Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, reflects on the recent report on parks and green spaces.
Our parks and green spaces are at tipping point warns the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee in its report Public Parks.
Having received 400 written submissions, including ours, and heard 27 witnesses, the MPs concluded obviously enough that England’s parks ‘face considerable challenges’ but without the protections, priority and money they need to do this.
The committee emphasises the many benefits of green spaces—for physical and mental health, social cohesion, climate-change mitigation and local economies. This is not new—many of our founders would surely have recognised these problems 150 years ago.
With many others, we called for a statutory duty to be placed on local authorities to provide, monitor, manage and maintain parks and open spaces. But the committee felt such a duty could be ‘burdensome and complex’ and might not achieve the intended outcomes.
We strongly disagree. While statutory duties are often not fulfilled, they normally secure at least some share of the available money—and strengthen the hand of campaigners.
The CLG minister offered to bring together a cross-departmental group to spread best practice. The committee recommended ministerial guidance for local authorities on working collaboratively with health and well-being boards. These are local-authority committees comprising representatives from the NHS, public health and local government, with a statutory duty to produce a health and well-being strategy for their local population.
It’s a start to get health bodies thinking seriously about how vital parks and green spaces are to our well-being. But, since parks help to cut expenditure by promoting a healthier population, it makes sense that money should be transferred from health budgets to protection and improvement of green space, as an investment for people.
We argued, without success, for better legal protection for open spaces. And we deplore their use for commercial events (Finsbury Park’s festival for instance, see page 8). But the committee felt it was OK for local authorities to grant exclusive access to a park and to charge for some uses—after consultation.
It is astonishing that Natural England presented no evidence to the committee. Yet its recent strategy for the twenty-first century puts ‘people at the heart of the environment’ and it promises to focus ‘where our work adds the greatest value’.
Thus, Natural England must give priority to people’s places, close to their homes, essential for health, natural beauty, wildlife and a clean environment. Parks and green spaces desperately need a champion.