Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, comments on the recently published review of local council finance and its potential implications for parks and green spaces.
Figures from the Local Government Information Unit's annual review of local council finance, released last week, show some worrying signs for the UK's parks and green spaces.
Coming just days after Northamptonshire County Council "raised a red flag" indicating a likely budget shortfall in the current year and an inability to set a balanced budget for 2018/19 the LGIU report demonstrates that this troubling situation is widespread and could affect as many as one in ten councils who will be unable to cover the costs of delivering their statutory services. No surprise then to find budgets for all other areas of discretionary spending squeezed – whilst most council taxpayers assume their parks and green spaces will always be there, there are no guarantees that any local authority will maintain a local park when reducing budgets are stretched across the whole range of adult and children's community services.
The LGUI report indicates that, financial difficulties will force 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.
But cutting parks budgets is a false economy – our recent research demonstrates that access to parks and green space makes a net contribution to the exchequer by improving public health and wellbeing; reducing GP visits and consequently NHS spending. Local authority expenditure on their health and wellbeing board responsibilities will rise if the local population loses access to parks and green spaces. And once a park is lost, it is lost forever.
In recent years a significant amount of money has been invested in parks by the Heritage Lottery Fund - Fields in Trust worked with HLF to get protection of these parks through our legal Deed of Dedication into their funding advice - ensuring that significant investment is protected, and these restored parks and green spaces will always be available for public recreation. The recent news that HLF has closed its dedicated "Parks for People" greenspace funding stream adds extra pressure to an already difficult funding environment.
The reduction in maintenance makes a park less attractive to visit and makes the argument for closure easier when a valuable local asset is little used by the community. This continuing spiral of decline sees not only a reduction in maintenance and support of green spaces but an increasing demand for volunteers to step in and carry out what little upkeep is possible. There are around 6,000 friends of parks groups across the UK who do an incredible job looking after the UK's much-loved parks and green spaces, but not every one of the UK's 27,000 parks has a committed band of volunteers – and those that do are often in the affluent areas where access to green space is not at a premium in the same way it is in some urban districts. Just as the financial investment in parks and green spaces should be protected, the physical investment - the time and effort of local volunteers - should also be recognised by securing these parks and green spaces for the communities who love and care for them.
Fields in Trust champions and supports our parks and green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. Because once lost, they are lost forever. Parks and green spaces in the UK are under threat and it is up to all of us to stem this cycle of disappearance and decline. We believe that everyone, irrespective of who they are and where they live should have the right to enjoy and benefit from local parks and green spaces. Overall there needs to be a revaluing of the UK's parks and green spaces, not based on the small amounts that they cost to maintain – but for the greater value they contribute- in physical and mental health, wellbeing, community cohesion and placemaking; parks are an expression of a civic culture that values green spaces for good.
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.