What does the future hold for public parks and open spaces and what are the issues which parks managers are currently facing?
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 per cent 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. While 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?
Disused football and rugby pitches reverting to a long grass 'biodiversity' regime in a Manchester park
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, aging 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 15years 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 30 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 box 1 below)
“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.”
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 Agency”. A government decision was made in 2003 to create a new department in the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to be called CABE Space, 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 90 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!
This grass is alive with pollinating insects -should it really be cut now?
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.
Former grass tennis courts closed in a Manchester park. If the Friends' Group can't rescue them they will disappear
There is now a real danger that parks and open spaces could decline again to the level of the 1970’ and 80’s, 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.