England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society, Culture, sport and tourism

Viewpoint: Parks are at a tipping point


Mark Camley, chair of The Parks Alliance, discusses the crisis facing our parks and the challenges faced by the local authorities in managing our green spaces.

Parks are on the national agenda at the moment. The publication of the recent Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) report ‘State of UK Public Parks 2016’  is a significant moment for the 27,000 parks across the country. So too is the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into public parks. This inquiry will examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on open spaces and will consider the concerns that their existence is under threat.

Both however are indicative of the current crisis we are facing in our parks and green spaces.

The HLF report found that the number of people using parks is increasing but that the funding they receive is reducing. This is creating a major crisis for our parks. The report found that:

  • Visits are increasing – half of us visit a park every month
  • Funding has reduced and is forecast to reduce further
  • Cuts are disproportionately higher than other services
  • Deprived areas are suffering more than other areas

We at the Parks Alliance have long called for the government to recognise the range of benefits and the value that parks deliver and for the government to take a joined up approach across Departments to their funding. The Parks Alliance believes however that these benefits are not properly understood or acknowledged. The benefits are many. These include:

  • Boosting the local economy through attracting businesses and tourists
  • Improving mental and physical health
  • Offsetting pollution and flood risks
  • Encouraging volunteering and community cohesion
  • Providing an urban habitat for the UK’s wildlife

People love parks, we know that instinctively. Over half the UK population regularly use their local park, yet the challenge of managing our parks and green spaces is increasing as a result of the continued reduction in funding and the loss of staff and skills. Despite their value, their management have been given a very low priority. We need to find a solution now before the improvements made over the past 20 years are lost and our parks, once again, go into decline and become places that require significant investment.

There is a need to improve and monitor improvement in parks, which is why the Parks Alliance would like to see a national measure of quality using the Green Flag Award standard, with an annual update. Local authorities could then adopt and monitor this national measure.

Local authorities, voluntary groups and contractors have done an excellent job of offsetting significant budget reductions by finding new solutions. But how long can this continue and has this meant that the full crisis facing parks has gone unnoticed? We at the Alliance would argue it is an invisible crisis and that the impact of cuts may not be fully apparent for another two, three, or five years. However the sector is at a tipping point, with a high percentage of parks managers having left the sector leading to a degradation of the skills base. Of those remaining, some 95% expect cuts to their budget over the next 3 years. This is simply unsustainable.

Parks have been struggling with a new funding model for years and have found no closure, nor clarity. Maybe now it is time to do things differently. We accept there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution but we all need to reassess how we think about space, who uses that space and for what purpose, when we think about what parks can offer. We at the Alliance have always argued that the people that manage and run our parks should try new business models and be brave enough to accept that some might not work. But we cannot act alone.

Parks are the nation’s sports and playgrounds and they are at the heart of British culture. But the significant impact parks and green spaces have on public health is not recognised in funding.

We all know parks have a beneficial effect on our lives, so we need to act on this now. A make do and mend approach will not work. The government and local authorities need to recognise the benefits and value of parks and green spaces and fund them appropriately.

All of us who use and love parks need to work together to protect and improve these green spaces for now and for future generations. This is the challenge but will the government and local authorities pick up the gauntlet?

Find out more about The Parks Alliance.