Paul Rabbitts    

BA (Hons), MLA, FRSA, FLI
Author, Parks Historian & Speaker

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A NATION OF PARK BUILDERS AT CRISIS POINT??? AGAIN!

Posted on 16 March, 2019 at 19:15

In the Autumn 1999 edition of Historic Gardens Review, Linden Thornton (now Groves) wrote an article ‘Gambling’s Gains’ describing the effect of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘impressive impact’ on urban parks through its incredibly successful Urban Parks Programme, describing it as ‘its greatest success story’. Implemented in 1996, the now National Lottery Heritage Fund has invested over £900 million in the last 22 years into public parks. They have been the savior of some of our most important cultural landscapes. Yet in December 2017, they announced the closure of ring-fenced funding for public parks – the popular ‘Parks for People’ programme and in 2019 announced a new far more streamlined heritage programme aimed at a wider heritage sector, including public parks. This came after many years of austerity which saw cuts in many parks budgets nationwide, in places up to 90%. The loss of dedicated Lottery funds was seen by many as the ‘nail in the coffin’ for many parks professionals who have dedicated years of their professional lives in promoting public parks. However, let us go back to the very beginning and look at the wider context of public parks.


For centuries, public parks have played an important part in the social and civic life of communities. Public parks are deeply rooted in the physical fabric, spirit and identity of thousands of places across the country. The construction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for London 2012 provided the country with a rare opportunity to create a brand new public park. Providing the setting for the Olympic and Paralympic games, it was admired and enjoyed by millions who came to watch the Games. This new twenty-first century park is just a short distance from Victoria Park, London’s first public park, that was built in the nineteenth century. Both parks neatly frame the country’s long tradition of park-making, with one named after Queen Victoria, the nation’s first monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park named after the nation’s only other monarch to celebrate the same achievement.

The public park, however, is deeply rooted in Britain’s Industrial Revolution and Queen Victoria’s reign witnessed an intense park-making period on a scale that has never been seen since. The second half of the nineteenth century saw an ambitious era of investment in the infrastructure and social fabric of towns and cities. Prominent landscape architects and park designers, including Edward Kemp, Edward Milner, John Gibson and Joseph Paxton, were designing and constructing many of the great Victorian public parks of the time - Gateshead’s Saltwell Park, People’s Park in Halifax and the celebrated Birkenhead Park in the Wirral to name but a few. All remain as a testament to this period of immense and creative civic investment for the public good. The government at the time formally recognised this need in the 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks. This urged towns and cities to develop public parks with legislation to support the purchase and dedication of land for this purpose. Whilst the committee expected that most of the funding should come first from private sources, it acknowledged that ‘it should be the duty of the Government to assist in providing for the health of the people’.

As towns and cities continued to grow, the Public Health Act of 1875 was passed by government to combat chronically poor living conditions and limit the spread of diseases through better sanitation. It provided the much-needed impetus for building public parks by giving local authorities the ability to raise government loans to buy land for recreation. At the turn of the twentieth century, a radical new approach to town planning emerged through the vision of Ebenezer Howard and his garden cities that incorporated the benefits of both town and country. The first, Letchworth Garden City, was formed in 1903 and included good provision of green space and public parks. Welwyn Garden City followed in 1920 and the urban planning model provided a template for many of Britain’s post-war new towns. Most were planned with generous allocation of parks and open spaces that have faced mixed fortunes in recent years. However, while most public parks have been created for public benefit through the enlightened speculation of landowners, the generosity of benefactors and the vision of local councils, many have failed to safeguard the necessary resources for their long-term management and maintenance. This is a fundamental issue that has made public parks increasingly vulnerable to changing patterns of public funding and contributed significantly to their decline in the last decades of the twentieth century.

From the late 1960s, public parks embarked on a long spiral of decline. The Countryside Act of 1968 set up the Countryside Commission and led to the creation of a large number of country parks to meet the growing demand for countryside recreation from an increasing number of car owners. The reorganisation of local government in 1974, recommended by the Bains report, placed parks departments within wider leisure services and, by the 1980s, urban parks faced increasing financial pressures from year-on-year budget cuts. Compulsory competitive tendering, introduced in an attempt to bring greater efficiencies to local government, saw many parks managed by external contractors, with low tenders delivering even lower standards of maintenance. This diluted management expertise and ‘the emphasis on economy rather than on quality squeezed budgets for in-house training’. ‘Urban Parks in Crisis’ ran the headline of an article in the Landscape Design Journal in 1984 illustrating the growing professional concern for the declining condition of many public parks. By the start of the 1990s, parks were increasingly being seen as a liability rather than asset, making them vulnerable to part-development or even sold off in their entirety. Dr Stewart Harding, who set up the first Urban Parks Programme at the Heritage Lottery Fund, observed that ‘those all-important signals of “conspicuous care” disappeared – the neatly trimmed lawn edges, the litter and weed-free flowerbeds, the band concerts, the flowing fountains.


