Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

Public parks inquiry: submission by Julian Dobson,
director, Urban Pollinators Ltd

Summary

• The future for England’s parks must be durable, democratic and adaptable.
Proposals that lack any one of these characteristics will fail.

• Future financing and governance arrangements must be durable because
urban green spaces are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure and need
long-term care and stewardship.

• They must be democratic because local authority-owned parks are public
assets and provide benefits for the whole population.

• They must be adaptable, first because green spaces will play an increasingly
important role in climate change adaptation and mitigation; and second,
because recreation and leisure interests are constantly changing.

• Durability, democracy and adaptability are all at risk in a context of funding
cuts and short-term policy cycles.

• To free parks from the impasse of central-local policy frameworks, local,
accountable and directly funded parks cooperatives should be established in
each local authority area, responsible for stewarding our parks in perpetuity.

• Local parks co-operatives should have directly elected governing bodies and
the power to raise funds through a supplementary levy on local council taxes,
subject to direct democratic approval.

• In addition, there should be a national endowment fund for urban green
infrastructure, responsible for major capital investments, equalisation of
resources between richer and poorer localities, and the creation of a national
centre for learning and excellence.

Introduction

Why this submission?

1. In 2012 Urban Pollinators Ltd, a research consultancy, was commissioned by
Groundwork UK to research and write a report, Grey Places Need Green

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

Spaces. This submission builds on that evidence with updated proposals for
the future management and funding of England’s parks and green spaces.

2. Julian Dobson, the author of that report and this submission, is a researcher
and writer with a longstanding interest in the urban environment. He was the
founder and editorial director of the urban regeneration magazine, New
Start, and is author of How to Save Our Town Centres, published in 2015 by
Policy Press. He is particularly interested in how public policy can better
contribute to sustainable and inclusive towns and cities.

3. While this submission builds on the Groundwork report, it is being submitted
independently of Groundwork UK and all views expressed are the author’s
own.

A future for parks: durable, democratic, adaptable

4. The focus of this submission is on the future administration, management
and funding of England’s parks and urban green spaces. It assumes that the
Committee’s interest is primarily in those spaces currently owned or
managed by local authorities, including formal parks, woodlands and
neighbourhood-level public open space.

5. The key argument is that the future for England’s parks must be durable,
democratic and adaptable. Proposals that lack any one of these
characteristics will fail. Future arrangements must be durable because green
spaces, particularly in towns and cities, are a critical part of the nation’s
infrastructure and need long-term care and stewardship. They must be
democratic because local authority-owned parks are a public asset, often
gifted to localities for the health and wellbeing of their people, and provide
benefits for the whole population. Finally, they must be adaptable: first
because green spaces will play an increasingly important role in climate
change adaptation and mitigation; and second, because recreation and
leisure interests are constantly changing.

6. Durability, democracy and adaptability are all at risk in a context of
institutionalised neglect. Short-term policy cycles and funding settlements
militate against durability. A combination of accumulated austerity cuts and
increasing expectations on local authorities undermines democratic
accountability and transparency, reducing parks to a sideshow in the
unfolding crisis of English local government - a crisis characterised by
significant contractions both in funding and in services provision.1 The
consequent search for least-cost solutions and increasing reliance on hard-
pressed volunteers threatens adaptability, denuding parks of expertise and

1
See the Local Government Association’s Budget 2016 submission, for example.

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

the ability to plan for the long term. We are already beginning to see parks
sold for development as a budget-balancing measure.2

7. To provide the future our parks and people need, we propose the
establishment of local, accountable and directly funded parks cooperatives in
each local authority area, responsible for stewarding our parks in perpetuity.

8. In addition, a national endowment fund for urban green infrastructure should
be set up, responsible for major capital investments, the equalisation of
resources between richer and poorer localities, and the creation of a national
centre for learning and excellence to share knowledge and expertise. Both
proposals are explained in more detail below.

