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If parks are the “lungs of the city” the UK has caught a nasty cough

James Wilmore reports on how councils are selling-off, privatising or scrimping on public space

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City parks are critical for public health Photo: Getty
City parks are critical for public health Photo: Getty

Parks are the “lungs of the city”, as renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted once said.

 

Well, if that’s the case, a worrying number of the UK’s green spaces have a nasty cough.

 

Six out of 10 councils, responding to a Freedom of Information request last year, said they had cut spending on parks and green spaces.

 

And with austerity still stifling local authorities - despite the chancellor’s assurances austerity is over - serious concerns remain.

 

At last month’s Labour Party conference, the crisis over green space featured in the shape of a fringe event hosted by the National Trust and New Statesman. Labour’s shadow communities minister Stephen Morgan spoke in support of parks and reportedly committed to make them a statutory service for councils. At the moment they are not.

 

 

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Amid the climate emergency, an increasing focus on public health and wellbeing and worries over the sell-off of public space, the parks crisis feels more prescient than ever.

 

Some are hopeful though this perfect storm of factors will provide a lifeline. “It’s a moment in time where we have an opportunity to play up the benefits of investing in our parks,” says Sue Morgan, the Design Council’s director of architecture and the built environment.

 

Action, of sorts, is being taken. The government points to around £15m of recent investment to help councils maintain and develop parks. In 2017, ministers launched the Parks Action Group, designed to share “innovative models” to help fund parks. And the Pocket Parks scheme, aimed at helping community groups establish a small park or refurbish an existing one, has this autumn been handed an extra £1.35m.

 

There are other promising initiatives. This summer the National Trust and National Lottery Heritage Fund launched the Future Parks joint venture and charity Nesta runs the Rethinking Parks initiative.

 

“There’ll be some communities where there is money and influence and they will be able to maintain their parks… But my fear is it becomes patchy”

 

But despite these schemes, the basic maintenance and management of parks remain a worry. “Parks funding is not easy,” says Morgan, who also sits on the board of the Parks Alliance, a not-for-profit company working to protect parks. “People have been trying to crack it for a very long time. It comes down to that fact there isn’t enough money to go around and people don’t value parks and green spaces as much as other types of spaces.”

 

Spending in any organisation always requires convincing the finance boffins of the tangible benefits. But there are plenty of upsides when it comes to parks.

 

According to research from the University of Exeter, green spaces contribute £2.2bn to public health. The UK Natural Environment Assessment, meanwhile, concluded that neglecting the UK’s ecosystems could cost the UK economy £20bn a year, whereas caring for them properly could add an extra £30bn a year of economic benefit.

 

And a model devised by Edinburgh City Council found that for every £1 of investment in parks around £12 of benefits are delivered.

 

Action is being taken, but the basic management of parks remain a worry Photo: Getty
Action is being taken, but the basic management of parks remain a worry Photo: Getty

 

This recognition is not a modern phenomenon. As Mark Walton, of Shared Assets, a not-for-profit consultancy that promotes new models of land use, says: "The Victorians knew we needed parks for health and well-being if we lived in crowded cities.”

 

Morgan adds: “Parks have massive value for cities, they humanise them and are democratic spaces.”

 

While the government is taking some steps, clearly there is a big job to be done on a local level. So what is being done?

 

There are solutions but they are not devoid of dangers. One local authority has decided to take radical action. Newcastle City Council has handed over its 33 parks and 61 allotments to an independent trust. Urban Green Newcastle, formerly known as Newcastle Parks and Allotments Trust, has all the council’s sites on 125-year leases, but the local authority retains overall ownership. The trust, which is employing 25 staff, is responsible for managing and maintaining the spaces.

 

Tony Durcan, Newcastle City Council’s assistant director of transformation, says the move is “in many ways, a direct result of the austerity programme” as parks had been “taking a battering” since 2009.

 

And a model devised by Edinburgh City Council found that for every £1 of investment in parks around £12 of benefits are delivered

 

The trust is aiming to be self-sufficient within 10 years, but has been handed £9.5m initially by the council to finds its feet. Mr Durcan describes it as “breathing space”.

 

Without public money how will the parks be maintained? Three strands of income have been identified, the trust’s chief executive James Cross tells The Developer. He believes the majority of cash, around 70%, will come from commercial activities, including hosting events and leasing out buildings. Within the trust’s portfolio is around 100 buildings, which Mr Cross says could be rented out to “people with ethical or environmental leanings”.

 

More events, such as concerts and festivals at Exhibition Park in the city centre are also a potential revenue stream, says Mr Cross. However, he emphasised the trust would only do things that “make the park a better place”. Previously free events had been held in the park, where concerns were raised over noise and public access. But Mr Cross insists that a park would never be completely closed.

 

As a charity, the trust will also rely on donations. But Mr Cross says this will be a “small part of what we do”. He adds: “Because we are charity we are finding that people want to donate to us. People are interested in working with us for corporate sponsorship days, or corporate volunteering days. But we are not going out to actively seek donations.”

