Our response to the Select Committee’s report on the future of public parks

Parks are currently under a level of threat unprecedented in their nearly 200-year history. In 2016, we submitted evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into The Future of Public Parks. Among other things, we called for a statutory duty on local authorities to monitor and manage public parks to a Green Flag Award standard or equivalent. However, the Committee’s report, published on Saturday 11 February, ends hopes held by many across the professional sector, Friends of Parks groups and by the general public more widely[1] for parks to be a legally protected statutory service. Aside from the complexities and challenges of implementing statutory protection, and the financial pressures already faced by local authorities, the Committee expressed a deep uncertainty and ambivalence that a statutory duty would actually protect parks from decline, loss and redevelopment.

Instead, the report recommends greater joint working between different departments – health, transport, planning, and education – to plan strategically for and to maximise the diverse purposes and functions of parks, beyond leisure and recreation. It also encourages departments to articulate more clearly the contribution that parks play with regard to health and well-being, the local economy, climate change, flood risk management, social cohesion, education and our green infrastructure. There is an assumption that the management of parks has focused disproportionately on their historical role as places for leisure and recreation, and that substantive capital funding streams have been too heavily directed towards the preservation of a park’s heritage and its historical features. By contrast, it is believed that insufficient emphasis has been accorded to the diversity of other benefits and functions that parks can play in meeting broader public policy objectives. By conceiving of the role of parks as integrated with national agendas and strategic goals the report hopes this will generate or reframe questions of funding that will prevent parks from tipping into decline.

Again, the report falls short of making joint working across departments a statutory duty but rather calls on the Minister for Parks, Andrew Percy, to provide ‘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’ and to monitor compliance with this recommendation. Moreover, it is thought that being able to better quantify the various values of parks to broad policy objectives – such as reducing obesity, flooding and climate change – might lead to new sources of funding.

The weight of the recommendations included in the report fall on the Minister for Parks. Andrew Percy promised in his oral evidence to the inquiry to develop a cross-departmental working group to consider the recommendations of the report and coordinate response to it at the level of central government. Lack of such national leadership and coordination has been much lamented since CABE Space – the Government’s adviser on architecture, urban design and public space – was closed in 2011. Whilst The Parks Alliance and others have stepped into the fold, there are genuine concerns about a deficit in central leadership and co-ordination.

The report gives much weight to the development of this new cross-departmental group to take forward and monitor compliance with its recommendations such as data to be collected on park accidents and safety, the equitable provision and distribution of green space across England, and the preparation and publication of joint parks and green space strategies. It also sees a broader role for this group to promote innovation in funding and management, to be a source of disseminating good practice and to galvanise and support shared learning. The report also calls on the Minister to make available additional funding for local authorities seeking to explore service transformation, including park trusts.

We welcome the Inquiry’s reflection on the diverse benefits of parks which, if properly resourced, could see some important transformations to our thinking about the role and value of parks to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. A core message of the report is that parks are currently under-sold and under-utilised public assets in which joined-up working and pooled funding by the departments which benefit the most from them will effectively harness. However, we regret that calls for the statutory protection of parks by us and many others has been rejected, particularly since we are not confident that the mechanisms highlighted will ensure adequate resourcing of parks or support for parks managers to deliver on their potential values across the board of policy areas. All heads now turn to the Minister for a response.

[1] A petition calling for statutory protection of public parks, hosted by 38 degrees, was signed by more than 322,000 people.