We need a manifesto to put green spaces at the heart of our communities

Birkenhead Park, the oldest municipal park in the world. Image: Getty.

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.

You can read the Fields in Trust Manifesto here. And if you #LoveyourLocalPark, join the campaign to celebrate the UKs parks and green spaces – with Fields in Trust’s Have a Field Day on 8 July.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.