Park strife: the battle over local green spaces

As funding for parks shrinks, councils are using them to make money and even selling off land. With locals protesting, are there better options?

Film and television stars usually have bigger fish to fry than local campaigns. So, when Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall lent her support to save Liverpool’s Sefton Park Meadows from housing developers, a place she’d spent time in as a child, it gave a big boost to locals trying to preserve a space with “great ecological and historical value”, according to campaigner Ken Aspinall.

It’s not the first time Liverpool City Council has faced fierce opposition to the sale of parkland. Its plan to convert half of the 130-acre Walton Hall Park into a football ground for Everton FC was eventually ditched in 2016. Progress on the sale of Sefton Park Meadows has also stalled; while the council hoped to raise £10m, an FOI request by a campaign group revealed that the developer, Redrow, was offering only £4m.

This highlights how attached people are to their parks. Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) from the late 1990s onwards has helped to improve many parks, and they are more popular than ever: an HLF report in 2016 found that 90% of households with children under five visit their park once a month or more, up seven percentage points from 2014. Parks, says Dave Morris, chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, are “effectively the most popular public service in the country”.

But that figure disguises a looming crisis in public parks as councils struggle to find the cash to maintain them; Liverpool, hit by a 58% funding cut from central government since 2010, is finding it hard, as are others. The 2016 HLF report found that 92% of park managers had seen a fall in their revenue budgets over the previous three years. In 2015, London Councils issued a warning of a “potential slide” towards parks in the capital becoming privately run by the end of the decade.

It’s a topic that resonates with the public: a 38 Degrees petition to save public parks attracted 273,000 signatures, and the inquiry into parks by parliament’s communities and local government committee, due to report in February, has received 385 written submissions, from individuals as well as organisations. Many emphasise the health benefits of parks. Tony Leach, chief executive of Parks for London, is explicit: “We’ve got growing obesity problems – we need people to be out, physically active. If they’re not going out and using their parks, we’re going to be spending more on public health, social wellbeing and mental health. That’s where the silos of funding are really unhelpful.”

The problems are largely hidden. Mark Camley, chair of the Parks Alliance, a not-for-profit company that works to promote and protect parks, says there is a “hidden crisis” that has been masked by activities such as planting wildflower meadows to stop having to mow lawns, which conceals the lack of investment in infrastructure like roads and ponds, or tree management.

Many local authorities, says Leach, have shed frontline and back office staff, losing in-house expertise and outsourcing management to private companies or relying on friends’ groups to maintain parks: “They’re being managed to minimal standards, so the consequence is a lower-quality landscape. All the annual bedding is gone, you don’t see hanging baskets, and even rose beds are being taken out and grassed over.”

While friends’ groups have helped stem decline, taking over much basic maintenance, they are not a permanent solution, says Chris Worman, vice-chair of the West Midlands Parks Forum: “A lot of volunteers are retired and have the time but, equally, they may not be able to do more physical tasks or have limited availability. They bring huge benefits but it’s not a long-term, sustainable answer.”

Local authorities’ options are limited. In London, pressures to build homes are intense: despite strong opposition, Bexley Borough Council has approved plans to sell a park and three other green spaces to housing developers, while Redbridge has similar plans for sports grounds.

Alice Roberts, green spaces officer at CPRE London, believes that councils, under pressure to meet housing targets, are desperately trying to find land to build on, uninformed by a coherent strategy: “It’s just completely random and, if it all goes ahead, it will create a huge issues for pollution and traffic.” Roberts is also concerned that some London councils are selling protected green belt or metropolitan open land to central government to build free schools.

Some authorities are looking at ways to generate revenue from parks – park managers are now being set income targets, says Leach. Some have resorted to partnerships with the private sector – in Birmingham, Newcastle and Newham, for example, Coca-Cola is running a programme of physical activities in parks.

For two years running, Wandsworth Council used Battersea Park to host a Formula E racing event, which, said local residents, was noisy, smelly and left parts of the park closed to the public for almost three weeks during preparations. The event itself was disruptive, says local resident and secretary of Battersea Park Action Group Susan Lofthouse: “There was music, there were tannoys, but the worst thing of all was the helicopters droning overhead for hours on end because they were filming.” Eventually, with a judicial review looming, the organisers agreed not to run it any more.

Leach is concerned that it is the poorest people who are affected most by spending cuts to parks: “What boroughs are tending to do is focus their revenue investment in their larger parks, their destination parks, which are used more than others. The parks that are smaller and being neglected are in the more deprived wards.”

Lancaster resident Kamilla Elliott would agree. Elliott’s local park, Ryelands, had long hosted small-scale circuses and fairs but, two years ago the council started to allow the fair to stay for two weeks at a time, remaining open until late at night, leaving the parkland damaged and generating noise levels that shook the foundations of nearby buildings. Elliott believes Ryelands was chosen in part because the park is surrounded by council house residents who are “less likely to protest against anything the council did”.

There has, nonetheless, been a long and bitter dispute with the council over the events. “We were left with a scarred, disfigured, potholed, unsafe kind of park for nearly a year, and they would never dare to do that in the wealthy areas,” says Elliott.

Parks in the better-off areas, she notes, have in the meantime benefited from new playgrounds; in effect, she argues, the wealthier areas are being subsidised by the poorer ones.

Some councils have found ways of making money without attracting the ire of residents: Cardiff’s Bute Park, for example, hosts commercial events, and has used lottery funding to establish the Summerhouse cafe, an education centre that hires out meeting space and a successful tea room that includes an art gallery – the park receives 40% commission on every artwork sold. The council has been clear about its desire to retain the park as a peaceful public space.

Liverpool City Council has responded to public concern by setting up an independent inquiry, the Strategic Green and Open Spaces Review Board, which published a report in October 2016, recommending that the council actively protect its green spaces. In particular, it advised the creation of an independent, charitable parks trust that would manage parks in a strategic manner, taking a “blended finance approach” with “other stakeholders sharing the burden of endowment and ongoing maintenance”.

Councillor Steve Munby, Liverpool’s cabinet member for neighbourhood, believes the capital is not available to make the single trust model work, but says the council is also looking at handing over the management of four of its parks to outside organisations, with priority given to community groups, and any profit reinvested in the local area. This is workable, he argues, because there are organisations capable of running the parks, and they all have potential income streams. Protections will be put in place to protect the public space, Munby adds: “The caveats are that people continue to have free access to all facilities that are currently free. There are also some conversations about what are acceptable and unacceptable uses, and they may vary from park to park.”

Assuring the future of public parks will take more than pockets of good practice. One much-mooted suggestion, favoured by both Leach and Worman, is to raise funds through taxing sugary foods and drinks, with the proceeds ringfenced for investment into parks. This also makes explicit the connection between parks and good health. In London, Leach would like to see local authorities collaborate more so that they can agree which parks are appropriate for which events and facilities, and share some of the income generated.

Many submissions to the parliamentary inquiry suggest making parks a statutory responsibility for local authorities. “Statutory duty is the foundation stone of having an effective and protected park service across the UK,” argues Morris. He believes that parks should have adequate funding and “effective protection from inappropriate development or loss”. Statutory responsibility is not an idea that the government is likely to take on, however and, as Camley points out, it hasn’t helped to save libraries.

Unless the communities and local government committee comes up with a workable plan for saving parks, and persuades central government of its merits, then campaigners are right to be worried about creeping privatisation. As Leach warns: “We don’t have turnstiles into our parks. That might change.”

This article was first published in Public Finance.