace asset and the services that benefit society as a whole’.

Vivid Economics’ research examined Sheffield’s portfolio of parks and green spaces, which covers around 4,100 hectares of the city.

The findings demonstrated that the value of the city’s green-space is £1.2bn – rather different to the liability of £16m that exists on the current balance sheet. And for every pound of public money spent, £34 of benefits are received by society. ‘It is beyond all doubt that expenditure on Sheffield’s parks services are excellent value for money,’ says Smale.

These benefits include improvements to physical and mental health, reduction in carbon dioxide, better air quality, flood risk management, and crime reduction. And while residents enjoy the greatest share of Sheffield’s parks’ benefits, others such as health service providers make savings that are greater than the costs of running the parks.

Smale says that since those providers are major beneficiaries they could ‘invest to save’ with ‘attractive investment returns’ available.

‘For example, if a health service provider were to make an investment in an endowment yielding 3.5%, the income from which was used to sustain parks services, they would receive returns of around 18% in real terms, which is much higher than the return they could expect to receive from alternative conventional investment.’ He adds that ‘one of the next things to consider is the cost effectiveness of specific health interventions’.

The true value of parks

National Trust director general Dame Helen Ghosh, a former civil servant, has flagged how Vivid’s findings set out a call to action from government. Speaking at October’s Future Parks conference, Ghosh said ‘we think we can make a clear business case for parks in that way my former colleagues at the Treasury will understand’.

Vivid is currently undertaking natural capital accounting work on parks and public green space across London, so expect more evidence when this is completed. Returning to the recent oral evidence to the CLG committee, the National Trust’s Robinson said the new report ‘makes a very clear case not to cut services any more, because the public purse would get hit by a greater sense of costs than the pound saved on parks’.

Further evidence can be found in Edinburgh where the social return on investment from parks was calculated to be £12 for every £1 invested, increasing to about £17 for the city’s premier central parks.

New international evidence backs up the experiences reported in Sheffield, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. A World Health Organisation (WHO) report, published this month, finds urban green spaces including parks, playgrounds, and residential greenery can promote mental and physical health, and reduce morbidity and mortality. The report (Urban Green Spaces and Health – a review of evidence) finds ‘cities with green spaces are likely to have healthier citizens and therefore reduced demands on health services, which contributes to a stronger economy’. It doesn’t focus on funding green spaces, but proposes a new indicator of green space availability, accessibility and usage – and a data analysis tool kit.

Finding a new model

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes
Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Increasing amounts of data demonstrates the economic value of parks alongside their social and environmental value. CLG committee member Mark Prisk asked this of witnesses: ‘Is there a better model? Never mind how much, but is there a different model that could be applied that might provide longer-term security than relying on three or four–year budgets in local authorities?’

The State of UK Public Parks 2016 report did provide some ideas. It highlights how increasing numbers of of local authorities are ‘exploring alternative management models for their parks and green spaces. Parks trusts and endowments offer important options to consider’.

The National Trust’s Future Parks toolkit describes a number of benefits to the creation of a city-wide parks trust, including its institutional focus, financial responsibility, ability to maximise economies of scale, and to harness public support.

Vivid’s Robin Smale explains: ‘One advantage of parks trusts is that they can protect the parks’ assets so their sustainability and maintenance is not subject to the exaggerated cycles of local authority funding availability.

‘Secondly, they are purpose-built to focus on parks and green space assets, and can act in a more entrepreneurial way than local authorities. A parks trust can have a management team thinking about what is best for future of their parks and with the flexibility to invest resources appropriately, whereas local authorities could find this very difficult to do.

‘This gives the potential to raise more income and more value from the assets. Trusts can also make more use of park friends groups and volunteers, since people might feel more personal motivation to support a trust than they do to support a local authority, and more personal alignment with the trust’s charitable objective.’

One successful example is The Parks Trust in Milton Keynes, established in 1992 to care for most of the city’s green space. On creation, it was endowed with a substantial property and investment portfolio, the income from which pays for its work to manage 5,000 acres of river valleys, woodlands, lakesides, parks and landscaped areas alongside the main roads – about 25% of the new city area.

Asked whether the UK’s parks are at risk, David Foster, the trust’s chief executive says: ‘Yes, many of them are and have been for some time, especially those that are owned and run by local authorities. Not surprisingly, most local authorities are having to make tough choices about where to cut expenditure and parks are an obvious choice, although the long-term effect on a community is rarely properly quantified.’

