Britain loves its parks. But they need a funding boost to save them

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

In the first half of the 20th century, the parks superintendent in Leeds started a scrapbook to chronicle the splendour of the city’s open spaces. Among the photos is a selection taken on a warm Whit Bank Holiday at Roundhay Park in 1944.

They are startling. Despite World War II reaching its climax after years of hardship and rationing, the people caught on camera seem to have found happy respite from the harsh realities of life.

With children frolicking in the water, local cricket teams out on the green and couples lounging on the grass, the park was fulfilling the purpose envisaged by its Victorian founders: a green retreat, set apart from the surrounding city – a place of recreation free from the demands of productive activity or commerce.

A romantic prospect: Waterloo Lake at Roundhay Park, Leeds, 1944. Image: Leeds Parks and Countryside/author provided.

Victorian municipal authorities had hoped that parks would be the “lungs” of heavily industrialised cities – green spaces where people, rich and poor, could mix. In other words, the Victorians had a clear sense that parks provided advantages which other urban spaces such as public squares, office blocks, shops, factories and markets did not.

Fast forward to the present day, and parks still provide a refuge from the daily pressures of urban living. Indeed, studies have proved that visiting parks can reduce stress, promote physical activity and forge stronger relationships within communities.

Crisis mode

Yet today, the Victorian confidence that ever greater numbers of parks would be acquired for public use has dissipated. Earlier this year, MPs on the Communities and Local Government select committee said that Britain’s 27,000 urbans parks are at a “tipping point”. If action is not taken, parks are in danger of falling into a spiral of decline.

Without adequate baseline funding, the steady decay, closure or sale of parks are all firm possibilities. Local authority funding restraints are already limiting what park managers can do to exploit the health, social and educational benefits of parks.

One-third of park managers interviewed for the Heritage Lottery Fund’s 2016 report on the state of public parks said that their budgets had been cut more than 20 per cent over the preceding three years. And just over half of the park managers surveyed reported that their parks were in good condition – down 8 percentage points from 2013. A third of the respondents were gloomy when they looked ahead, saying they believed the condition of their park would decline in the future.

A bygone era? The open air bathing pool at Roundhay Park, 1944. Image: Leeds Parks and Countryside/author provided.

Researchers at the University of Leeds’ Social Sciences Institute undertook a project on the future prospects of urban public parks in the city of Leeds, to consider the development of parks since their foundation in the Victorian era, as well as their prospects for the future.

As part of the project, they interviewed just under 6,500 members of the public. Nine out of ten respondents said they had made at least one visit to a Leeds park in the preceding year. On the whole, people still saw the parks as the “green lungs of the city”, a “space apart” from the hustle, bustle and congestion of city life.

But people also had concerns about the future of the city’s parks. They feared that the quality of the parks would decline and that green spaces would be encroached upon by, for example, housing or commercial activity. Many were worried that the city council might introduce charges or abandon parks entirely in its efforts to balance the books.


Visions of the future

The research found that the precarious status of parks opens up a space for a range of possible futures – not just in Leeds but across the UK. The parks of tomorrow are likely to be more varied. The research identifies several possible futures, including “magnet parks” – parks which are managed as city-wide public assets where major events are held, providing cash injections for local authorities.

Alternatively, “club parks” could be funded through a local levy or tax, or maintained and used by local residents. There could even be “theme parks”, where various forms of commercial entertainment and leisure help to generate income for the park.

The recommendations from the research include the need for local and central government to have a statutory duty to safeguard parks, to ensure that they are accountable to the public over the future of parks, and to guarantee basic standards of upkeep. The research also suggests that a great deal could be achieved by creating a national agency to provide leadership and co-ordination across the sector.

The ConversationWith the squeeze on spending set to continue, it seems inevitable that parks will have to change and adapt. Whatever happens next, it’s crucial that the public are involved in a debate about the purpose of urban parks and are able to express their preferences about these new visions for the parks of the future. With these steps, we can develop the kinds of parks that the Leeds park superintendent would have been proud to see in his scrapbook.

Anna Barker is a lecturer in criminal justice at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.