Parks and open spaces are arguably the most universal of all our public services. They are used by the entire community, from pre-school children through to retired adults.
Green space is a defining part of our local landscape and these publicly owned, civic spaces have something to offer to all as places to enjoy life – whether that’s reaching a sporting milestone, teaching grandchildren to cycle, engaging with nature, or simply walking a much loved dog. A Fields in Trust survey indicated that nearly a quarter of respondents (24 per cent) use their local park at least twice a week.
Yet unlike education or libraries, parks are a discretionary service which councils have no statutory duty to provide. There is no national audit of informal recreation space, making it difficult to track the losses of these vital assets. Whilst the number of visitors to parks is rising, investment has decreased and maintenance and upkeep has been reduced; local authority spending on open spaces fell by 14 per cent between 2010 and 2014.
The Heritage Lottery Fund State of UK Public Parks 2016 report reveals that 92 per cent of park managers reported cuts to their revenue budget over the past three years – and 95 per cent expect their revenue budget to be cut over the next three years.
In recent months, the nation's green spaces have had significant political attention through the Communities and Local Government Parliamentary Committee Inquiry and its subsequent report into Public Parks. Yet the dissolution of Parliament, before CLG Parks Minister Andrew Percy had formally responded to the report, risks the loss of impetus and the issue being overlooked in a crowded legislative programme of the next Parliament.
It’s in this context that Fields in Trust launched our Manifesto for Parks. This election presents an opportunity to ensure the UK's parks, playing fields and green spaces are seen as a vital national asset by the next government.
Since the 1920s, Fields in Trust has been protecting land for play, sport and recreation and campaigning about the importance of these spaces to the health and wellbeing of communities. We are concerned about the impact of building on green space sites in both urban and rural areas; local green spaces of all shapes and sizes are invaluable if we are to create a more active nation as the government's sports strategy aspires to. Whilst recognising the urgent need to build new homes, it is vital that all neighbourhoods, and particularly children, should be able to enjoy healthy active outdoor recreation within walking distance of home.
All local authorities have to make tough decisions over funding and there is a temptation for cash-strapped councils to irreversibly auction off assets; not only to generate immediate income, but also remove a longer term maintenance liability. Our parks are facing increasingly challenged futures and local authority funding cuts could have a damaging impact on the nation’s health.
We need to change the way public green space is conceived, not as a drain on spending that requires a considerable funding to maintain – but rather as an asset which can be deployed to achieve longer term savings. Numerous research studies have demonstrated the health impact of access to green space in encouraging physical exercise, promoting mental wellbeing, and providing a stress-free space to relax. They also contribute to the “liveability” of our towns and cities.
But they are undervalued and underfunded. Few public services have such a cross cutting impact as parks and green spaces. Creating more joined-up service provision is key to the work of Health and Wellbeing Boards. Changing the conversation to recognise the role that parks can play in funding the prevention rather than the cure is crucial to sustaining their future.
We need a practical response to delivering the key government objective of a more active nation which was articulated in the Department for Culture Media & Sport’s Sporting Future – A New Strategy for an Active Nation report. Our recent research in Rugby, Warwickshire shows that local access to green space leads to people feeling healthier and happier – and becoming more active as a result. A reduction in childhood obesity and inactive communities requires a combination of measures, but the goal of getting people more active will only be achieved if they have places to play. School playing fields, parks and open spaces are all crucial to ensuring communities can take part in physical activity yet they remain vulnerable to development.
Parks and open spaces contribute to the physical and mental health and well-being of our communities they provide civic spaces for the development of community cohesion through festivals and events. We need to ensure funding for parks is commensurate with their positive impact on communities. The General Election provides an opportunity to revalue our parks and playing fields.
At a time when green space is increasingly under threat of development for housing and employment, the need to secure places for play, sport, the enjoyment of nature and recreation has never been greater. Current concerns about health, child obesity, access to nature and mental wellbeing all require a green infrastructure for future generations to enjoy, forever.
Helen Griffiths is Chief Executive of Fields in Trust, a national charity working to improve the protection, provision and quality of outdoor recreational spaces for all communities in the UK. She tweets as @HEGriffiths.