£1 billion invested from the National Lottery - but was it worth it?

I write this with mixed emotions after this week. These range from anger, despair, sadness, to positivity, energy and enthusiasm. Why is this? for those of you that have met me, heard my rantings, or one of my lectures or even read one of my books (on sale at all online retailers still), you will know my passion for good quality parks, their importance and that I will always be an advocate for public parks. This week I was sorely tested and at one stage felt like walking away from it all. 33 years of managing, designing, restoring, developing parks, from the Channel Islands, to Cumbria, the North East, Watford, Scottish Borders and now in Southend on Sea.

Why? I was in Halifax earlier this week doing a lecture to the Halifax Arts Society in the recently restored Piece Halls. These buildings have been beautifully restored using Heritage Lottery Funding and with Calderdale Council. The lecture was entitled Great British Parks – A Concise History and as part of this lecture, I regale those still awake about the importance of the People’s Park in Halifax, the Paxton connection and the importance of this park at the beginning of the Urban Parks Programme. People’s Park was in such dire condition at the time way back in the early 1990s that it was used as an example of the decline in public parks and was part of the reason the lottery have invested over £1 billion in historic parks. I talk in my lecture about the decline and the revival thanks to lottery and always carefully choose between the phrase ‘the revival we have’ or the ‘revival we had’. I can now fervently say the latter. Why?

I went to see People’s Park after my lecture and was horrified by what I found. Entering the park, I immediately didn’t feel like it was welcoming. Signage boards were old, decrepit, outdated, disused, and in poor condition. As I walked into the park, the main water feature / stream to a small lake – empty. No longer working. It got worse. The main centre of the park – the bandstand was boarded up all the way around it. Its condition was declining but I could see no discernible reason why it was boarded up looking through gaps in the hoarding. The main central fountain – empty, no longer functioning. Paxton’s famous terrace with the iconic statues – horticulture very poor, and most of all the colonnade and terrace shelter / feature – graffiti, litter and with gangs of youths hanging around in it. I did not dare venture into it. Further round, more empty water features, signs vandalised and areas of old planting laid bare.

I left, angered and in despair. This was restored in the late 1990s and barely 25 years later, the rot has well and truly set in. The revival is over. As an avid tweeter, I felt I had to vent my feelings publicly and did so including Calderdale, HLF, Historic England etc.

My audience in the Arts Society suggested I visit West View Park too, another historic park, but has not had lottery funding. Its condition was deplorable with serious H&S concerns in some areas.

Now I am not here to embarrass  Calderdale Council – absolutely not. The Council though do have a duty to ensure these landscapes are managed to at least an acceptable standard and it almost appears they have walked away from certainly West View Park. However, Calderdale like ALL councils across the country are strapped for cash and what I saw here in Halifax is symptomatic of the decline  – AGAIN – in our public parks. Years of cuts, austerity, pressures now from Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis. This is a national crisis, it is a national disgrace and yet central government do nothing. The new DLUHC recently asked us to comment on the state of parks UK wide. Go and have a look at People’s Park in Halifax and West View Park. The rot has set in. The £1 billion lottery and local government funding that has been invested, is severely under threat and we need to stop this now because if we do nothing, it will have all been wasted and not worth it at all.

Write to your MP, campaign to your portfolio holder, write your strategy, advocate why your parks are important, seek every pot of money you can, celebrate your successes, market, promote, encourage, enthuse, get angry, tweet, take photos, empower your communities, do not accept low quality, get your teams to do the same thing. We all know the importance of these spaces and we simply have to keep shouting to be heard. I need to change my last few slides on my lecture and state the word ‘had’ because the revival is well and truly over.

UPDATE – 24th July 2022

This blog raised a lot of comments from colleagues and when it hit twitter, it really had an impact. No feedback from Calderdale, but a reminder, this was not intended to have a go at them – we know the issues. However, The National Lottery Heritage Fund picked up on this and are looking into this further and will be speaking to Calderdale.

