Paul Rabbitts    

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

 

An Institute for Parks Management

Representing Park Management Professionals - a proposal 

The purpose of this page is to outline the current situation with regards to the lack of professional representation of parks managers and to detail a way forward by developing an opportunity for parks professionals to have an established organisation to represent them.


Introduction

There are 418 principal (unitary, upper and second tier) councils in the UK – 27county councils, 201 district councils, and 125 unitary councils. There are around 11,000 local councils in the UK, from town councils to parish councils. These councils manage between them 27,000 public parks across the country and employ a significant number of professionals to manage and maintain them within such service areas including streetcare, waste services, leisure services, community services, neighbourhood services and cultural services. It is now a rarity to find an authority that retains its distinct ‘parks service’ often absorbed into a wider departmental structure, yet the public perception is very different, and still perceive that ‘parks departments’ still exist.


However, over the last 20+ years, there has been a significant reduction in the number of professionals dedicated to the management of parks and open spaces with headlines such as ‘last of a dying breed’ and media coverage not only in the trade press but also in mainstream media (The Guardian and the Daily Mail, BBC Radio). Like many public services, austerity has hit hard and soft services such as parks have and continue to be hit hard with park management professionals often becoming marginalised and in many authorities, redundancies have occurred with significant posts lost.


During this period, a number of organisations have represented parks professionals including:-


  • ILAM (Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management) which became ISPAL and ultimately CIMSPA, neither of the latter organisations representing parks professionals;
  • The Urban Parks Forum, becoming GreenSpace which folded a number of years ago; 
  • CABE Space, which was a government funded Quango responsible for championing urban parks and professionals, but was disbanded and became part of the Design Council, no longer representing parks professionals.


Since the disappearance of these reputable organisations, no single body represents the body of individuals who continue to manage our urban parks. As part of the recent public inquiry into public parks (before the government became all absorbed with Brexit), one of the key issues raised was the lack of a professional body to represent parks management professionals. To this day, there has been little progress despite the continued need and representation from the industry.


The Current Position

With no professional body representation, a number of other bodies exist that have indirect links and to a degree have ‘carried the flag’ for parks. These are as follows:


The Landscape Institute (LI): represents the interests of landscape architects, landscape managers and landscape scientists, a chartered institute with entry by examination. A number of landscape architects have entered the world of parks management (including myself) and left the LI. The LI is keen to expand its portfolio of professional representation and there is now a ‘parks chapter’ representing parks professionals within the Irish Landscape Institute.


The Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE): representing the public sector generally and covers all areas within, from waste, streets, leisure, culture, parks etc. APSE is currently the only organisation that currently is responsible for local, regional and national networking with seminars and conferences covering parks. They are also exceptional at collecting data with regards to trends. APSE is also a commercial organisation.


Parks Action Group (PAG): a small group representing parks interests working with national government – membership of this group covers key stakeholders such as Green Flag, Groundwork, HLF, National Trust, and others.


Green Flag: managed by Keep Britain Tidy Group and with dedicated officers, the only significant organization that network nationally (and now internationally) with local authorities and parks professionals. There are over 1,800 Green Flag Parks and despite current downward trends, the numbers of GF parks are increasing. However, a number of key local authorities have significantly reduced their number of applications and in a number of instances, ceased altogether. Why is this?


The Parks Alliance: a small organisation who lobby government and promote the importance of parks nationwide, made up of individuals who are passionate and advocate the importance of parks, particularly via social media. 


Regional Parks Forums: Across the country, there are a small number of green space or parks forums, and include ParksHerts, the West Midlands Parks Forum, Birmingham Open Spaces Society, Bristol Parks Forum, and the London Parks and Open Spaces Forum. Each of these represent regional interests and are made up of local authority officers and arrange local workshops, networking events, sharing of information and are provide local support networks.


GreenSpace Scotland: As Scotland’s parks and green space charity, they have been influential in shaping a supportive policy context for green space and promoting good practice on green space delivery in Scotland. Now a social enterprise, they are an exemplar organisation in promoting the benefits of green space, developing policy and supporting the sector.


The Gardens Trust: The Gardens Trust is the only UK national charity dedicated to protecting and conserving our heritage of designed landscapes. They campaign on their behalf, undertake research and conservation work, and encourage public appreciation and involvement. Through the national network of County and Country Garden Trusts, they have access to people and local expertise throughout the country. The Gardens Trust is also a membership organisation which relies on members and donors to support their work. Increasingly, they are becoming more involved in parks issues where there are specific interests related to landscape design and heritage.


