What does the future hold for public parks and open spaces and what are the issues which parks managers are currently facing?
Green Flag judge, Bernard Sheridan, looks at the current state of play and issues a rallying call to get behind the Parks Alliance
Throughout Britain, over the last few years, many areas have seen a dramatic decline in the standards of maintenance of, and investment in, council-managed land; grass cut less frequently, heaps of clippings making amenity grass areas unusable for picnics, ball games or even walking; repairs to paths and vandalism and graffiti removal taking longer; pruning to hedges, shrubs and trees not carried out, litter not collected and bins not emptied etc. And the reliable prediction for the future is further and much deeper budget cuts.
Why have these important, valuable community assets, which are so much part of our everyday lives, become the victims of such unsympathetic treatment in the austerity era? What is the likely aftermath of the cuts and what is the future in the 21st century for parks and green spaces? In the age of destination gardens, theme parks and attractions, internet and home media, do they still have a relevant role? Are they really such low priorities for council tax-payers and are many of them destined to become merely poorly maintained dog-walking areas with little real purpose?
It is claimed that, currently, eighty percent of amateur sports are still played on local authority pitches and recreation grounds, and millions of people visit parks and green spaces every day to get fresh air, exercise and a healthy dose of nature and outdoor life. Whilst the Government and health experts are desperately trying to promote healthy lifestyles and fight obesity, the ever-deepening austerity measures in local government funding are hitting the non-statutory services such as parks and green spaces proportionally much harder than protected services, such as social care and education.
Difficult choices have to be made by politicians and local authorities and there will always be arguments for and against various cut-back options, but is anyone out there making the case on behalf of parks and green spaces? There is clear evidence to show that these sites are closely linked to healthy lifestyles and wellbeing and their deterioration will seriously affect all communities, but especially the poorer section of society who depend on free or affordable local facilities. Is this decline inevitable and is anyone leading the fight to halt it?
Parks professionals are currently at the forefront of the battle to safeguard standards and are struggling with a range of urgent and important issues:
- This is an era of deepening austerity and budget cuts in the public sector which is affecting parks services, which are claimed to be non-statutory, disproportionally greater than many statutory services, such as health, education etc.
- Many departments have been stripped of staff and resources, having been constantly restructured, some departments being absorbed into larger services, often leaving services disrupted and staff demoralised and demotivated, yet they are still expected to maintain and improve service standards
- Expertise and vital skills are being lost with job-cuts, ageing workforces and minimal investment in training
- Maintenance is increasingly being contracted out, often with the thinnest of cost margins and usually on a short-term basis, leading to poor continuity, lowering of standards and often disruption
- There is little available research, guidance or general agreement on new models for management and maintenance in order to cope with the reduced funding available
- There is no longer any national organisation which champions or provides guidance on public open spaces issues
- There is no single national organisation or association for those working in the parks and green spaces sector
In 1999, little more than fifteen years ago, a House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into the state of parks, after hearing a wide range of outstanding evidence, concluded that public open space, specifically "town and country parks", were desperately in need of protection and investment to halt years of decline which had left many parks derelict and unsafe. They were "shocked at the weight of evidence, far beyond our expectations, about the extent of the problems parks have faced in the last thirty years".
The Select Committee adopted a Council of Europe statement in its final report which outlines why parks are so valuable to society, and why they are worth protecting (see below).
The Select Committee recognised that parks and green spaces had slipped down the political agenda and funding priorities. Along with the legacy of the now-discredited Compulsory Competitive Tendering regime, the lack of a central, co-ordinating, authoritative body for open spaces was cited by many as a major reason for the decline. There was, then, an Arts Council, Sports Council, Countryside Commission, etc. but no 'Parks Council' or 'Open Spaces Commission'. A brave Government decision was made in 2003 to create a new department in the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to be called CABESpace, which would champion and promote the parks and open spaces cause.