Durability: parks for the future, not just the present

9. England’s parks are long term assets whose value can be measured on
multiple scales: ecology and biodiversity, health and wellbeing, leisure and
recreation, quality of place and attractiveness, and climate change
adaptation and mitigation. This multitude of functions requires professional
care and management underpinned by reliable funding streams.

10. As Britain’s climate changes, with the likelihood of a warmer and wetter year-
round climate and more extreme weather events such as flooding, parks will
form an increasingly important part of the urban infrastructure. They have
the potential to absorb excess rainwater, particularly when managed to
include sustainable urban drainage systems, while in heatwaves and dry
spells trees can act as natural air conditioning.3

11. Even when considered only for their leisure and recreational use, long term
care and management is necessary to balance competing interests and adapt
to changing tastes. While there is no need to preserve bandstands and
bowling greens in aspic, the kind of activities such structures facilitated -
performance and sport - will always be associated with parks and green
spaces.

12. Successive governments have invested billions of pounds in roads and
railways in the name of economic development. But a functioning economy
cannot thrive in a degraded and neglected environment. Quality of life and
quality of place are increasingly important in attracting and retaining
businesses and provide a context in which enterprises can flourish.4


2
‘Selling parks will save playgrounds, Bexley claims’. Horticulture Week, 15 April 2016.
3
The academic literature on the benefits of green infrastructure is extensive. For a UK example, see
Gill et al. (2007), ‘Adapting cities for climate change: the role of the green infrastructure’. Journal of
the Built Environment 33 (1), 115-133.
4
Natural Economy Northwest (2008). The economic value of green infrastructure.

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

13. For all these reasons, parks should be considered essential to the nation’s
infrastructure - what the National Audit Office has described as ‘a vital
element of a civilised urban environment’. That requires a commitment to
long-term investment and maintenance, supported by reliable and
sustainable funding and management. Assets whose value spans multiple
generations should not be left to the mercy of short-term political and
economic considerations.

14. At present, however, parks are near the bottom of the political pecking
order. National investment decisions prioritise highly visible structures such
as roads and railways, supporting interventions in landscapes while
neglecting the landscapes themselves. The skills and knowledge required to
protect and care for urban green spaces have been allowed to wither,
characterised by the dismantling of CABE Space as a centre of expertise by
the Coalition government of 2010-15.

15. At local level, councils must balance the stewardship of their parks with a
host of statutory duties. As resources are squeezed the most urgent duties
will take priority. A local authority forced to choose between safeguarding a
child at risk of abuse today and caring for a green space tomorrow has no
moral choice: the child must be safeguarded. To put councils in a position
where such choices become routine is to cement the neglect of parks and
green spaces into everyday practice.

16. The result is a culture of inevitable decline. Policymakers cannot plead
ignorance: they knew this would be the case. They were warned by the
Communities and Local Government Committee’s predecessor in 1999:
members declared themselves ‘shocked at the weight of evidence, far
beyond our expectations, about the extent of the problems parks have faced
in the last 30 years’.5

17. They were warned again in 2006, when the National Audit Office cautioned
that the improvements of the early 2000s were fragile. ‘Central government
expects local green space managers to make the case for green space
expenditure against other pressing priorities … there is the danger that when
budgets are tight, the case for green space will not be made effectively, will
slip down the local priority list and decline will set in again.’6 That warning
has proved prescient, as the Heritage Lottery Fund’s recent research has
shown. National policymaking, it would appear, is characterised by amnesia.


5
Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee (1999). Twentieth Report: Town and
country parks.
6
National Audit Office (2006). Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Enhancing urban green space.

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

Democracy: parks for the people, accountable to the people

18. A powerful argument in favour of local authority control of parks is that of
democratic legitimacy. Parks are overseen - ultimately - by democratically
elected councillors, and ward councillors can voice local residents’ concerns
for the parks in their neighbourhoods.

