18th February 2019

COMMENT: Parks and Green Spaces - an invaluable asset?

In the latest of our Fields in Trust staff blogs, Policy Manager Alison McCann responds to the announcement by Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire MP of £13M in additional funding for parks and green spaces.

In his Mail on Sunday article (17/02/2019), Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire MP identifies that Local Authorities across the UK are facing difficult choices about which local services should be prioritised. In a welcome move, he has committed an additional £13M to maintain existing parks and invest in new “pocket parks”. He states “Parks are an invaluable public asset. The new funding will make a big difference, but is only the start of what I hope will be a new conversation – one that focuses on how parks can add even more value to our towns, cities and communities.

We at Fields in Trust are an active participant in this ongoing conversation - our research concludes that targeted spending on parks and green spaces can help to improve the health of the nation and reduce future NHS expenditure. The Minister, with his government department (MHCLG), is continuing the discussion with green space sector professionals through the “Parks Action Group” of which Fields in Trust is a member. The group is working to consider the sustainable future for the nation’s parks and green spaces. Fields in Trust is well placed to share expertise about the value of parks, as a registered charity dedicated to championing and supporting our green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. Founded in 1925 we have over 90 years’ experience of legally protecting publicly accessible recreational land.

We welcome this new investment in parks and green spaces that are so vital to our health and wellbeing and we are pleased to see this additional funding - which will go some way to maintaining and improving the parks most in need of renovation and repair. Whilst the direction of travel is positive, there is still a concern that parks without legal protection remain vulnerable to disposal for development. If we are to create strong and resilient communities and prevent increasing burdens on the NHS then, in a time of restricted local authority budgets, funding vital services will have to be balanced with sufficient and effective future investment. Indeed, as the Secretary of State James Brokenshire himself said recently at the Locality Conference: “well-integrated, socially and economically robust communities – matter so much. In good times and bad, they are glue that binds us. If our children grow up in neighbourhoods where they have access to inclusive spaces like parks and activities such as arts and sport they’re less likely to turn to crime

Far fom being an "invaluable asset" our recent research “Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces” shows that they deliver over £34 billion of direct health and wellbeing benefits to UK residents each year. This means people who use parks regularly enjoy a greater life satisfaction including improved physical and mental health. The research was compiled using HM Treasury approved Green Book methodology and demonstrates that as well as direct benefits to individuals, access to local parks and green spaces provide considerable secondary benefits to society more widely.

Yet parks are a discretionary service which councils have no statutory duty to provide. Whilst the number of visitors to parks is rising, investment has decreased, and maintenance has been reduced. The 2018 survey from the Association of Public Sector Excellence paints a bleak picture, with continuingly declining investment. Of the parks professionals who responded 95% either ‘agree’ or ‘agree strongly’ that “lack of investment in parks and green spaces will have health and social impacts”. Many councils struggle to cover the costs of delivering 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.

We hope that the Minister through the Fair Funding Review will consider new ways of analysing need and that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will offer a fresh opportunity to reconsider the how central government allocates funding to local government in the future - and the services which are prioritised. We are working with the MHCLG alongside colleagues in the Parks Action Group to present a robust business case to really transform the future of parks. We would urge the minister to consider that building a sustainable long-term future for council spending, in line with the needs of local communities, could be assisted by funding the services that deliver improved physical health, tackle childhood obesity, support mental wellbeing and facilitate community integration. Recently community sport and volunteer activity in parks have been highlighted in the NHS “Social Prescribing” approach to preventative health. The new Civil Society strategy identifies how valuable shared community spaces are in providing opportunities for social mixing, and parks are identified as one element in the government strategy to tackle loneliness.

DEFRA’s recently published 25-year plan to improve the environment is remarkable in many respects – not least its ambition which extends across five parliamentary terms. One of the stated aims is to connect people with green spaces to improve health and wellbeing, recognising the need to focus on disadvantaged areas. Joining-up this aspiration across government and recognising the diverse range of social policy goals that the green space sector is tasked with delivering could genuinely bring about some stability and long-term sustainable planning and funding.

Whilst recognising the urgent need to build new homes, it is vital that communities, particularly children, should enjoy healthy active outdoor recreation within walking distance of home. Yet faced with tough funding decisions councils are increasingly tempted to sell off green space assets; not only to generate immediate income but also remove a longer-term maintenance liability.

If more money is to be made available for public services, we believe that it would be financially efficient to channel this investment into social infrastructure that supports the preventative health agenda and reduces the need for more expensive and intensive interventions further down the track. Recent research from the New Policy Institute indicates that councils are actually having to shift funding away from preventative agendas because of a ‘quiet crisis’, whereas we know that is not a cost-effective decision in the long term. Our Research quantifies that parks and green space save the NHS £111million every year because regular park users are healthier and therefore don’t visit their GP so often – that cost saving would not be possible if parks and green spaces are less available to the public.

Local communities are fiercely protective of any parks that become threatened and the Mail on Sunday #SaveOurParks campaign has demonstrated the strength of feeling across the UK. We know that each year in our “Have a Field Day”, national event on Saturday 6th July community campaigners concerned at the loss of local green space will be amongst the thousands of people who will come together once again this summer for picnics with their friends and neighbours to celebrate why green spaces are so special to the local communities who visit them and care for them. We welcome any additional income to support new and improved parks and green spaces – conversely, we believe cutting parks budgets is a false economy and any decision by a public body to remove a park or green space is completely a short-sighted approach which will be likely to cost more money than is saved. Our research reveals what we all intuitively know: green spaces are good, do good and need to be protected for good.

 

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Alison McCannAlison McCann is Fields in Trust Policy Manager. She can be contacted by any of the below means.

t: 020 7427 2128
e: alison.mccann@fieldsintrust.org

 

Alison McCann is Fields in Trust's Policy Manager. Having worked for the organisation for the last six years, Alison's current role focuses on research about the value of green space to better inform policymaking, as well as overseeing the legal support function for sites protected with Fields in Trust. Alison led the commissioning, data analysis and report production for Fields in Trust's Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research published in May 2018. Alison previously worked in Sports Development for two London Boroughs, managing projects with a range of stakeholders and community groups.