Sector urged to grasp opportunity of parks inquiry

Parks: inquiry will examine impact of reduced local authority budgets and look at worries over potential closures

Submissions to the upcoming public parks inquiry must tell the "hidden stories" of the damage budget cuts have wrought on specific local parks to have the greatest impact, according to parks consultant David Lambert, who advised on the last parks inquiry in 1999.

The select committee's 1999 Town & Country Parks inquiry brought the parks funding crisis to Government's attention and resulted in the formation of urban parks agency CABE Space. Following the Communities & Local Government (CLG) announcement last week that it is launching a new inquiry into parks funding, Lambert has offered his advice on how the parks sector can have a similar or greater impact this time around.

The parliamentary committee inquiry will examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets and look at worries parks could close or be sold. Announcing the inquiry, committee chair MP Clive Betts said: "With councils under enormous financial pressures and with no legal obligation to fund and maintain public parks, these precious resources may be at risk."

The committee will look at how parks should be supported now and in the future, focusing on issues such as their contribution to health and the impact of local authority budget cuts. The team will study alternative management and funding models such as mutuals or trusts.

Lambert said the inquiry is "fantastic", if well overdue. "The Parks Alliance did a great job getting this inquiry held but now we have to take the opportunity of getting the message over." The crisis in local authority revenue funding - the maintenance rather than capital side of budgets - is the major issue that must be conveyed to the CLG committee, he added.

In 1999 submissions with the greatest impact were from local authority parks managers and friends groups who talked about local budget cuts and implications for parks in their own districts, said Lambert. The committee's final report showed those submissions were taken very seriously.

"The problem we face is that there's no national policy of pursuing cuts to parks budgets. Each decision is locally made by an individual local authority in response to central Government cuts from their budget, so it's really important to get the MPs who are sympathetic to understand what is happening on the ground," he explained.

"We've had headline studies like the State of UK Public Parks, we've had Rethinking Parks, but what really needs to happen is for those reports to be fleshed out with stories from individual parks, local authorities, friends groups and park managers." Grounds maintenance contractors could also make a valuable contribution, he added, a sentiment echoed by BALI-NCF chairman Phil Jones, who wants contractors to encourage submissions from the communities they work in.

Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) head of landscape and natural heritage Drew Bennellick said the inquiry is "good news". He added: "HLF's 2014 report State of UK Public Parks highlighted the challenges facing parks and has provided the vital evidence needed to launch this inquiry." HLF is due to publish a second State of UK Public Parks report in September, as the inquiry closes. The call for a parks inquiry was the central objective of HW's Make Parks a Priority campaign, formed in 2012 and which led to the launch of The Parks Alliance.

Other industry leaders have warned the Government is in for a "rude awakening" on the cash crisis across all green spaces. Consultant and co-founder of The Parks Alliance Dr Sid Sullivan welcomed the CLG recognising the community's desire for reassessing "disproportionate" cuts in budgets. "This is why Horticulture Week committed itself to the original Parks Leadership Fora, precipitated the start of The Parks Alliance and campaigned to persuade Government to reassess parks funding."

Sullivan added: "It is the practice professionals that hold the key to resolving this issue. They have the scientific and empirical evidence that is so convincing. I believe Government is in for a rude awakening when it sees the evidence and hears from health and social professionals about the damage done by an unthinking adherence to budget reductions."

Landscape consultant Peter Neal said it is essential for Government to take stock of the impact of austerity but the inquiry should not be solely about funding. "The inquiry needs a broad remit that looks at skills, management models, the role of partnerships and communities and learns from where innovation does things differently in the UK and abroad," he added.

The Parks Alliance chairman Mark Camley warned that parks are "under severe budget restrictions and at a tipping point". If no action is taken parks will revert to the no-go areas of the 1980s. "It is crucial those who love parks get involved and offer solutions," he said. "All of us have a duty to seek answers to how parks might be financed, what they might look like and how they will be managed."

- The deadline for written evidence is 30 September. Submissions can be made at

First published, 22 July 2016, written by Elizabeth Henry and Jez Abbott