The National Trust: The NT has taken up the challenge of wider issues around the management of urban green spaces and is working with the NLHF on the parks accelerator programme and assisting a number of local authorities based on the NT model in looking at better ways of managing parks eg Newcastle, Cambridge, Birmingham and London. This is an interesting development especially as they have secured funding to assist with this programme.


The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF): The only organisation that has funded and has basically been the saviour of many of our public parks and has funded a number of parks management posts. As of 2018, they no longer have a dedicated parks fund but will continue to fund parks.


Fields in Trust: Fields in Trust is an independent charity with over 90 years’ experience protecting parks and green spaces. They work with landowners, community groups and policy makers to champion the value of our parks and green spaces to achieve better protection for their future at both local and national level.


Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association: CLOA’s mission is to be the lead body that advises on, advocates and champions culture and leisure on behalf of sector professionals, locally, regionally and nationally.

Their vision is that every locality has a thriving, high quality and distinctive cultural and leisure offer.

They have two clear strategic aims which are –

  • To provide quality advice and support to senior officers to develop and sustain best practice.
  • Providing an informed and coherent voice at a national level to champion, support and advocate for best practice in local government culture and leisure development and delivery.


The Issues

Since the demise of ILAM, GreenSpace and CABE Space, it is clear that no singular organisation represents the parks sector and management functions within. What groups that exist are either entirely regionally focused, supported by volunteers, or have a partial interest in urban parks. Whilst this may be perceived as a strength, it results in a disjointed approach to the representation of the parks sector with the question remaining, who truly represents the interests of the parks sector. The strength of a singular organisation representing the sector is now deemed essential. The creation of a new chapter within an existing and established organisation would benefit parks professionals in the following way:-


  • Sector representation – a seat at the table with a single voice;
  • Developing and enhancing opportunities for succession planning within the sector – developing the park managers of tomorrow;
  • Skills, Learning & Development opportunities – so sadly lacking;
  • Sharing and networking forum nationally;
  • Collective of expertise – the level of expertise in this sector is immense – creating the 21st century park manager;
  • Create and strengthen links with wider sector and beyond.

The Way Forward and a Proposal

I am Head of Parks, Heritage and Culture at Watford Borough Council and have worked in parks and landscapes for over 30 years in Carlisle, Middlesbrough and now in Watford. There have been significant changes as we all know in the structures and financing of local authorities and one of the easy cuts has been parks and open spaces. Throughout this time, we have lost the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM); GreenSpace; CabeSPACE, and now have The Parks Alliance and Parks Action Group who are campaigners but do not represent those working in the sector. 


Times are tough but there is one issue that we can resolve which is within our own control. The management of parks has changed and we are now having to adapt like never before – commercialisation seems to be the key skill needed and horticulture is now, way down the list of skills required.


So, my reason for this proposal is as follows:- 

There seems to be a growing desire to establish a new organisation that represents parks managers or those officers involved in the day to day running of parks and green spaces – park managers, park development officers, play officers, allotments, grounds maintenance managers. In my own authority, I have a cemetery manager who is a member of the ICCM and a colleague who is in the Institute of Chartered Foresters. Colleagues in leisure are in CIMSPA, yet there is no professional organisation that represents those managing parks and open spaces. We need to change this. There has been talk of bringing in parks management professionals into the Landscape Institute (LI), where there is some support for this, as well as CLOA but also many who say we should have our own institute. The LI currently represents landscape architects who are primarily private practice orientated and CLOA is very leisure focussed. Either way, this will not be easy but if we start out small and grow slowly so we ensure we are sustainable, then we can get an organisation that becomes our voice, supports the profession, enhances skills, creates networking opportunities and disseminates information and best practice across the sector. It is long overdue.


I am now distributing a survey on Survey Monkey and I would be most grateful if this could be filled in and passed to all colleagues who work in managing parks and open spaces. I really believe we can make this happen and it will make a difference. It is time to look at what is best for us as a sector and decide our own way forward - an affiliation with an existing institute or a new organisation representing parks people. The survey link is here or below. Please do fill it in. 


https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/T7RS7FS