19. However, as noted above, local government faces multiple competing duties
and regulatory responsibilities, many of which it no longer has the resources
or expertise to implement effectively. One possible approach, mooted in
Groundwork’s 2012 report, would be to embed principles of stewardship in a
national Parks and Green Spaces Act. However, the experience of library
provision over the last decade suggests that even where a statutory duty
exists, it is not sufficient to protect either the scope or the quality of a
service. The story of libraries in the last six years has been one of creeping
reductions in opening hours, staffing and branch provision, with local
libraries morphing into vestigial ‘community’ services while the statutory
duty box is ticked by maintaining a central library.

20. Given the continued reduction of local government funding since 2010, to
create a statutory duty without the resources to fulfil it would be invidious,
making local authorities liable for responsibilities they do not have the
resources to fulfil. A more radical and sustainable option is therefore needed.
Such an option must, however, preserve the democratic nature of parks and
green spaces - both in the sense of being accessible to everyone equally, and
by being managed in a manner accountable to the local population.

21. Much thought has been given in recent years to innovative forms of funding
and management that might preserve parks’ benefits while reducing the
burden on local authorities. Nesta’s Rethinking Parks programme and the
Policy Exchange report, Green Society (2014), include a number of
imaginative suggestions. Both, however, sidestep fundamental questions of
access and accountability, and neither offer a sustainable long-term model of
care and stewardship.

22. There is a danger, too, in imagining that ‘innovation’ is a get-out-of-jail card
to be waved at sticky and challenging issues. No clever app or
groundbreaking technology will eliminate the need for skilled and informed
long-term care grounded in a full understanding of the functions and benefits
of each local network of parks and green spaces. Financial tinkering, local
subscriptions and usage charges might offset some short-term costs, but will
not protect and improve parks for the long term.

23. A new management model must achieve three things. It must preserve and
enhance public access and public benefits, in the broadest sense of these
terms. It must maintain sustainable and predictable revenue streams that will
allow parks to be staffed and stewarded at levels that maximise public

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

benefits. And it must be accountable to the people who use the parks in as
direct a manner as practicable, through transparent decision-making coupled
with representative oversight. All these suggest that parks’ management and
finance should be decoupled from the many other responsibilities of local
government.

24. There are several models that can serve as exemplars or alternative forms of
management, from Milton Keynes Parks Trust to the Minneapolis Parks and
Recreation Board. The CABE Space report, Is the grass greener? examined a
range of international models and merits more attention than it received
when it was published.7 The proposal below draws on some of the thinking in
that report.

Adaptable: changing parks for a changing climate

25. Parks have always been considered important for the health and social
wellbeing of urban populations. From Sunderland to Southampton, the civic
park has formed a centrepiece of urban planning, and many are now listed as
heritage assets. The benefits of parks are well documented: Grey Places Need
Green Spaces references dozens of academic studies and policy papers that
demonstrate how parks provide ecosystem services, support local
economies, facilitate health and wellbeing, and offer social and cultural
value.

26. The ecosystem services offered by parks are particularly relevant in the
context of a changing climate. As well as mitigating the effects of extreme
weather, green spaces support biodiversity, pollination and soil formation.
Well connected green spaces encourage walking and cycling, helping to
reduce traffic congestion and associated air pollution.

27. Climate change is likely to disrupt global food systems, raising the cost of
imported foodstuffs8. As a consequence urban food growing may become
more important, and parks and green spaces can provide a showcase for
edible planting, demonstrating the benefits of local food production. The
success of Incredible Edible Todmorden and the many related projects
illustrates some of the creative ways under-used public spaces can be
repurposed as edible landscapes.

28. At the same time, parks are ideal venues for festivals, performances and
sporting activities. Balancing the demands of leisure uses with the
environmental functions of green spaces demands intelligent and informed
management. Such management needs to understand and prioritise ‘place-

7
CABE Space (n.d.). Is the grass greener? Available at the National Archives.
8
See http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/issue/uk.html

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

keeping’ - the long-term care that ‘brings people back to places again and
again’9 - rather than short-term income generation.

