Yet unlike education or libraries, parks are a discretionary service which councils have no statutory duty to provide. There is no specific requirement to consult with local planning authorities about disposal of informal recreation space and no national audit is kept, making it difficult to track the losses of these vital assets.
While the number of park visits is rising, investment has decreased and maintenance and upkeep has been reduced; local authority spending on open spaces fell by 14% between 2010 and 2014.
The Heritage Lottery Fund State of UK Public Parks 2016 report reveals that 92% of park managers reported cuts to their revenue budget over the past three years and 95% expect their revenue budget to be cut over the next three years.
All local authorities have to make tough decisions over funding and the temptation for cash-strapped councils to auction off assets is significant; not only to generate immediate income, but also remove a longer term maintenance liability.
Development of parks and gardens for commercial or residential use is often irreversible. Our parks are facing increasingly challenged futures, which has prompted a parliamentary inquiry by the Communities and Local Government committee into the future funding of parks. The inquiry has had almost 400 written submissions and this week began taking oral evidence.
Committee chair Clive Betts 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’.
The Fields in Trust submission to the DCLG inquiry argues that we need to change the way public green space is conceived, not as a drain on spending that requires a considerable funding to maintain – but rather as an asset which can be deployed to achieve longer term savings.
Numerous research studies have demonstrated the health impact of access to green space in encouraging physical exercise, promoting mental wellbeing, and providing a stress-free space to relax. In addition to the health benefits, public open spaces are a place for neighbours to come together for events and activities – assisting community cohesion and reducing isolation.
Across the UK some local authorities understand the value of their outdoor space, Edinburgh Council has estimated that for every £1 spent on green infrastructure, around £12 of social, economic and environmental benefits are delivered through the community use of parks and green spaces. Earlier this year Glasgow Council dedicated 27 sites across the city with Fields in Trust – securing forever these playgrounds and parks as recreational space. The council’s open spaces strategy recognises the health, wellbeing and play benefits green space provides and have committed to its upkeep forever.
Yet the provision is not evenly spread: enlightened local authorities who have protected their green spaces in perpetuity are delivering a de facto statutory provision of parks, while neighbouring councils might dispose of these sites for development, delivering a diminished and unequal service for their communities.
Parks and open spaces contribute to the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our communities, provide civic spaces for the development of community cohesion through festivals and events and contribute to the ‘liveability’ of our towns and cities, but are undervalued and underfunded.
We need to ensure funding for parks is commensurate with their positive impact on communities. At a time when green space is increasingly under threat of development for housing and employment, the need to secure places for play, sport, the enjoyment of nature and recreation has never been greater; current concerns about health, child obesity, access to nature and mental wellbeing all require a green infrastructure for future generations to enjoy, forever.
Photo by alvin.leong