The next few years saw a parks renaissance in many cities, towns and boroughs. National Lottery funding, the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, the success of the Green Flag Award, the growth of Friends of Parks Groups, the creation of Greenspace and their joint training programmes with CABESpace, all gave parks and open spaces managers and staff some assurance that, at last, the importance of public open spaces was recognised at the highest level. Greenspace helped to co-ordinate an association for parks sector professionals called the Institute of Parks and Green Spaces (IPGS) which provided a regular magazine, e-newsletter and website forum to support and inform those who joined it. It seemed, at that time, that the campaign to show how green spaces contribute to health and wellbeing, tourism, inward investment, placemaking, liveability and quality of life, biodiversity, climate amelioration, urban drainage, community spirit etc. had been won and the need for them to be recognised as national treasures, despite their current condition, had finally been recognised.
Then along came the recession, starting in late 2008. The regime of austerity in Government spending saw non-statutory services, such as sports, recreation and the environment, as soft targets for swingeing budget cuts, often euphemistically termed "efficiency savings". A new wave of deeper budget cuts and outsourcing services to the private sector started, as local authorities desperately sought ways to quickly reduce costs.
A cull of quangos (Quasi Non-Government Organisations) and other part government-supported organisations, following the General Election in 2010, saw the funding for CABESpace and Greenspace cease. They were wound up and the Green Flag Award only just escaped the axe.
This left the green space sector back where it had been ten years before, without leadership or a voice in Government. There was now, quite deliberately, no recognised organisation to champion parks and green spaces at a time when the most severe cut-backs for years began to reduce services to unparalleled levels.
We are, it seems, now heading towards a future of ever-deepening austerity and unprecedented cut-backs in public spending, and the next few years are likely to see dramatic changes in the way open spaces are managed. Grounds maintenance contractors now openly admit they are forced into cut-throat bidding wars where unrealistic targets are agreed and unrealistic profit margins are accepted in order to win contracts.
Many authorities have consulted the public who, unsurprisingly, often see grounds maintenance tasks such as grass-mowing as low priority compared with crime, health, education, social care, etc. but, when confronted with the reality of unkempt grass outside their door, or in their local park, immediately contact local media or the council to complain bitterly.
Some councils have had to close facilities such as bowling greens, tennis courts, football and cricket pitches, ironically at a time when the Olympic legacy and the obesity crisis are high-profile concerns. Often, they are being forced, by the Government's meagre financial settlements, into hurried staff restructures resulting in depleted parks departments, job losses, facility closures and reduced maintenance frequencies. Departments were previously encouraged to create visions for their green spaces, along with strategies, management plans and policy aspirations. These are being hurriedly dumbed down or jettisoned in a bid to cope, and we have rapidly changed from an era of improvement and achievement back to managing decline.
English Heritage, which keeps a register of historic parks and gardens, say that over ninety of its 1600 plus sites are on an 'at risk register', still having no long term management and maintenance plans.
Many cash-strapped councils have chosen to lose managers and office support staff and even site-based staff and rangers, leaving services unable to cope with increased workloads, especially with the swelling tide of newly-generated complaints. Without thinking through the consequences to communities, some authorities could find themselves in real difficulties by not choosing the cut-backs wisely.
It is difficult to reverse changes once the budget has gone, the facilities closed, the savings made and the public and media are up in arms!
Many parks professionals are struggling to keep up with the pressures of day-to-day workload, and important decisions are often then taken by senior managers and council members who lack parks sector background, which is not always a problem, but can lead to the making of elementary mistakes.
There is now a real danger that parks and open spaces could decline again to the level of the seventies and eighties, through neglect, and even abandonment, as there is no current recognised and agreed approach to reducing services, or guidance available on how to intelligently and positively manage cut-backs without causing harm to infrastructure, biodiversity and the health and wellbeing of communities.
It will be interesting to see what solutions emerge over the next few years, especially if the dire forecasts and expectations come true, especially as the limited current economic growth is not proving to be robust. This will be the challenge of our time, for this generation of landscape and green space sector professionals, volunteers and supporters. Now is a perfect time to rethink the role of parks and open spaces, and how they are maintained, if our parks and green spaces are not to decline to the level of the semi-derelict sites seen thirty years ago, and currently seen in many parts of Europe.
Some local authorities are taking the lead in their local areas with innovative approaches, but wouldn't it be really helpful to have a national body to turn to, which is capable of leading and advising on coping strategies for cutting costs with the minimum damage? So where do parks managers and officers look for guidance, support and inspiration in tackling the challenges of the austerity era?