Grants will make up the third strand of income, from organisations such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

 

“Parks have massive value for cities, they humanise them and are democratic spaces”

 

As a charity, the advantage the trust has over the council is that any cash generated will be automatically reinvested. “If somebody buys a cup of coffee from one of our concessions, they can do that safe in the knowledge that it will pay for a fence repair in Walker Park,” explains Mr Cross.

 

With its official launch this month, Urban Green Newcastle committed to spending £2.5m on improving the city’s parks and allotments over the next five years.

 

Inevitably though, with the council handing over control of its parks to an unelected body, albeit a charity, concerns over accountability will surface.

 

In evidence to MPs in 2017, Mark Walton said: “Charitable trusts can be self‑perpetuating oligarchies where the board is simply replaced by a tap on the shoulder and new people are invited in. How do you ensure that there is local accountability for what are public assets?”

 

Mr Cross responds: “We’re regulated by the charitable trust. We’ve got a chair and trustees that are appointed by open competition and anybody is invited to apply. We don’t have the closed shop, tap on the shoulder.”

 

 

The trust is also setting up a sub-committee, comprising of members of the public, that he says will “help us and give us advice about how we engage”.

 

The council’s Mr Durcan admits the issue is “quite difficult”. He says: “On the one hand you set up an independent body because it can do things in a different way and have access to other funding sources that you don’t have. On the other hand, you don’t have that control over it.” He points to the sub-committee as a way of keeping a check on the trust’s activities.

 

He adds: “We’ve also been careful how we’ve crafted the charitable objectives and the council will keep a close eye. If the the trust is not delivering those objectives we can talk to the charities commission.”

 

Councils will no doubt be watching the progress of the Newcastle model. Ms Morgan, however, is slightly sceptical at this stage. She says: “Are they going to be able to make enough money to look after the parks? I think the jury is out on that one. In terms of the business model, there is no endowment. It’s still early days and we need to see how it’s going to work.”

 

Elsewhere, other cities are taking a different approach. In the west country, charity the Bristol and Bath Parks Foundation has been established to raise money for local parks. This is in addition to a grant of £900,000 awarded as part of the Future Parks initiative. But, unlike Newcastle, the foundation will not be responsible for the management and maintenance of parks.

 

Rob Acton-Campbell, chair of the foundation’s trustees, says: “We didn’t like the idea of the parks being handed over to a trust (as in Newcastle). I think it’s quite a risk, it’s very ambitious. If the charity didn’t succeed, what would happen?”

 

“We didn’t like the idea of the parks being handed over to a trust... If the charity didn’t succeed, what would happen?”

 

The public in Bristol and Bath, he believes, would not have supported the idea. “Politically, people feel they are their parks,” he adds. “And we didn’t really think the charity would be able to raise enough money to entirely cover the cost of maintaining parks. We just thought it was a non-starter.”

 

Instead, his organisation will be run purely for fundraising to support individual projects and encourage public activities in the parks. Like many councils, Bristol has cut its parks’ budget as austerity has bitten.

 

Mr Acton-Campbell believes that as a charity it will have a better chance of raising money from the private sector. No doubt developers are wary of contributions they already pay through section 106 and the community infrastructure levy.

 

But he says: “Businesses we have spoken to are reluctant to give money to a council, but will give money to a charity.

 

“We’re trying to build relationships with businesses and obviously they benefit from parks and green spaces, it can help retain staff for them.”

 

“It’s all about seeing improvements in parks and seeing them used more.”

 

However, like Newcastle, the group is wary of working with the right type of commercial partners. Mr Acton-Campbell says: “Like all charities, we will be careful who we accept money from.”

 

The group is also keeping a check that the council does not cut its current budget for parks any further. “We’re in the process of getting an agreement with the council to say that they won’t reduce the budget if we raise money,” says Mr Acton-Campbell.

 

The group will also be keeping an eye on property developments close to parks to ensure green spaces are not forgotten about. “We want to see that any plans come forward benefit a park and are not just presented as some great big flat concrete wall against the park.”

 

“It’s all about seeing improvements in parks and seeing them used more.”

 

Around the country, other areas are also stepping up their focus on the future of their green spaces. As part of the Future Parks initiative, eight areas have been chosen to share a pot of £11m.

 

Among the winners were Islington and Camden, which plans to use their green spaces to “improve health and wellbeing by developing closer links to the NHS, health providers, doctors and health charities”, the National Trust says.

 

An indication though of the dire need for money is the fact that 81 councils and communities applied to the fund.

 

While the £11m may not seem a lot, the National Trust proudly says it is “the first time in the UK that a programme of this scale and ambition has been attempted for urban green spaces across entire towns and cities”.

 

At the time of the launch, Hilary McGrady, the National Trust’s director general, said: “We need to give parks a reboot and start thinking about them as essential elements of our communities in the same way we think about housing or transport.

 

“Future Parks is the beginning of something really exciting. What these eight places achieve will help guide how other councils and communities can really make a difference to securing the future of their parks too.”

 

Mr Walton admits he is “encouraged by the amount of thinking going into new models”.

 

But for hard-pressed councils that have missed out on funding, the worry remains. “There’ll be some communities where there is money and influence and they will be able to maintain their parks,” Mr Walton concludes. “But my fear is it becomes patchy.”

 

The future of Britain’s parks still feels far from secure.

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