By the time the full effects of progressive reductions in capital and revenue spending became clear, parks began to look as if they had been abandoned’. This increasingly visible plight of public parks was highlighted in a series of important reports including ‘Public Prospects: Historic urban parks under threat’ published jointly by the Garden History Society and The Victorian Society; ‘Grounds for Concern’ published by the GMB union; and a policy statement and symposium on ‘The Future of our Urban Parks’ by the Landscape Institute. In 1995, following 18 months of research, Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole published the influential ‘Park Life’ report. This was followed with ‘People, Parks and Cities’ that was commissioned by the Department of the Environment to identify good practice to help halt the decline of urban parks. By the mid-1990s, there was a major shift in the fortunes of public parks that included the launch of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme (UPP) in 1996, as described previously. Further progress was made as the momentum for change gathered pace. The 1999 House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry into Town and Country Parks marked an important milestone, summarising, ‘We are shocked at the weight of evidence, far beyond our expectations, about the extent of the problems parks have faced in the last 30 years.’ The Urban Parks Forum was established the same year and was followed a year later by the Government’s Urban White Paper, ‘Our Towns and Cities: the future’. This picked up many of the themes of the Select Committee acknowledging that ‘we must lead and develop a shared vision for the future of our parks, play areas and open spaces’. One practical action saw the formation of an Urban Green Spaces Taskforce that recommended in its final report the formation of a national agency for urban green spaces. A year later, in 2003, CABE Space was launched as a dedicated unit within the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). It led a programme of research, best practice and enabling to improve the planning, design and management of parks and public spaces. At the same time, the Urban Parks Forum was officially relaunched as GreenSpace, providing a national network supporting park managers and community groups. From 2010 there was, however, a shift in the fortunes of public parks. Following changes to CABE’s funding in 2011, the organisation was downsized and transferred to the Design Council, marking the end of a dedicated and properly resourced national public space programme. Two years on, GreenSpace was forced to close through a significant reduction in its income and grant funding. Public parks no longer had a fully funded and dedicated organisation supported by government, with the resources and capacity to act either as a national champion or representative of the professional sector. We were now in the ‘age of austerity’.


The impact on local authority funding has been devastating and, in particular, the parks sector. With ongoing cuts in public funding (in particular, loss of Government Revenue Support Grant) and an increasing number of staff and skills being lost across the sector, there are now major challenges facing public parks. There is clear evidence as provided by the report ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2016’ commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which painted a bleak picture. Over 92% of park managers reported cuts to their revenue budget over the previous three years, with 95% of park managers also expecting their revenue budget to be cut over the next three years. Local authorities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham and Wolverhampton are now reporting up to 90% cuts to their parks budgets with no end in sight to continued austerity cuts. Yet the importance of public parks remains undoubted. Around 80% of the UK population lives in urban areas which will become denser in the future as almost 300,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031. Parks are set to become an increasingly important resource in urban areas to mitigate the environmental impact of this development and maintain local amenity and wellbeing, a strategy first embraced during the Victorian municipal park movement in the 1900s.


Yet we are at crisis point… again. So where do we go next? Is the renaissance really over? In a nutshell … yes it is! As far back as 2006, CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this will require the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on ‘Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces’. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership and, in some cases, existence. Yet there are over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year with over 70% of park managers recording increased visitor numbers to their principal parks. The correlation of reduced budgets and increased visitor numbers simply does not make any sense. Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The Times (13/11/15) reported that ‘it’s mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’ and the very same paper (26/02/19) reported ‘Growing up near green spaces is linked to better health’.


Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoes this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them’. Local authorities are now committed to seeking new ways of working and managing parks including new partnerships (Newcastle City Council have been working with the National Trust and have developed a new model to manage their key parks - a City Parks and Allotments Trust – but what about the rest of their parks though?), driving up income, developing commercial activities, relying on volunteers, and testing new models of management. There is still much to consider and this author believes that there are a number of other considerations that should be pursued. These include the need for a national Urban Parks Strategy, to be embraced by central government. The award from Whitehall of a paltry £13 million towards urban parks is not enough to reverse the chronic underfunding announced in February 2019 and would barely restore 4 city parks. There is a need for a single voice to promote public parks and represent the hundreds of parks professionals across the country – step forward the Landscape Institute, as well as a framework to assist and shape the development of the skills of the parks professionals of tomorrow. Yes, the renaissance is over.

But history tells us that another one will be along at some stage when we start it all over again.

Paul Rabbitts Head of Parks for Watford Borough Council and parks historian, lecturer and author


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