It is sometimes forgotten that the National Trust’s founders cared deeply about access to green space for people in towns and cities.
Octavia Hill wrote: “In pleading for the inhabitants of our towns we are asking for no aristocratic luxury or exceptional superfluity, but for the restoration of some faint reflex of what our modern civilisation has taken away from the ordinary inheritance, to which as citizens of the fair earth, they were born.”
Two recent reports (one from a respected lottery body, the other from a major think tank) warn that our parks and green spaces face a looming crisis. How should the Trust respond?
We know that people in Britain care passionately about their parks. In the past decade they have enjoyed something of a renaissance, buoyed by two decades of lottery investment, in tandem with local authority action and political concern. Visits have risen to 2.6billion a year, and for many people, their local park is the natural space they have the strongest connection with: it’s their special place.
However, Heritage Lottery Fund’s recent report, State of UK Public Parks, makes it clear that our much loved parks could be heading towards crisis point. Cuts to local authority funding of up to 20% threaten to undermine the progress of the past twenty years. We are already seeing loss of staff and skills, and some councils looking to sell off assets associated with parks and green space, and sometimes even the green space itself.
This week Policy Exchange published the second of two reports on public parks, which puts forward some proposals to improve local green spaces, including raising local levies through council tax, council tax rebates for park volunteers, and green prescriptions. These ideas deserve consideration by Government and others.
What is clear from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s work is that the pace of change is fast, and that the worst affected councils are mainly metropolitan areas in the north of England and in deprived urban communities. In many areas the situation could reach crisis point in the next three to five years. This suggests we may need more significant short-term action at a national level to help address the funding gap, whilst we innovate and find the solutions that will sustain our public green spaces in the longer term.
Why should this concern the National Trust?
We exist to look after special places for ever, for everyone. Our research says for many people parks are the most special places in their lives and the ones they are most motivated to look after, if they were given the opportunity to do so.
It isn’t for national charities like the National Trust to ride to the rescue with a wholesale take-over of councils’ parks, as we already have a big job to do in caring for the places we look after across the country. Neither can local communities be expected to take on this huge responsibility without support.
All of us need to work together to find solutions to the crisis. It is right that local councils continue to play a central role in looking after our parks and green spaces as leaders for their communities and as placemakers – whether or not they have access to resources to directly fund parks maintenance in the future.
We are sharing our experience of caring for special spaces in the long term to work with Sheffield and Manchester City Councils on developing and testing a 21st century endowment model for funding public parks and green spaces. The aim is for the model to work in any town or city, depending on geography and local circumstances. This work is funded by Nesta, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund.
New funding models of this kind may be the future for our public parks, but they will take time to develop. There is a more immediate challenge for the next few years. National and local Government need to work together to address the short term funding crisis that confronts our cherished public parks and green spaces.