1st April 2019

Council plans for park booking system labelled a disgrace

Fields in Trust have condemned plans by one local council to limit their residents' access to local parks by implementing a new booking system, allowing the sell-off of swathes of green space.

Under the proposals seen by Fields in Trust, Summerbeech Town Council in Greenshire propose to implement a new online portal to force residents to book a one-hour slot whenever they wish to use a park or green space. A report to the council cites the process of booking a court within a leisure centre as its inspiration and notes that parks are not a statutory service meaning councillors are under no obligation to retain a minimum level of provision for communities.

Drawn up in response to budget cuts, the report to the council notes that by restricting residents' access to local green space by limiting time that can be spent by each person within a park, the council will be able to sell off much of its green space in order to generate a one-off cash hit and save longer-term maintenance costs. The council also plans to profit from the remaining green space by charging a "transaction fee" whenever bookings are made online.

Hitting out at the plans, Fields in Trust Policy Manager, Alison McCann, said: "Parks and green spaces are the most universal of our public services, used by everyone in society. These plans are yet another example of what happens when we judge parks and green spaces solely on what they cost to maintain rather than for the benefits that they bring.

"The idea that councils can save money by cutting green space is flawed. Our research found the Wellbeing Value associated with the frequent use of local parks and green spaces is worth £34.2 billion per year to the entire UK adult population, whilst parks and green spaces are estimated to save the NHS around £111 million per year based solely on a reduction in GP visits. Ripping out our glorious greensward is no solution to any problem that we face and is completely counter-productive to what the council hopes to achieve with this wanton act.

"Of course, these savings can only be achieved with adequate provision of parks and green spaces. Our Guidance for Outdoor Sport and Play sets out minimum provision standards for both formal and informal outdoor space and in the coming months we will be launching our unique new index of green space provision. We would be very happy to work with the council to demonstrate both the value of their parks and green spaces portfolio as well as the levels of provision they need to ensure every resident has adequate access to quality green space."

Fields in Trust approached Mayor of Summerbeech, Cllr. Avril Premiere, for comment regarding the plans and has yet to receive a response, but it is understood the council are in discussions with a major outsourcing company to ensure maximum added financial value to their plans. Inspired by the model adopted by some airlines, whilst residents will be able to enter a park by booking a one-hour slot they will need to make additional payments in order to use any facilities, such as pathways, benches and drinking fountains, or to have picnics or sporting equipment made available. It is believed additional costs will also be levied for bringing dogs into a park, but a discount will be offered for groups of three or more entering parks for picnics.

The council is also said to be working with a technology partner on a facial recognition solution which will allow residents with valid bookings to cross the boundary of the park without needing gates, as well as to issue fines if park users overstay their allotted time.

This is not the first time the residents of Summerbeech have been faced with their council plotting radical proposals in an attempt to cut the cost of green space. Around twelve months ago Fields in Trust revealed the Town Council's plans to provide "permanent parks" through virtual reality headsets, since scrapped following the resulting public backlash.

Of course, however, once a green space is lost it is lost forever. Parks need to be revalued for the benefits that they bring and we can all play our part in championing our much-loved local green spaces. As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer it is a perfect time to get outdoors and explore all there is to enjoy at your local park or green space.