Valued but set to decline – what’s happening to our public parks?
Since 1996 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has been a major investor in the UK’s public parks. Over £700million of Good Cause Lottery funding has been invested in over 700 public parks including many country parks.
The money has been used to repair historic features, dredge lakes, enhance habitats, research the parks’ history, open cafes, train staff, and to support people to take a more active role in caring, learning about and volunteering in their local parks. Together with funding from local authorities, money raised by friends groups and an immense amount of officer and volunteer time, the UK’s public parks have seen a renaissance in their condition over the last 20 years.
But with all the gloomy news of reductions in local authority budgets and the fact that providing good quality parks is a discretionary service, what are the prospects for the UK’s 27,000 public parks?
In June HLF launched our State of UK Public Parks 20141 report. Based on UK-wide surveys of local authority park managers and friends groups, including an Ipsos Mori public opinion poll of the park-going public, we have established the state of the UK’s public parks. We are incredibly grateful to all those who took time to respond to our surveys and hope the report will be of great use to you.
The research produced some startling statistics. The good news is that 2.6billion visits are made to the UK’s parks each year with 70% of park managers recording increased visitor numbers to their principal parks. It’s also estimated that over £30million is raised by park friends groups to support their local parks each year.
The bad news is that 86% of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect the trend to continue for the next three years. 45% of local authorities also report they are considering either selling their parks and green spaces or transferring management to others such as wildlife trusts or community groups. This is all the more worrying as 81% of council parks departments reported they have lost skilled management staff since 2010 and that 77% have lost front-line staff.
After two decades of investment and improvement we appear to have reached a tipping point. However many seem oblivious to this impending crisis. Unlike the closing of a swimming pool or shutting of a library, reductions in park maintenance often go unnoticed but without it parks become underused, neglected and vandalised. The immense social and environmental capital of public parks can be rapidly eroded and they can become a costly liability for those that manage them.
We hope our report will provide the evidence needed to persuade decision makers that reducing investment in parks is a false economy and that resources are needed to develop new ways to manage and finance parks and green spaces in future. Our report ends with a series of ‘calls to action’ for others.
As a grant giver there is only so much that HLF can do to help avert a future crisis. Collecting and presenting accurate data to demonstrate potential problems ahead is one approach. But we also want to do more both through the projects we continue to support and also for the benefit of all parks and green spaces across the UK. We have therefore developed a plan to help the sector to help itself and would encourage as many people as possible to join in and make use of these valuable resources!
Support for our projects post-completion - last year we appointed an expert parks adviser with experience in local authority park management to review many of the projects we have funded in the past. It appears so far that our investment is standing-up well with a minority of sites needing additional support and encouragement. Visiting past funded projects has allowed us to gather a wealth of knowledge and good practice which we want to share with others.
Improving communications within the parks world - to help those working in the sector to share good practice and seek advice from others we have created a new parks online community2. It is early days and for it to be a success we need people to join in.
Sharing good practice – learning from others is essential to saving time and inspiring people to try new ideas. HLF, Big Lottery Fund and The Land Trust have created the Prosperous Parks website3 that brings new ideas together for sharing. We are keen that anyone with creative new ideas for funding and managing parks and green spaces considers adding them to the website as a priority.
Stimulating innovation – those working in parks and green spaces are brilliant at coming up with new ideas and creative ways of working, however as economic pressure increases time to innovate and trial new ideas becomes more challenging. HLF and Big Lottery Fund are currently working with innovation charity Nesta on their Rethinking Parks programme.
Continued investment in public parks - HLF and Big Lottery Fund England are committed to supporting more park regeneration projects across the UK in future. In July we announced another investment of £34.5million in 13 public parks. Whilst we appreciate that resources to develop applications are under immense pressure, we are still eager to see new projects come forward under our Parks for People grant programme which offers grants of between £100,000 and £5million. If you think your local park could benefit from a Parks for People grant please take a look at our application guidance4 to see if your park might be eligible.
In 2016 we will repeat our survey to see how parks are faring but in the meantime we call on you, using the resources above, to do your very best to help protect the UK’s amazing legacy of wonderful public parks.
If you have any questions or would like hard copies of State of UK Public Parks please get in touch with Drew Bennellick, Head of Landscape and Natural Heritage UK at the HLF via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter: @drewbennellick.
Updated information January 2017:
In September 2016 the Heritage Lottery Fund published their second State of UK Public Parks report. Copies of the summary report, the main research report and all data can be found at: https://www.hlf.org.uk/state-uk-public-parks-2016