As public spending has been cut it is non statutory services like parks and open spaces that have been hit hardest. Our own experience is that local authorities are commonly facing cuts to parks and green space budgets of between 50-100%. It is therefore timely that the Communities and Local Government is undertaking an inquiry into public parks. The inquiry is asking what benefits parks provide, who should be responsible for them and how they should be funded.
Parks as vehicles for human rights
The role of parks and open spaces in delivering health and wellbeing benefits is increasingly well documented. Less well explored are the vital role that free-to-access public space has in enabling people to realise some of their fundamental social, economic and cultural rights. A UN Habitat paper on public space states that: “The designing, building and maintaining of public spaces that meet with the human rights standards of availability, accessibility, affordability, and quality result in an improved standard of living for all by the realization of a multitude of interdependent rights. These rights include: right to work, access to basic services such as health and education, freedom of expression, cultural identity, and equality.” The importance of these spaces to achieving sustainable development is also recognised by the UN Sustainable Development Goals which call for everyone to have access to inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces by 2030.
If parks help realise human rights, perhaps local authorities should have a duty to provide free access to them
Given the contribution of parks and open spaces to sustainable development and the realisation of human rights we think it is reasonable that local authorities, who have a responsibility for the economic, social and environmental ’well-being’ of their areas, should have a statutory duty to ensure at least a minimum amount, and standard, of free-to-access public green space.
A statutory duty for parks?
Much of the work that Shared Assets has undertaken with local authorities over the last couple of years has been looking at alternative funding models for parks. Many of these start from the premise that those who benefit from the provision and upkeep of our parks and open spaces should contribute to their upkeep. A range of different mechanisms are being developed to secure additional funding from those beneficiaries, including pooling of public budgets, levies on businesses and residents, and the creation of endowments and subscriptions. Many of these have potential to contribute to the long term sustainability of parks, but unpicking the range of different benefits provided by parks, ascribing those values to beneficiaries, and creating new mechanisms to collect and distribute new charges, is complex and risks increasing the disparity in the quality of green space between rich and poor areas. It is exactly this delivery of complex public goods in ways that are fair and equitable that general taxation is designed to achieve.
In our response to the inquiry we have therefore argued that there is a strong case for both establishing a statutory duty on local authorities to maintain free to access public parks and open spaces, and to continue to support their management through general taxation. However this will not on its own solve the current crisis. Unless public spending increases, budgets will continue to be squeezed against the competing priorities of other statutory services and there is strong chance that services will be continue to be cut, delivering the bare minimum required to meet any new duty.
A shift in perspective: parks as assets
Delivering greater public value from public land will require a more fundamental shift in our perceptions. We need to stop seeing these spaces only as liabilities that need subsidy and maintenance, and to start to see them as assets capable of delivering a wide range of public benefits, and which are critical to local authorities being able to fulfil their responsibilities for the social, economic and environmental well-being of an area.
Parks and open spaces should be seen as platforms to deliver wider public benefits
Our experience also tells us that local authorities are not always best placed to do this themselves. Perhaps the best way to see the future of our parks and open spaces is as a ‘platform’ for the delivery of a wider set of public benefits. These might be delivered by a range of voluntary organisations and social and private enterprises who can bring innovation and commitment to maintaining and improving these vital public assets whilst delivering services that add social, economic and environmental value. In this scenario local authorities will need to reposition themselves as protectors of the public right to parks as places to realise their basic social, economic and cultural rights, and as brokers and enablers who support others to manage them for public benefit.
Do you have a view on the future of public parks? The deadline for written submissions was 30 September 2016 but the Committee will still accept written submissions after that date. But hurry, the later they are, the less time the Committee will have to take them into account!