Public parks: securing a sustainable future

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 22.23.09The UK House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee has released its report Public parks: securing a sustainable future following an inquiry between July and December 2016.

They considered three main questions:

  • Why do parks matter?
  • What challenges are facing the parks sector?
  • How can we secure a sustainable future for parks?

The Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee report on public parks warns that parks are at a tipping point and face a period of decline with potentially severe consequences unless their vital contribution to areas such as public health, community integration and climate change mitigation is recognised.

Councils should publish strategic plans

The Public parks report highlights considerable challenges for the sector including reduced council spending, with parks management budgets cut by up to 97 per cent, the need for parks to compete with other services for funding, and planning policy not giving them enough weight, particularly as a result of pressures to increase housing supply.

The Committee call on councils to publish strategic plans, which recognise the value of parks beyond leisure and recreation and set out how they will be managed to maximise their contribution to wider local authority agendas, such as promoting healthy lifestyles, tackling social exclusion and managing flood risk. It is hoped these plans will open up parks to support and funding beyond their usual budgets and service areas.

The Government should issue guidance to councils to work with Health and Wellbeing Boards and other relevant bodies to publish these joint plans and consider making producing such a strategy a legal requirement if the guidance proves ineffective, the report adds.

Parks make vital contributions to physical and mental health

Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
“Every local authority should have a strategic plan, recognising that parks are much more than just grass and tulips and bringing in resources from outside the traditional budgets. Parks make vital contributions to physical and mental health and bring significant community benefits. They also contribute to biodiversity and climate change mitigation and can assist in local economic growth.

Parks are treasured public assets, as the overwhelming response to our inquiry demonstrates, but they are at a tipping point, and if we are to prevent a period of decline with potentially severe consequences then action must be taken. The Government have a leadership and co-ordination role to play and volunteers do fantastic work in the sector, but the primary responsibility lies with local authorities.

We will return to this to see what progress has been made before the end of the Parliament. We call on everyone who cares about parks to be our eyes and ears on the ground, particularly those who contributed to our inquiry, and keep up the pressure on national and local government.”

Innovation in management and funding sources needed

The Committee received a wide range of suggestions for alternative funding sources and management models and says the Parks Minister, Andrew Percy MP, the Local Government Association and local authorities should consider them. The Government should also look to remove barriers to these innovative models, such as considering a public interest test to enable local authorities to overturn restrictive covenants.

The report also raises concern about the unequal distribution of parks, with many people in deprived areas struggling to access the benefits they can provide. The Committee warns that the UK may not meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11.7 in respect of safe and inclusive access to parks and green spaces by 2030, and says the Government should look at how to improve provision, such as by accessing funds available under the obesity strategy.

The Committee also acknowledges that tensions can arise from competing demands among park users and says councils should encourage groups such as parkrun to contribute volunteer time for maintenance or fundraising activities.

Other findings, conclusions and recommendations include:

Public parks should remain under local authority ownership and freely available to everyone.
The Committee welcomes the Minister’s confirmation that he recognises the current lack of coordination and his intention to establish a cross-departmental group to consider the Committee’s report and recommendations.
The Committee recommends the Minister issues guidance setting out key principles for the appropriate governance and accountability arrangements, which could be put in place as part of any emerging or alternative models for parks management.

The Minister should work with his colleagues in Defra to ensure that parks, and green infrastructure more widely, are properly recognised in the Government’s forthcoming 25-year Environment Plan.

You can read their full report and all of the evidence on their website.