Local democratic control: a cooperative model

29. The three imperatives of durability, democracy and adaptability require our
parks to be freed from a dysfunctional policy context. A framework of
central-local relations geared primarily to three- to five-year political and
financial timescales is hardly conducive to principles of stewardship.

30. For this reason we propose a model of democratic management at a local
level, supplemented by a national endowment fund for capital investment.

31. The local authority scale is, generally speaking, the right one for parks
management, combining a sensitivity to the local environment and
demography with the ability to share skills and consider green spaces as a
network rather than in isolation. However, without a root and branch reform
of local government finance council-run parks will always be the poor
relation of statutory services.

32. A simpler, more feasible approach would be to disaggregate parks’
management and finance from local government. To preserve parks as a
public good, land ownership would need to be retained through an asset lock
(as in the case of community interest companies); to preserve legitimacy and
accountability a directly elected board of governors should oversee the
executive team in each local organisation.

33. A cooperative model would allow each member of the local population to
have a stake in the area’s parks by automatically being enrolled as a member
of the co-op on joining the electoral roll. They would then have the
opportunity to vote for members of the governing body, to stand for election
and to have a say in their parks’ future (ideally, with ‘friends’ groups formally
integrated into management processes). The classic cooperative values of
self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity fit
with a view of parks as shared assets and our shared responsibility.

34. Unlike co-ops that rely on trading income, however, local parks co-operatives
would need statutory revenue-raising powers. Just as police, fire and rescue
services are funded through an additional levy alongside council taxes, parks
co-operatives should also be empowered to raise income in this way. The
scale of the levy should be determined by the governing body and put to a
vote of the local population for approval. To avoid excessive bureaucracy and
to enable intelligent planning, it might be sensible for this budgeting to take

9
Dempsey, N., Smith, H. and Burton, M. (2014). Place-keeping: open space management in practice.
Abingdon, Routledge.

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Julian Dobson | Urban Pollinators Ltd | parks inquiry submission

place at three or five-year intervals rather than annually, avoiding the ‘spend
it by 31 March’ syndrome.

35. As well as revenue funding, our parks need capital investment - to create new
parks in areas of growing population, to remodel parks to maximise their
ecological functions, to address the growing backlog of repairs and
maintenance, and to invest in disadvantaged and under-resourced localities.
So the second part of our proposal is to create a national endowment fund,
managed in a similar way to (for example) the Local Trust, and initially funded
by central government as infrastructure investment.

36. The scale of such an endowment needs to be sufficient to generate annual
investments that at least match the average funds provided through central
government and Lottery funding in the first decade of this century. Austerity
should not be an excuse for inaction, but a spur to long-term thinking.
Britain’s first national parks were created at the height of post-war austerity
in 1951, and that investment has stood the test of time.

37. As well as funding capital investment, the national endowment should
support a hub for learning and support, building the skills and knowledge
needed for effective place-keeping. This should be done in partnership with
existing sources of expertise such as the Royal Horticultural Society and the
National Trust, but cannot be left to them.

Conclusion: the action we need

38. There is no space in this short submission to develop a comprehensive
proposal for the future of England’s parks, and the suggestions here are
necessarily brief. The hope is that they will stimulate and focus a serious
conversation about how we can shift thinking and policymaking from
ineffective crisis management to long term care and stewardship.

39. Whatever the committee recommends, it needs to propose actions that are
urgent, effective and sustainable. Urgent, because the effects of neglect will
only get worse. Effective, because tinkering with subscription models,
charging or new local authority duties will not address the challenges of the
future. And sustainable, both environmentally and financially, because we
need to couple the foresight to see the full potential of our green spaces with
the resources to realise that potential.

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