The intention was to raise awareness of the plight of public parks and the severe lack of funding, and this last week, a number of organisations were called to address the Dept of LUHC into the current state of public parks. This included the LGA, Fields in Trust, Natural England, Heritage Fund, National Trust, Peter Neal, Consultant, NFPGS, but no one from any body that actually manages the 27,000 parks. This was raised with those addressing the committee. Informal feedback so far was that this is unlikely to make any difference.

Comments back from colleagues on my blog though included:-

Interesting reading. We cannot always blame the budget cuts from central government for the demise of our parks. It is often down to the individual local Authority and how they spend the money allocated to them. There has been a significant reduction in what I call ‘True’ parks managers from L.G to be replaced by managers looking after a number of services often without a parks background. This often pushes funding away from the parks into very different areas.

It would be interesting to know if this is the case in Calderdale and if the management is outsourced or internal. I also note that both these parks do not have a Greenflag but other sites have and wonder how these are managed differently to enable the Greenflag status to be achieved?

I totally agree with your very understandable ‘rant’. I visited the ‘People’s Park’ at Halifax about 4 years ago and was disappointed to see it then – and I see its further declined. Its so incredibly sad – so much for ‘people’s park!

Symptomatic of the state of play it seems (though having judged a site in Burton on Trent recently creativity and quality is still alive in pockets!).

Key issue is not the availability of the Capital funding to improve parks – that’s still there in abundance, the problem is the ongoing revenue funding to make sure it’s kept up to a decent standard, both in physical money and staff resource.

Would be interesting to know if any of the park trusts or private contractors managing parks are faring any better than Council led operations….

Hi Paul, thanks for that, you’re bang on.  It’s frustrating, having undertaken a fair amount of root cause analysis, I believe we need (and deserve) far better leadership to get the UK back on its feet. 
Unfortunately the root of many problems lie in the fact people in power are elected on popularity, not competence or being qualified, skilled and successful in the role (how many people would get a job interview without such prerequisites?) .
This fundamental issue needs to change, however mention a job spec to most political candidates and they’ll scurry off – if they were really good surely they’d all publish mini CV‘s so we could compare candidate skill sets!  
…hence the state of play includes :-
  1. Short sighted policies and decisions – pandering to isolationists and separatists – with no beneficial outcomes (quite the reverse)
  2. A broken economy –  the resilience has been decimated – the policy to eliminate the national debt forgotten, whilst taxation has never been higher
  3. Support for small businesses has never been worse in over 30 years – exemplified by a stagnant VAT threshold (should be £160K by now)
  4. As the rich are allowed to get disproportionately richer – and there are more billionaires than ever now (easy to say of course but change ££ to seconds – a million is two days, a billion is 31 years) less and less is going to go to local authorities (including Parks etc) fuelling a virtually unstoppable, spiraling decline, whilst corporates are virtually permitted to print money (e.g. pharmaceuticals, global internet companies to uncapped international fuel cartels)
  5. Poor planning – congested infrastructure – e.g. ring fencing land for future urban green travel corridors, dangerously slow climate change mitigation, and deteriorating parks
Until our elected representatives are called upon to meet detailed Job Specs and professional Code of Conduct, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame if dangerous incompetents gain power and continue to create problems for the rest of us?
We just can’t seem to bang that table top hard enough, and I’m hoarse from shouting at my end, and just racing from one fire fighting ASB scenario to another daily…
Thats very sad to hear and see, alas I think many other parks that benefited from the HLF fillup are in or heading towards a similar place. 
Colleagues were however keen to give examples where good stuff is going on. Jo Birch from Barnsley sent this in:-
We are trying our damnedest to keep Elsecar Park to a level that should be expected of our Green spaces and Parks, the Parks team are committed, and the Friends group  bloody stars….please see the attached photos taken on Wednesday evening at the latest concert in the Park, this one in aid of Barnsley Met Band members that recently passed, and raising funds for the local hospice,  and a poster for this weekends choir event….this is what makes all the crap worthwhile…..I just wish we had 20 parks officers to cover the whole borough  instead of 5, including me, pulling their hair out daily….without our Friends groups, and fab volunteers it would be a very sorry world….