This week Prime Minister Theresa May announced a major overhaul to the National Planning Policy Framework, "to provide a comprehensive approach for planners, developers and councils". The focus is on the government's intentions to build more homes, make more use of local authority owned land for housing and in some places increase population density. Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, in this article responds to the Prime Minister's statement.
Since the 1920's Fields in Trust has been protecting land for play, sport and recreation and advocating the importance of these spaces to the health and wellbeing of communities.
The Prime Minister's pledges to protect ancient woodland and the green belt are to be welcomed but we remain concerned that the pressure for housing will result in the unintended consequence of loss of green spaces in both urban and rural areas. The review of the NPPF provides an opportunity to reframe the current Section 106 proposals and commit to supporting the health, social and cultural wellbeing of communities. Given the role that parks and green spaces play in creating healthy communities it is crucial that they are prioritised in these commitments.
We believe that this review provides an opportunity for more joined-up thinking across government in relation to parks and green spaces. The importance of protecting and enhancing the natural environment that is so strongly advocated in DEFRA's 25-year Environment Plan is a key factor in ensuring the successful delivery of the DCMS sports strategy to build a more active nation. Parks and green spaces are the foundation stone of an active, healthy nation and any revision to the NPPF should reflect this.
That said parks and green spaces are facing an uncertain future. A recent LGUI report indicates that, financial difficulties will force local councils to cut many core community services for their 2018/19 budgets. Over half say they will be reducing parks and leisure activities this year (53% of councils). Added to this the change in the regulations from the 2015 Autumn Statement which mean local councils can retain 100% of the sale of assets to invest in public services and the prospect of a local council selling off a green space for much needed housing may well be attractive to cash-strapped council leaders - even though not a long-term solution.
Recreation spaces in residential areas should therefore remain a priority for protection from development, especially at a time when there is pressure on land for new housing; this means hard choices must be made. It is clearly the case that brownfield sites should be first for development, but these are not always available. Fields in Trust's position is therefore that if no brownfield site is available for necessary development, then other sites on the urban fringe should be considered before planning authorities contemplate sanctioning the loss of existing playing fields or other recreational sites.
This may not be a universally shared opinion; it is important that consultation and consideration of environmental and amenity issues takes place at a local level. But the importance of, and pressure on, land for sport and play in urban areas is such that they must be protected from development in the most robust manner.
However, by exploring creative partnerships solutions can be found. Last year, in partnership with HAB Housing, Fields in Trust developed an innovative collaboration which will secure recreational land in perpetuity as part of a new housing development at Kings Worthy near Winchester, Hampshire. As well as a new small housing development, the site was improved with allotments, wildflower meadows, play areas, a running circuit and a community orchard. Ownership of the site will be transferred to the local Parish Council, and the new community space will complement the existing facilities in the adjoining Eversley Park, with its football pitches, playground and basketball and tennis courts.
Whilst there is this pressure on land across the UK, both Scotland and Wales have devolved housing policy arrangements with their own planning regulations. However, anywhere in the UK, local communities could take a pre-emptive approach to safeguard their green spaces with Fields in Trust. Existing planning legislation alone is not sufficient to prevent the loss of parks and playing fields. Land owners and local authorities working with us can secure their greenspaces through a Deed of Dedication and ensure that accessible public recreational land is protected forever.
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.