The report into the Government’s Public Parks Inquiry, published on Saturday 11 February, has been greeted with a mixed reaction from Nottingham City Council.
The inquiry by the Communities and Local Government Committee investigated challenges facing parks and ways to secure a sustainable future. Its report recognises ‘that parks are at a tipping point, and failure to match their value and the contribution they make with the resources they need to be sustained could have severe consequences.’
Amongst the 27 witnesses invited to give evidence was Nottingham’s Head of Parks and Open Spaces, Eddie Curry, who is Chair of the Core Cities Parks and Green Spaces Group.
The inquiry heard many calls for a statutory duty to be placed on local councils to provide and maintain parks. Currently, it is a discretionary service. However, they were not persuaded that this would be the best way to stop parks ‘slipping through the cracks.’
Councillor Dave Trimble, Nottingham City Council’s Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture, says: “Nottingham City Council has made substantial improvements to parks and open spaces over the past ten years. It is therefore very disappointing that this inquiry has failed to make parks a statutory service, as this would have given them the long-term protection they need.
“Imposing a statutory duty would have been a real opportunity to recognise the value of parks and to keep them in political focus. We appreciate that this would have placed an extra burden on local authorities, but the statutory duty could have been placed on strategic planning and leadership rather than on funding protection. This would have at least ensured that local authorities consider the wider strategic benefits and identify opportunities to raise income to fund the service.”
Instead, the inquiry recommends that the Minister publishes guidance to local authorities to work with Health and Wellbeing Boards to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies acknowledging how parks contribute to wider objectives. It recognises that ‘parks and green spaces are treasured assets and are often central to the lives of their communities. They provide opportunities for leisure, relaxation and exercise, but are also fundamental to community cohesion, physical and mental health and wellbeing, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and local economic growth.’
Councillor Trimble welcomes a recommendation to strengthen links with planning, to ensure that the green infrastructure is best used for community benefit. He also welcomes a recommendation that councils be allowed to use Section 106 planning funding for revenue activities such as parks maintenance and habitat management as well as for capital projects such as playgrounds and buildings.
A guarded welcome is also given to recommendations to remove restrictive covenants and legislation that protect parks and green spaces from development or from commercial activities. In Nottingham, such restrictions apply to sites including Victoria Embankment, Stockhill Park, Highfields Park, Harvey Hadden Park, Woodthorpe Park and Wollaton Park.
Councillor Trimble says: “When benefactors gifted land a century or more ago the interpretation of conditions may well have been different. For instance, the agreements may put a total restriction on any commercial activities that could bring in money to help fund the park. If parks are to serve us as well in the future as they have in the past they need to keep up with the times and be valued by new generations. Any proposals would need to be treated sensitively, with careful consideration to ensure that the community were fully consulted on any potential changes.”
The inquiry report welcomes the growth of park forums as a method of improving the way local authorities work with their communities in a co-ordinated and efficient way.
The Chair of Nottingham Parks and Open Spaces Forum, Sarah Manton, said: “We have many beautiful and much-loved parks in the city and we are fortunate that they are high on the council’s agenda, with the number of Green Flag sites in Nottingham standing at a record 46.
“As the inquiry points out, with ever-reducing budgets we need to demonstrate the wider value of parks in order to find new sources of funding. Nottingham has led the way on this, with investment in Nottingham parks over the past ten years topping £36million, achieved through bids, commercial activities and partnerships.
“It’s disappointing that – while acknowledging the tremendous value of parks, volunteers and the growth of local forums – the report underestimates the worth of a clearly-defined and active local political champion, failing to see the clear link between strong political leadership and how this helps to secure funding and protect our parks from budget cuts.
“It also points out the lack of national strategic leadership – so it’s disappointing that its recommendation is to establish a website. It would have been better to consider how a national agency could help support parks – even simply through one of the existing organisations or governing bodies such as the Parks Alliance or Landscape Institute.”