“It’s bittersweet, really.” says Jan, leaning back on the new, spacious bench near the gate of her local park, Nowhere Gardens. “I was definitely one of those saying that this would never work. And, well. I was wrong. I guess I don’t mind admitting that, now. Things have just changed so quickly”.
Jan’s local park was at the forefront of a revolution in local governance and democracy in 2025. Five years later, we sat down with her to think about what had been gained, and lost, since the introduction of neighbourhood citizens’ panels.
“When I was chair of the Friends Group for this park, we worked so hard”, says Jan. “Everything felt like a battle, from encouraging people out on a Saturday morning to pick litter, knowing there’d be more by Sunday, to lobbying the council to get play equipment replaced, or even properly looked after. We were on the front line, both of day to day parks maintenance, but also of the holes left in social care – bumping into people rough sleeping in the park, dealing with the fallout from people joining our group because they needed something, much more than we could provide. The National Federation of Friends Groups did an amazing job, but we always felt like we were battling over the scraps – like each park was in competition with each other for funding. Parks in general were in competition against all the other calls on the council.
“Sometimes we’d get 20 people out for a litter pick or a party, but we never got more than five or so actually coming to meetings and helping with admin or fundraising. We did it because we loved this park. Most of us live around the edges of it, and it’s like an extension of our back gardens”. She pauses, looking over at a family picnicking next to the play area. “Maybe it was partly the sense that it was ours which meant no one else wanted to join”.
The 2020 pandemic had kicked off a national conversation about the importance of green and public spaces to public health, and the inequalities of access, provision and quality across the country. This was particularly acute in Jan’s area, where the relatively affluent neighbourhood immediately surrounding the park sat in between two dense estates with little greenspace of their own.
The “double” devolution of power from local authorities to new neighbourhood citizens’ panels was first proposed in the 2023 planning system reforms. Many were cynical at the time, seeing the move as a way of further stripping local authorities of power and funding, but community and neighbourhood organisations saw opportunities. The other change, that to some seemed like a nuance, was the change in emphasis of the planning system as a whole – from focussing on buildings and the built environment, to focussing on land and the wider landscape.