Parks and green spaces in towns and cities are at risk of falling deeper into neglect unless the Government seizes a leading role to safeguard their future, a coalition of park professionals and researchers has warned.
Ministers must work with the sector to develop a sustainable parks policy given the increasing strain park budgets are under from cash-strapped councils, the group urged.
Councils are not legally obliged to maintain parks - havens from rapid urban development since the Victorian era - and so in an age of austerity, park budgets have been targeted for cutbacks, the group, says the coalition, comprising of community charity Groundwork, park managers and academics.
It says although there is scope for local authorities to run parks in partnership with charities, residents’ groups and private enterprise, in reality many parks have to rely on council funding.
Dr Anna Barker, from Leeds University’s Future Prospects of Urban Parks project, said: “MPs reported earlier in the year that parks are at a tipping point.
“There needs to be an urgent look at how parks can be put on a sustainable footing. This is not something Government can fix on its own – but there needs to be leadership from Whitehall. One way of doing that is to establish a national agency which would work with park managers and the public to ensure the parks legacy is sustained for future generations.”
An audit of the state of UK parks published by the Heritage Lottery Fund found fewer park managers reported their parks to be in good condition, from just under 60 per cent in 2014 to 53 per cent last year.
Dr Barker said: “Parks and green spaces are much valued community resources but they are under considerable financial pressure. Park managers have being doing more with less, but there is a limit to how far that approach can go.”
Besides spending cuts, the coalition says parks and green spaces are also under pressure from urban development, unequal access and competing demands for their use, yet are increasingly vital places for health and wellbeing.
Dr Barker said Leeds University’s own study of 6,432 people in Leeds found that 91 per cent had used parks in the past year, that many people travel outside of their local area to enjoy parks and that they were considered to be precious social places where people can escape the “high occupancy” environments where they live.
She said Leeds Council had cut its parks and countryside budget by more than 50 per cent in recent years but that there was a lack of awareness of such funding threats.
Leeds University will host a Westminster conference to debate the future of parks on Thursday, in collaboration with The Parks Alliance, Groundwork and the idverde maintenance and landscaping services group.
It aims to draw together policymakers, park and ground maintenance professionals and researchers, to discuss ways forward for public parks and how to maximise their societal benefits.
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government, said: “Parks breathe life into our towns and cities and are spaces for the whole community to enjoy. That’s why last year we provided over £1m to deliver 87 pocket parks to benefit those living in urban areas with limited access to green space.
“We’re giving councils over £200bn over the course of this Parliament, and the freedom to spend it on meeting local priorities – including maintaining parks.”