Vivid Economics’ Smale concurs: ‘When things get very tight for local authorities it is of course discretionary services that get cut. A risk for parks is that local authorities may feel that they can get away with not maintaining them – but gradually things do get worse and a backlog builds up.’

So could the parks trust model be used more widely across the UK? If so, why aren’t that many local authorities doing so (yet)?

Foster explains: ‘The parks trust model could be used more widely and could be part of the solution – but it’s not a magic bullet and it can’t produce the funds needed for maintenance and investment from nowhere.

‘It is a big job to set up a new parks trust from scratch but by far the biggest hurdle to overcome is political. Once a trust is established with cross-party support then great things can happen. Staff, volunteers and community groups can be set free as part of a single purpose organisation that is entrepreneurial, commercially-minded and driven.’

What advice would he offer to areas that wish to create a trust to care for their parks and green spaces?

‘Concentrate on the benefits it will bring and sell the idea to local people and secure political support,’ he says. ‘Ensure that the local authority can have ultimate control over the parkland by granting the trust a long lease, but give the trust complete freedom to raise funds and spend them as they think best.’

The next meeting of CLG’s inquiry into public parks committee was due to take place today with Foster giving evidence.

‘I will hopefully tell the committee how our model works and the reasons why it has been successful since it was established 25 years ago,’ he says. ‘I will explain how we continue to take on new parkland with endowments as the city expands, and extol the benefits of allowing park managers the freedom to excel and to get away from short term budgetary controls by moving out from under the constraints of the local authority.’

A matter of duty?

The October committee meeting discussed a potential ‘statutory duty’ at length. Charlotte Woodworth, a campaigns director at 38 Degrees, presented a petition (now with over 320,000 signatures) calling on the committee to ‘make the strongest recommendations possible’ to protect parks and to recommend government creates a statutory duty to look after them.

Should there be a statutory duty for (central or local) government to protect parks and green spaces and if so, what duties should it include?

‘Probably yes, but I think this is likely to be a distraction as it is very unlikely to be supported across government and local authorities are not in the business of taking on additional statutory duties without additional government funding allowances,’ says Foster.

‘If the government can be persuaded to put some money into rescuing local parks and giving them a long term future, it would be much better placed helping local authorities set up parks trusts and setting their parks free under this new model.’

A previous select committee considered the future of parks in 2003 and recommended a statutory duty with long-term funding solutions. Dave Morris of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces told the 2016 committee that the general public thinks there already is a statutory duty.

But he gave a clarion call to fund parks through local authorities: ‘Local authority management over 170 years has ensured that parks have survived even through late 20th century funding crises. Historically, all other funding models have failed. Since Victorian times, public parks have been dogged by a lack of recognition as an essential infrastructure and service, as local authorities have no statutory duty. It is critical that the status of public parks is resolved.’

He added: ‘Innovation should be within the context of local authorities having the duty to manage, and where they do not manage, certainly to monitor and ensure standards, which would come with a statutory duty.’

In Environment Journal earlier this month, Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust, said some ‘enlightened local authorities who have protected their green spaces in perpetuity are delivering a de facto statutory provision of parks’ already’.

She points out that this provision is uneven: ‘Neighbouring councils might dispose of these sites for development, delivering a diminished and unequal service for their communities.’ So perhaps creating more park trusts really could mitigate this risk.

Robin Smale also believes we need to think about the government’s accountability. And he also comments that any statutory duty would need to incorporate specific responsibilities: ‘There’s protecting the geographical estate (against development) and there is protecting its quality which is another thing entirely.’

This article began with a reference to park-keepers in 1980s comics. Let’s conclude with another shoehorned 80s reference. Remember the Talking Heads’ track ‘Nothing But Flowers?’ It imagined a future in which concrete developments have reverted to grass, flowers, and green open spaces, a ‘peaceful oasis’. Nine words stand out: ‘And as things fell apart nobody paid much attention.’

We may not miss the enforcement of strict rules against playing in green spaces, but the evidence suggests unless we take rapid steps to better value, protect and maintain them, we won’t just lose their social and environmental benefits to our communities, we’ll lose their value to the economy too.

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Jamie Veitch

Freelance writer and consultant

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