In a report published today, the communities and local government select committee calls on local authorities to draw up strategic plans, which recognise the value of parks and show how they will use them to tackle wider issues, like healthy lifestyles, social exclusion and flood risks.
The committee’s final report warns park management budgets have been cut by up to 97% by local authorities as they struggle to deal with increased demand for other services and cuts from central government.
It also calls on parks minister, Andrew Percy, the Local Government Association (LGA) and other groups to look at alternative management models to help preserve Britain’s parks and keep them open.
It recommends parks remain under local authority control and freely available to everyone, although the report also notes the uneven distribution of parks, which means many people in deprived areas do not have easy access to them.
‘Parks are treasured public assets, as the overwhelming response to our inquiry demonstrates, but they are at a tipping point, and if we are to prevent a period of decline with potentially severe consequences then action must be taken,’ said committee chair, Clive Betts.
‘The government have a leadership and co-ordination role to play and volunteers do fantastic work in the sector, but the primary responsibility lies with local authorities.’
The report also calls on the government to issue guidance to councils on working with health and wellbeing boards and other public sector bodies to develop these joint plans.
But the MPs stopped short of calls by campaigning groups, such as We Own It and the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, which represents thousands of ‘friends of parks’ groups to put councils under a statutory duty to protect parks.
Instead, it recommends ministers considering making joint plans a legal requirement if the voluntary guidance proves to be ineffective.
The chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, Dave Morris said there is ‘no alternative’ but for the government to make the management of parks a statutory service, backed up by adequate public funding.
‘It is disappointing that the select committee has not insisted on that as the crisis will continue to spiral out of control until the government takes seriously its responsibility for causing and solving this crisis,’ said Mr Morris.
‘The select committee MPs did praise the work of the friends groups movement and we welcome their calls for all to help the movement grow. We pledge to continue the fight to defend and improve the UK’s green spaces,’ he added.
The director of the campaigning group, We Own It, Cat Hobbs, claimed ‘our precious parks are in danger and the committee knows it’.
‘Councils are in an impossible situation because of government funding cuts,’ said Ms Hobbs. ‘Communities and volunteers can’t pick up the slack. In the scramble for savings, the quality of our public parks is at risk. Meanwhile, the door is left open for some form of privatisation – which 70% of us don‘t want. The committee should send a clear message back to government – stop handing out billions in corporation tax cuts, it’s time to properly fund the public services we all value so much.’
The chief executive of the environmental charity Groundwork, Graham Duxbury, said there is a ‘vibrant and growing community sector’ out there who want to use Britain’s green spaces.
‘As we work together to find solutions to the crisis facing our parks, we need to build a better support system for those on the front line,’ said Mr Duxbury,
‘Britain led the world in creating a network of green spaces to improve the health of urban communities through a mix of municipal leadership, private philanthropy and voluntary endeavour,’ he added.
‘We need to find a 21st century version of this mixed economy and common purpose if we’re going to stop the rot.’
But the chair of the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, Cllr Ian Stephens, said local authorities understand the importance of parks to residents.
‘Councils are taking innovative approaches to using park spaces, such as providing pop-up spaces, hosting local events and giving communities a say in how their parks are run,’ said Cllr Stephens.
‘Ensuring parks remain open and accessible to our communities is a key concern for councils. However, over the previous parliament central government funding for councils was reduced by 40% in real terms and they continue to experience funding pressures. Despite this difficult backdrop, councils are doing everything they can to provide the best possible park services.’
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government said a full response to the committee’s recommendations would be published in due course, adding: ‘Parks breathe life into our towns and cities and are vital spaces for the whole community to come together to exercise, learn and play.
‘That’s why last year we announced a £1.5m fund to deliver 87 pocket parks to benefit those living in urban areas with limited access to green space.’
Photo by humbert15