In the squalor of Victorian Britain, the creation of the first great public parks was a beacon of humanity and hope.
Philanthropists and civic leaders understood that greenery, a place to breathe and somewhere to walk and play were the least that could be done to lighten the nasty, brutish and short lives the Industrial Revolution had imposed on millions of workers.
That legacy has always been fragile. Sometimes we see periods of investment and restoration, like the work of the Heritage Lottery Fund over the last decade and a half. In Birkenhead the town’s Victorian park, opened at the height of the industrial boom in 1847 as the world’s first publicly funded civic park, was restored at a cost of £11.7 million and reopened in 2007. We can create, and keep, great places when we put our mind to it.
Often, though, we see neglect, penny-pinching and abdication of responsibility. That was the case in the late 20th century, when MPs lamented the effects of three decades of neglect, commenting in 1999 that they were
shocked at the weight of evidence, far beyond our expectations, about the extent of the problems parks have faced in the last 30 years. It is clear that if nothing is done many of them will become albatrosses around the necks of local authorities.
It’s happening again now, as the councils responsible for the upkeep of parks struggle to cope with drastic cuts in funding and push parks to the end of the queue.
It will keep happening as long as public sector austerity continues and as long as there is no legal requirement for councils to provide and care for urban parks. However much people value their parks – and 320,000 of them signed a petition to MPs calling for a statutory duty of care – when push comes to shove, it’s the parks that get shoved down the pecking order.
At a 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.
The MPs agreed. But they didn’t think a change in the law would work. Instead, they recommended that:
the Minister issues very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies.
A cross-departmental working group, the MPs said, should monitor these strategies and produce an annual report. If this isn’t sufficient, then government ministers should consider whether to change the law – not to create a statutory duty to care for parks, but a statutory duty to prepare and publish parks and green space strategies.
A strategy is better than no strategy, but we can predict where all this consideration will lead. The great and the good, whether local councillors or public health officials, will consider the importance of parks. The council finance director will then consider the importance of the local authority budget, and ask what else can be cut.
After another three or four years of neglect, the good MPs of the communities and local government committee will politely ask the government to consider a change in the law. And the government, entangled in Brexit and obsessed with economic numbers, will go off and consider that it’s not really their top priority.
So the neglect will continue. In our evidence to MPs we argued that the only way to escape dysfunctional policy making is to combine legal powers with the power to raise resources. If you have the power or responsibility to do something but can’t raise the money to do it, it won’t happen.
That won’t be easy. Our suggestion was to place parks under the control of democratically elected parks co-ops, with revenue-raising powers. It’s not a perfect solution because it doesn’t solve regional inequalities, so we suggested this should be supplemented by a national endowment fund to finance capital investments and equalise resources between richer and poorer areas. This way we can start to create a connection between responsibility, resources and accountability.
What’s more, it shifts planning onto a long term basis instead of leaving parks dependent on annual budget-setting (or budget-cutting) processes in which they can only ever be the losers.
In the meantime, the humanity and hope that good urban green spaces offer in a society that appears to value only what it can monetise will continue to fade. Squalor punctuated by occasional philanthropy, though, is no way to face the future.