The abortive attempt by the coalition government to sell of the nation’s forests, the closure of many libraries and significant reductions to arts funding have caused considerable public anger. The cultural fabric of local communities across Britain is being eroded as never before.
In contrast, the budget cuts affecting public parks, which are of equal magnitude, have received little public scrutiny. In Liverpool the council has lost a third of its green spaces budget in two years, along with 65 parks staff. The London parks and green spaces forum have recently reported that London parks budgets have fallen by 44 per cent in the last four years. Yet at the same time as our parks and open spaces quietly decline, public enthusiasm for gardening has never been higher, and Britain is experiencing the greatest investment in money – and in design talent – in private gardens since the Edwardian age.
Local authority cuts to parks budgets, largely unavoidable given that councils in major cities have lost one third of their budget, seriously threaten to undermine the renaissance in public parks and open spaces over the last 20 years. Major investment through the Heritage Lottery Fund and local councils; dedicated and enthusiastic parks staff; and tireless campaigning and hard work by thousands of volunteers has transformed many public parks, improving the quality of life for local residents and contributing to the regeneration of many urban communities.
There is a real risk that the quality of parks and open spaces, particularly in areas very hard hit by the recession and local authority budget reductions, will decline. In the 1970s and 1980s urban parks were characterised by vandalised toilets, untended flower beds and closed cafes and paddling pools. City parks were places to avoid rather than to visit. Recently the quality of flower gardens in parks has deteriorated, grass is cut less frequently and park ranger services no longer exist. Investment in some parks is currently being sustained through the Heritage Lottery Fund but in the medium term the quality of our public parks depends upon local councils having sufficient revenue funding to sustain the capital investment from the lottery in new buildings, landscaping and planting, and to support future lottery applications for parks investment.
It is perhaps not surprising that cuts to parks budgets have received less public opposition. Britain has approximately 30,000 green spaces and 5000 local friends groups. Parks are not a statutory service. Parks cannot be closed in the same way in which libraries, museums and theatres can have their doors shut, never to be reopened. Unlike libraries, parks do not have high profile public figures such Alan Bennett and Jeanette Winterson championing their cause; parks interest groups lack the political clout of organisations such as the National Trust, RSPB and the Rambers who mobilised so successfully to oppose the sale of forests; and famous actors and musicians begin their careers in their local theatre and concert hall, rather than the public park.
The future of public parks, particularly smaller parks and open spaces, should concern us all. The quality of public open spaces has a powerful impact on how people feel about their neighbourhood. Nine out of 10 adults in a poll undertaken by Ipsos Mori commissioned by Groundwork said that green spaces are an important factor in making an area a good place to live or work. Welcoming and attractive parks are especially important for people, particularly families with young children, who live in flats that do not have gardens or attractive secure spaces nearby for children to play and enjoy sport. However, it is in urban areas where parks budgets are under the greatest pressure.
Local councils have a distinguished history of creating fine civic spaces and institutions for working people to enjoy. In the 19th and early 20th century, civic leaders used public funding to improve the quality of life for all their citizens, leaving a legacy of beautiful public parks, magnificent concert halls and exceptionally fine museums and art galleries in our major cities. ‘Gas and water’ socialism progressed from sorting out sewage and insanitary housing to creating public parks and the garden city movement of the early 20th century.
Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets became the first public park in the world specifically intended to meet the needs of poor East End communities created by an Act of Parliament in 1841. Queen Victoria was petitioned to create the park following the 1839 annual report of the registrar general of births, deaths and marriages which recorded a mortality rate far higher than the rest of London brought about by overcrowding, insanitary conditions and pollution. Local parks were symbols of civic pride and the great parks movement was admired and exported around the globe.
The day-to-day management and maintenance of public parks has been under financial pressure for many years, as local councillors increasingly have to balance the growing demands of an aging population, a ring fenced schools budget and investing in new priorities such as community safety and economic regeneration. Previous generations of local authority gardeners would be horrified to find that in many councils parks maintenance is sub-contracted to waste disposal and cleaning companies. Valuable skills and expertise in horticulture have been lost, and the quality of public parks and open spaces is poorer as a result.
The quality of parks and green spaces should be a cause of concern for today’s Labour party. Everyone having access to attractive open spaces within walking distance of their home is integral to being ‘one nation’, yet there is a widening gap between the renaissance of private gardens and the horticulture of public spaces in cities, where the majority of us live. Labour politicians and activists have a proud tradition of campaigning for rights of way and access to the countryside. The 1945 Labour government created national parks and the Town and Country Planning Act, which safeguarded the green belt around towns and cities. We need to rediscover our green roots so that support for the countryside, walking and enjoying public parks is as much part of Labour’s identity as campaigning for inner city regeneration.
In an age of austerity, Labour politicians will need to think differently about how to sustain and invest in parks and open spaces for all to enjoy. There are conversations to be had with the lottery about how its investment can be sustained in a radically changing financial environment for local government; councillors should be considering how funding from the new community infrastructure levy can be used to support public parks and the wider public realm; and park friends groups could be more actively supported by councils to take on greater responsibility for managing parks and open spaces. Many people up and down the country give huge amounts of time and expertise to their local park, but they are overwhelmingly from particular demographic groups. As Labour councillors we have a responsibility as custodians of public space to encourage the involvement of younger people and people from more diverse backgrounds, who have skills, expertise and enthusiasm to contribute, alongside long standing volunteers. Public parks are often the only space where people can enjoy running and playing team sports.
In Lambeth, through our ‘co-operative council’ programme we are talking with our friends groups about different models for running our parks, in partnership with our parks officers. We are also re-tendering our grounds maintenance contract and looking to see how far we can stretch procurement rules to enable the council to make greater use of local social enterprises, employee apprentices and provide work placement opportunities for offenders, so every pound we spend on parks maintenance – and we will have no option but to spend significantly fewer – will be used to best effect to meet local priorities.
There is also a role for philanthropy, but this area of funding for green spaces is underdeveloped in the UK. Major donors to public parks projects have been charitable trusts and developers, rather than individuals, but recent experience in the USA is interesting. In New York, the Friends of the High Line, a new public park on a disused railway line, shows what can be achieved: 90 per cent of the funds for maintenance are raised from the Friends of the High Line, as green space is perceived as a civic cause for donors and volunteers; whether this level of public contribution will be sustained – the High Line has only recently opened – will be fascinating to see. This approach is unlikely to be directly replicated in the UK, where people rightly expect public parks to be maintained by the tax payer, but we will need to think differently about how we can raise additional funds in the future so that everyone can enjoy their local parks and green spaces.
Public parks, commons and green spaces are fundamental to our sense of place, to our enjoyment of life and to the wider civic culture in Britain. Labour needs to be a custodian of public space, to champion and cherish access to nature, beauty and fresh air.