In the 1990s, the campaign to create a national parks body to protect and champion parks and provide guidance and training, was led by a distinguished group of green space luminaries, including the late Alan Barber from the Institute for Leisure and Amenity Management, Ken Warpole from Comedia/Demos, Alan Ruff from Manchester University, Stewart Harding and David Lambert from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the author Dr Hazel Conway and many others.
By providing clear evidence of the critical importance of parks green spaces, they succeeded in persuading the government of the day that a national body for parks was urgent and essential. How could the evidence and the lessons of a few years ago be forgotten and ignored so quickly?
The hollow argument that parks and greenspaces are non-statutory belies the fact that there is a duty of care to keep any site open to the public in a safe condition. This could mean that some sites will be required to close if they decline too far, despite the evidence base for the importance of parks having grown richer and more persuasive over the years. In particular, the positive benefits to physical and mental health, the effect of good green space on increasing property values and the spiral of decline and anti-social behaviour associated with neglected parks.
For example, a team led by Professor David Sloan Wilson at Binghampton University, New York, recently carried out anthropological research work on 'prosociality' - the trait that makes people and communities care for each other and allow some neighbourhoods to thrive and those without it to sink. He showed that many people in neighbourhoods fail to interact socially, and that these neighbourhoods are places where people least enjoyed living. When given a shared goal to improve the neighbourhood, people became more considerate and supportive and the community was enriched and flourished with property values increased. And what was the flagship project on which the research was based - you've guessed it - creating a park from a neglected green space!
Today, the Parks Alliance, backed by Horticulture Week, is fighting the same fight all over again. Other organisations, such as the Royal Horticultural Society, the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, the Association for Professional Service Excellence, National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces (Friend's group national organisation) and indeed, Pitchcare, are all expressing their concern for the future of our parks.
The Parks Alliance, which is taking the lead in championing parks, must involve, energise, support and enthuse parks professionals if they are to be successful. In return, parks professionals must recognise the efforts being made on their behalf and support the Parks Alliance. A quick look at their website will explain how you can help.
The Institute of Parks and Green Spaces, was an emerging association for sector professionals which folded when Greenspace's funding was cut, but it is still surprising that, compared with arborists, groundsmen, golf greenkeepers etc., parks professionals have not forged themselves into a coherent association or body. Also, many managers and officers are now too over-stretched to even attend regional benchmarking groups or industry seminars, so benchmarking, joint working and the cross-fertilisation of ideas is diminishing. Perhaps the Parks Alliance, as it develops, can help to support and involve today's parks professionals.
Future issues of Pitchcare will examine the search for new models and approaches to the management and maintenance of parks, and report progress on some of these major challenges. We will see how the impact of the National Pollinator Strategy, the use of carefully planned mowing regimes, wildflower and contemporary urban planting, community interest companies, outcome specifications and partnership contracts etc. can all contribute to integrated approaches which will help steer us through these challenging times.
Pitchcare is keen to hear your stories, problems and concerns relating to the current parks scene in your area, and especially any new approaches which help you adjust or change to allow for austerity measures. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: A former Head of Environmental Services, Bernard Sheridan is a consultant providing advice and management support to local authorities and organisations. With a background in parks, countryside, horticultural and sports turf management, he has particular expertise in developing green space policies and strategies, community involvement and delivering operational plans and services. Bernard is an RHS Master of Horticulture, NDT(IoG) and a member of Chartered Institute of Horticulture.
"Urban parks and green spaces are an essential part of the urban heritage and infrastructure, being a strong element in the architectural and landscape character of towns and cities, providing a sense of place and engendering civic pride. They are important for enabling social interaction and fostering community development.
Public green spaces help to conserve natural systems, including carbon, water and other natural cycles, within the urban environment, supporting ecosystems and providing the contrast of living elements in both designed landscapes and conserved wildlife habitats within our urban settlements.
Parks and green spaces are supportive of social and economic objectives and activities. In particular, the provision of public parks helps to reduce the inequalities, poor health and social exclusion in deprived areas and reduces the inherent tension between the many social and ethnic groups who form the wider community.
Providing for the recreational and leisure needs of a community assists the economic revival of cities, increasing their attractiveness as a place for business investment, to live, work and take our leisure."