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Public parks: Seventh Report of Session 2016–17

Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report

Our inquiry into public parks asked three key questions: why parks matter, what challenges are facing the parks sector, and how we can secure a sustainable future for parks. The level of response has clearly demonstrated the strength of the feeling people have for their local parks and green spaces, and how much parks are valued by individuals, families and communities.

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. These benefits have long been recognised, but within a context of budget reductions and tightening financial circumstances it is increasingly important that we find ways to quantify the wider value of parks in order to access new sources of funding and target investment in areas of greatest impact.

Parks face considerable challenges. As shared community assets, they must serve many different purposes, and be able to respond to the different and sometimes clashing needs of local communities. They must compete with other services for investment to secure their short and long term sustainability. Distribution of parks is unequal across the country, with many deprived communities struggling to access the benefits which green spaces can provide. Planning policy, particularly as a result of pressures to increase housing supply, may not always give enough priority to parks and green spaces, or to other elements of our green infrastructure.

Meeting the challenges which face our parks and green spaces and securing a sustainable future for them will require responses on many levels. Communities have a role to play, whether through friends, volunteers, or other community groups. We welcome and appreciate the contribution such groups make, and believe that the time and efforts which people give to their local parks should not be overlooked; but it would be unfair and short-sighted to lay responsibility for resolving the challenges parks face wholly at their doors. Innovation in management models and funding sources is also needed. We have received a wide range of suggestions for alternative funding sources and management models, and we urge the Minister, the Local Government Association, and local authorities to reflect on them.

We do not underestimate the challenges and the risks of transforming services. Local authorities will require both financial and expert support. They will also need leadership and coordination at a national level. We therefore welcome the Minister’s commitment to establishing a cross-departmental group. We believe the group should have a continuing role in providing the coordination and the leadership which many of our witnesses want. We call on the Minister, in his response to our report, to set out the details of how this group will operate, and how it will work with stakeholders from across the parks sector to deliver a sustainable future for our parks and green spaces.

We heard many calls throughout our inquiry for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide and maintain parks in order to raise the profile of parks within local authority prioritisation and budget allocation. We recognise that reductions in local authority budgets may disproportionately disadvantage discretionary services, such as parks. However, we are not persuaded that such a statutory duty, which could be burdensome and complex, would achieve the outcomes intended. Instead, we recommend that the Minister publishes guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies that clearly articulate the contribution of parks to wider local authority objectives, and set out how parks will be managed to maximise such contributions. We believe that this would increase joint working within local authorities, raise the awareness of parks and green spaces and their contributions to wider goals, and facilitate support for parks and green spaces from other service areas.

Parks and green spaces matter. They make a vital contribution to many of our most important strategic objectives, such as climate change mitigation, public health and community integration. However 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. We believe that our recommendations will help to ensure that parks receive the priority they deserve, and to prevent a period of decline.

Throughout our inquiry we have heard the passionate voices of many individuals, friends and community groups, and other parks stakeholders. We will return to the issue of parks before the end of this Parliament to assess what progress has been made, but in the meantime we call on those who care about parks to maintain momentum, to continue to hold local and national government to account, and to carry on their work to support, promote and enhance our parks and green spaces.