Dawn of the Dark Ages

By David Lambert, Director, The Parks Agency

At the beginning of the year the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced the closure of its Parks for People programme. It has been a grant programme like no other, breaking new ground in ways that have helped to transform not only parks but ideas of what constitutes heritage and what counts as conservation.

No one can deny that parks have had a good run since the HLF launched the Urban Parks Programme in 1996. Once unimaginable sums have been ploughed into parks; many have been transformed as has awareness of good-quality parks as an essential part of the social, economic and environmental ecology of the UK’s towns and cities.

The end still came as a shock. No one foresaw it. What was foreseeable was the effect of the hollowing out of local authority services since 2010 in the name of austerity. Cuts of unprecedented levels have fallen unfairly on non-statutory services such as parks. Applications to the HLF may have declined but not because the need has been met. In many places, there is no one left to put the bids together, and no money left to make up the partnership funding.

 

MailOnline


"Revealed: Thousands of parks are falling into disrepair or being sold off by cash strapped councils as they become 'no go' zones plagued by drug users and anti social behaviour"

It could hardly have come at a worse time, one year on from the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into parks. The Committee report was in many ways a disappointment, and the Parks Action Group set up by the Government is struggling to make progress. The only source of significant funding available to parks was turned off just as national politicians gave some long-overdue recognition to their importance.

Austerity has left parks services worse than decimated - cuts not just of 10% but even of 90% have left them unable to function properly, scrambling for ill-conceived solutions put together with little regard for the long-term. There is a huge discrepancy in the level of cuts to parks services, with the worst being in the north while the home counties have the least. Local authorities are desperate to find ways to generate more income or even to offload parks as liabilities they can no longer afford.

Surface of grass in foreground damaged following Wireless Festival at Finsbury Park. Crowds of people enjoying the park are visible in the background where the grass is still green
Finsbury Park, London, devastated by this year's Wireless Festival. Councils are flogging parks harder than ever in a desperate search for increased income © Clive Carter - The Friends of Finsbury Park

Perhaps most damning of all is the research by the HLF for its State of UK Parks report 2016. The research revealed that, such is the rate of decline resulting from austerity since 2010, by 2020 parks will be in a worse state than they were in the mid-1990s when HLF began its funding. That means that despite over £900 million invested by HLF, central government has effectively destroyed the long-term benefits of that investment.

In June, an alliance of concerned bodies, led by the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, launched a Charter for Parks at Westminster. The charter calls for:

  • National action to secure access for all within walking distance to good quality public green space
  • A legal duty for owners to maintain public green space to a good standard
  • Protection for parks from inappropriate development

This is a commendable effort to cut through the prevarication. So far, there has been little response from the Government.

As with climate change, we have in many places passed the tipping point and have embarked on the inevitable spiral of decline. The last one, which saw such devastation to parks in the 1970s and 1980s, was halted and reversed almost entirely as a result of the munificence of the HLF. That particular knight in shining armour is not going to appear again.

Litter spilt out of a bin at the Royal Pavilion Gardens in Brighton. Groups of visitors to the park in the background
The Royal Pavilion Gardens are now on Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register because of the over-use of the space and anti-social behaviour problems © Historic England DP189475
David Lambert
David Lambert, Director, The Parks Agency and member of Historic England Advisory Committee

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