In her latest blog, Fields in Trust Chief Executive Helen Griffiths reacts to the Chancellor's Budget 2021 statement and discusses what it means for parks and green spaces.
The Chancellor knows the value of our local parks. During his time as Parks and Green Spaces Minister, Rishi Sunak commented on our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research by talking about "not only the vital role that outdoor spaces play in improving our health, but also their economic value", which our research highlighted. In a guest blog post following the release of our Green Space Index in 2019, he opened with the words "Parks do people a world of good".
His colleagues in Government know their value too. In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to unfold, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick declared that "people need parks" as he addressed the necessity for green spaces to remain accessible during the first lockdown.
Parks and green spaces also featured prominently in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's recent roadmap for easing of the latest lockdown, with early reduction of social contact restrictions allowing people to begin to meet up again in spaces such as parks as early as next week.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of that day we were first told we must stay at home, it is a good time to reflect on all that parks have given us over the last twelve months. Not just green patches in our towns and cities, but places to venture away from our screens and spend time in nature, to exercise, to play and to stay socially connected whilst physically distanced. Spaces which support both our physical health and our mental wellbeing.
As he stood at the despatch box yesterday, parks and green spaces were conspicuous by their absence from now Chancellor Rishi Sunak's speech. The word "green" appears 39 times in the Budget 2021 document published alongside the Chancellor's statement, but whilst he talks of green jobs, green technology and green gilts, he makes no mention of the most universal public service: green spaces. No acknowledgement of their vital role in our nation's health and wellbeing and the continued contribution they will make in our coronavirus recovery.
Whilst they are universal though they are not equitably distributed, meaning it is vital to support those at risk of imminent loss. A new £150 million fund to enable greater community ownership of pubs, theatres, shops and sports clubs is to be welcomed. Where just five further letters - "parks" - could so easily have extended it to give communities a lifeline to save their cherished green spaces from development, however, again on parks and green spaces the Budget is silent. On a day the "Build Back Better" mantra makes its return this should serve as a warning signal to how quickly and easily our local green spaces can be lost. Build back better must mean cleaner, greener and with a more human face, else "levelling up" will remain on the pages of policy speeches rather than the streets of reality.
Our 2020 Green Space Index finds that nearly 2.7 million people in Britain do not have a publicly acessible local green space within a ten-minute walk of home, a figure that is set to grow.
Explore the full findings
We might instead look to the £25 million investment in UK grassroots sports facilities for fiscal acknowledgement of the contributions of green spaces. The Treasury claim this will be enough to create around 700 new pitches. They will be required, with our Green Space Index projecting the equivalent of almost 20,000 football pitches will be lost over the next two decades as a result of changes in population alone. However, our colleagues at SAPCA acknowledge that the Chancellor's maths don't quite seem to add up and with one estimate suggesting up to 25% of grassroots clubs may not return after lockdown, the promised cash may not reach very far.
Sunak's Budget certainly sowed more seeds of the Treasury's money in the short-term, but it made no secret that the future for the Exchequer will involve pruning of the branches. The Chancellor warned that repairing the damage of the pandemic on the nation's finances "will take time".
Whilst parks have proved so vital over the last twelve months, in the years to come as local councils grapple with ever decreasing budgets, as we have seen before, these non-statutory services are likely to quickly fall down the priority lists of those making the difficult decisions.
That is not to say the problem is exclusively one for the future. In the short-term, as millions of us look with hope towards a summer exploring new parks and green spaces across the UK on our staycations, the dedicated parks professionals and volunteer groups tasked with caring for these spaces, providing peaceful havens for the enjoyment of so many, need support more than ever.
Watch This Space is our three-step resource for communities to champion and support their local green spaces and campaign to protect them with an easy-to-use guide to the planning system.
Access the resource
The Chancellor, the Communities Secretary and others around the Cabinet table know not just the value of our parks but how well-maintained and accessible green spaces contribute to their own departmental objectives. The legislators who have already signed our Parks Protector Pledge and the candidates who will do so ahead of this May's elections know the value of our parks and green spaces. We all instinctively know the value of our parks and green spaces. They are good and they do good. So, let's invest in them and ensure local parks and green spaces really are at the heart of both our communities and our green recovery.
Our parks and green spaces have had a year like no other. They've been there for us when we needed them the most and will be a crucial part of our recovery. But if we don't act now, if we begin to take these precious spaces for granted again and fail to value their contributions to our communities, our health, our wellbeing, and our economy, they may not be there for us the next time we need them.
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 0207 427 2110
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust's Chief Executive and is an experienced and knowledgeable commentator on issues related to parks, playing fields and recreational spaces. Follow Helen on Twitter @hegriffiths.