Paul. A. Rabbitts    

Author, Parks Historian & Public Speaker

Blog

Parks Inquiry? History repeated

Posted on 15 February, 2017 at 19:30

The Public Parks Inquiry is completed. 

So, after waiting months, an incredible amount of submissions on the future of parks submitted to DCLG, and then the anticipation of something? What would be that something?  Its conclusion was as follows:-


The significant interest in, and the overwhelming response to, our inquiry is a clear indication of just how strongly people feel about their local parks, how much they value them, and how important it is that action is taken to safeguard and secure the future of England’s parks and green spaces. Our witnesses—individuals, friends groups, local authorities, and other bodies—describe parks as being at a tipping point. As Cllr Trickett of Birmingham City Council told us: “We have been innovative and we have looked at alternatives, but the cuts are in very great danger of tilting the balance too far”.265 If action is taken, and appropriate priority given to parks, we do not believe it is too late to prevent a period of decline. However, if the value of parks and their potential contribution are not recognised, then the consequences could be severe for some of the most important policy agendas facing our communities today. 136.There is, clearly, no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Responsibility for parks lies primarily with local authorities. We believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions which are appropriate for their local circumstances. However, within a context of declining local authority budgets, we believe that there is a role for central government to play in providing vision, leadership and coordination, facilitating the sharing of lessons learned and best practice, and ensuring that the role of parks, their contribution, and their function as just one element of our wider green infrastructure networks, is recognised.


The findings have told us nothing new at all.  Bullet points that I picked up on:-


We recognise that parks have traditionally been seen as financial liabilities for local authorities, and understand that assessing the value of parks to their communities in wider terms can be complex. Parks are not financial liabilities. They are financial assets, they are community assets and in comparison to most other services provided by Local Authorities they are incredibly cheap to provide. Cost per user is pence in comparison to the delivery of a waste service or a leisure centre. 


In the planning and management of parks, local authorities must engage effectively in dialogue with their communities to assess and understand their needs, and to explain the decisions which they take. We have been doing this for the last 20 years since the advent of Green Flag - not even mentioned in the summary or conclusions??? Talk about teaching us to suck eggs! 


We believe that addressing the challenges which face the parks sector in a way which secures a sustainable future for England’s parks may require fundamental service transformation, which takes into account the wider value and benefits which parks deliver, beyond their amenity and leisure value. We have received a wide range of suggestions for alternative funding sources for parks, and examples of different approaches to parks management. A recent report by Dr Katy Layton Jones summarised that despit there being attempts at finding alternative funding models such as Trusts, ALMO's, community asset transfers etc, the core method in funding parks is in fact the tried and tested method - a local authority model with adequate funding to provide a decent quality service. Rethinking Parks by Nesta in my humble view really gave us nothing - it scratched the surface and the figures saved were a pittance. The scale of cuts in places in Newcastle and other large authorities are simply abhorrent. Transferring the 'problem' to another organisation such as the National Trust is a bold move. I am not sure its the answer. Nationally it has to be decent funded parks managed by Local Authorities. 


We recognise, in principle, the benefits of designating senior elected members and officials as parks champions with responsibility for highlighting and coordinating the contribution which parks make to the achievement of broader council objectives, and for preparing strategies for their parks and green spaces. We have all done this, BUT a strategy that is not underpinned by investment or funding is not worth the paper it is written on. A Parks Champion in a local authority - tried before - politicians come and go and a good politician can shout about the need for great parks and we have had successive parks ministers allegedly and they have achieved nothing - they come and go. 


We recommend that the Minister issues very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies. I like this and I think it is important. Local Authorities now have a role to play in Public Health Agenda and I do think there should be more collaborative work between Health Trusts and Local Authorities - decent parks means decent health, the evidence is overwhelming. My angst here is the NHS is an alleged mess, underfunded and overstretched but if they could be persuaded long term of the savings that would be made by working with parks providers, and allocating 'budget' to preventative health care (quality green spaces, community activators, sport, activities, health works etc), there could be some real inroads made. My hope from the inquiry was this could be something revolutionary. Remember in 1833 with the Select Committee for Public Walks, the reason why we got parks was to improve public health. I hope the minister picks up on this. 


We welcome the steps taken by the parks sector in England to fill the gap left by CABE Space and Greenspace, such as the establishment of the Parks Alliance and the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Future Parks project led by the National Trust, and the work undertaken as part of Nesta’s Rethinking Parks programme to bring together a database of people and groups with an interest in parks. Are we getting CABE Space back? The government took it off us. I didn't see any reference to the HLF in the conclusions either. I am sure its in the body of the report. Or Green Flag? The Parks Alliance are made up of a small number of volunteers who work in the parks sector. We have APSE but do we have a body representing us? lobbying for us? How we miss ILAM!! 


We believe that early priorities for the group should include: establishing and maintaining an online parks information hub to make it easier for local authorities to find out about what other authorities are doing, to facilitate the sharing of learning and good practice, and to provide signposting to other sources of information or advice; and working with the Local Government Association to develop and implement options for establishing and supporting national or regional park manager forums in England, learning from the approach taken in Scotland. Yes we had that with CABE Space and their work was incredible. That information still exists. 


In my conclusion, the inquiry was comprehensive, it raised our hopes but the outcome is that it has given us nothing. It was reinforced to me tonight with a Facebook update from the Friends of Small Heath Park in Birmingham who are witnessing the wholesale removal of shrub beds in their local park - a historic park for many reasons, because the City Council cannot afford to maintain them. The responses were highly critical of the council yet many if not most are left with some very stark choices.  We have to fight to survive or the work many of us have done over the last 20 years will be undone. One glimmer of light I do have and I frequently cite is that many of our parks are 100 years old or more and whilst like life itself, they ebb and flow, they have survived decades of use and abuse, they have outlived governements, cuts, mismanagement, world wars, riots, vandalism and the majority of them are still with us. History tells us this BUT we should learn from history - it would save so much time, effort and money by so many (or so few of us today). #myparkmatters. 

The Report is here 




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