Mark Whitehead 02 July 2018

What future for our parks?

The parks adorning many of Britain’s towns and cities have a proud history as valuable spaces for enjoyment and relaxation. So, it is not surprising that alarm bells should ring when they appear under threat.

The Association for Public Sector Excellence (APSE) has rung such alarm bells in its recent ‘state of the market survey’ on local authority parks and green spaces.

It reveals serious worries among many of the local authorities questioned. No less than 75% agreed that the squeeze on public sector resources is disproportionately affecting parks compared to other areas of council spending, and 85% expect further cuts in the next five years. This has led to reductions in land being maintained, while one in six are expecting to make compulsory redundancies.

The findings are presented alongside figures showing government funding for councils falling to a lower level than at any time since 1979 and the now well-known ‘graph of doom’ illustrating how the burgeoning demand for adult social care and children’s services is biting into shrinking budgets.

The prospects for parks and green spaces are in the balance. As APSE’s chief executive Paul O’Brien told LGN, the survey shows that local councils are ‘seriously challenged’ when it comes to funding.

By 2020, he reminds us, councils will be reliant on council tax or business rates to support their income. Research shows that councils have lost £3.1bn of funding from neighbourhood services, which includes parks, since 2010. ‘That scale of cuts cannot happen without the impact being felt,’ Mr O’Brien says.

APSE’s report says that despite ongoing service budget cuts, managers and front-line staff are continuing to provide quality parks and greenspaces, but notes there is ‘a real risk that service quality will diminish as a result of the ongoing pressures on budgets, changes to maintenance frequencies and a need for investment.’

But the warnings are tempered with some caveats: more than half the councils questioned thought cuts were likely to be less than 15% in the next five years and most said the number of parks and green spaces would stay the same or even increase slightly.

And the big plus is that parks are hugely popular. They boast no fewer than 37 million regular users and, according to APSE, 57% of adults visit their park once a month or more while 90% of families with children under five head to their local green space at least monthly.

The association says councils are working hard to meet these challenges through making efficiencies and looking for income generation opportunities to plug the gaps, and as a result additional funding is growing.

The report shows how the structure of local authority funding is changing as the centrally-provided rate support grant shrinks and council tax takes a much more prominent role, and APSE is clear that in the new landscape councils are going to have to fend for themselves as never before.

It outlines the various ways this is being done, by raising extra funds from everything from sports pitches to cafes to allotments. External sources of cash include lottery money, friends’ groups and sponsorship.

Support from local residents will also play a bigger role in helping run parks. Nearly three quarters of those questioned in the APSE survey thought there would be more community involvement in the year ahead and more than half thought there would be an increase in events held in parks. Almost as many saw an increase in partnership working with other public bodies.

A big majority of those surveyed said they would carry out a review in the next couple of years, most often involving service redesign and the use of assets and technology.

The parks and green spaces so many people enjoy are not facing any dramatic changes and will continue to play a key role in our communities. But, says APSE, what is needed now is ‘a genuine commitment to funding parks at both a local and a national level.’

As Mr O’Brien puts it: ‘Some have dabbled with short term fixes like alternative delivery models but what we need are long term solutions and this can only be achieved if we secure funding for parks which reflects their intrinsic value to our local communities and local economies.’

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here to sign up for your own free copy.

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