Our parks are more important than ever. As the Select Committee Inquiry into Public Parks commences, I argue we need to go further than preventing them from being sold. Parks also need to have stable funding, and the support and skills to adapt.
Amongst the vacant lots in post-industrial Burnley wild flowers are growing. At the local park bees buzz and meadow grasses sway in the wind. A group of volunteers are working alongside a skilled arborist to identify trees that could be felled, chipped and turned into playground surfacing. It’s an idyllic picture here in Burnley.
Yet, despite its beautiful architecture, immense friendliness, and its parks, Burnley has the unenviable status that it’s one of areas in greatest decline in England. With population decline, lower skills and educational attainment and people experiencing poorer health compared to the rest of the UK, it’s tough times for many who live here.
On top of this, the biggest cuts to local authority grants from Government affect places like Burnley harder than more affluent areas. In future, Burnley will need to raise more of its local taxes from business rates, which is a tough proposition for a place with a declining population and a traditional economic base that is now lost.
Brexit has shed light on a fractured nation. And when times are tough, that is when spaces for us to come together, to connect with nature, to have shared experiences, are all the more important. Our parks and open spaces become as important as ever when people are struggling or feeling anxious. Above and beyond the clear benefits for our health and wellbeing, public parks help us feel and be more empathetic, more personable and more communal. We need public parks more than ever.
It is against this backdrop we see the Committees and Local Government Select Committee’s Inquiry into Parks receiving thousands of submissions to protect our open spaces. Through the inquiry hundreds of thousands of people are calling for legal protection for parks – making them a statutory service for local authorities to provide. And while I think the campaign for parks to become a statutory service is a great mobiliser, the call doesn’t address the very real issue of where funds will come from.
We need parks to be protected AND for them to have a stable revenue stream.
That’s where Burnley becomes all the more relevant. Burnley was one of eleven Rethinking Parks projects that we supported to develop and test new business models for parks. Burnley’s approach, tapped into the local desire to connect more with nature. In place of grass and high numbers of formal gardens, there are now perennials and meadows. There are specialist volunteering roles such as woodland management and bee keeping. Burnley’s approach makes their parks more biodiverse, more dynamic and also cheaper to run. They’ve also partnered with a local social enterprise, and are desperately trying to retain the core skills that are haemorrhaging for parks services across the country.
Burnley’s parks are a shining example of how our public parks can continue to be beautiful, relevant and communal spaces. But even with the projected savings of over £110,000 per annum Burnley will make from these changes it won’t be enough to address the size of cuts faced.
The Rethinking Parks programme found that there are many opportunities to diversify funding, and to tap into local needs so parks continue to feel relevant and responsive to communities. To do so the sector needs to have skills and support, and also continued core funding from Government.
It’s tough times for parks and the Inquiry couldn’t have come at a more pressing time. When Britain needs spaces to come together, don’t pare them back. Propel them forward.