COP26, Climate change, Covid19 and Pocket Parks

I can’t even say we were all sat there with baited breath expecting a windfall of cash from Rishi Sunak’s budget last week. I know many of us were hoping for something, anything, an acknowledgement of the importance of parks and green spaces. Well we got £9 million as part of the Spending Review and the LGA responded as follows:-

Responding to the Government’s announcement in the Spending Review of £9 million of funding to help local authorities create 100 new urban ‘pocket parks’ across the UK, Chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said:

“The LGA has long made the case for the importance of green and outdoor spaces for people’s health and wellbeing.

The lockdowns during the pandemic emphasised the importance of public parks to the physical and mental wellbeing of their communities and councils have been looking for ways to sustain and increase their provision.

This funding is a positive step and will enable more local authorities to create spaces to enable communities to build activity in their daily lives. However there remains a need to deliver some parks provision at scale rather than on the micro-scale of pocket parks.”

this is one in Leighton Buzzard, isn’t it marvellous 

Let us put this into context shall we. We received £1.35 million in 2020, following on from £2.75 million in 2019, which adds up to £13.1 million for creating these mini parks. If we look at what the National Lottery has invested –  £1 billion invested in parks over the last 25 years. When you look at some of the parks that have been restored through lottery, and the true cost of these, the £13.1 million pales into insignificance. The lottery funded projects I have been involved with over the years adds up to over £15 million – for 5 parks.

The decades of evidence we have gathered would probably cover several football pitches now. We have lobbied for decades for decent funding, not just capital but revenue. Ministers openly proclaimed during Covid how important our parks were to our health and wellbeing. We know this, we all know this, they are preaching to the converted. We now have all our world leaders (and Macron) at COP26 in Glasgow, there to save us all from Armageddon. So why are our politicians not listening?

These are very much my views.

  • Politicians have short attention spans and are easily distracted by the next big thing. The Parks Inquiry of 2017 was shelved and now gathers dust in a cupboard in whatever MHCLG is now called, because we ended up with Brexit. It was all encompassing. We then had the pandemic of Covid19, and now its climate change they are obsessed with (but not acknowledging what urban parks can bring to the latter). The Parks Management Association has lobbied every single MP in England and only managed to speak with 2 of them who agreed the importance of parks but then they fell silent. The APPG on Parks and Green Spaces appears limited in what it has set out to achieve. The last one was attended by Labour MPs only. I spoke at the last meeting with Ian Baggott. Our words oozed with passion as always.
  • The parks sector is fragmented, with many organisations representing parks and green spaces, all doing their thing and I am still convinced that’s why we don’t have seats at the right tables. The Cultural and Heritage sector have had millions thrown at it, because they have got their act together. We still cannot seem to manage this.
  • Apathy – absolute apathy. I don’t know whether this is from the fact we are just fed up of it all now, or whether we have lost our focus, our mojo, or perhaps we always had that apathy. I know I bang on about this, but we had overwhelming support for the creation of an organisation that represented parks managers, but being brutally honest, even getting people to pay £50 to join the PMA is a struggle. We just seem to accept our lot now.
  • Too few of us now working in parks, we are diluted, overstretched, overworked and we simply no longer have the time to do any of this.
  • Others have failed, so why should we bother – ILAM, GreenSpace, Parks Alliance, Parks Action Group (PAG) – all have failed. So why should we bother.
  • Perhaps we have overegged it – maybe they are just fed up of a load of whining parkies moaning on about lack of money but who are not prepared to do something about it.

I am sure there are more reasons. I am not a politician and don’t have the mindset of one. But perhaps it’s time to accept that lobbying Government is a total waste of time. Maybe we need to rethink this completely and change direction? Author Stuart Maconie in his book ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ states ‘parks are indubitably a good thing for the nation’ and goes on to say, ‘We may mock much about the Victorians, their prudishness, their bigotry, their hats, but they put us to shame in many ways. In 1851, they were using public money to build parks for the betterment of ordinary people. Today, we close them to save money to give in bailouts and bonuses to the rich. … Sorry for the repetition. But the point is worth hammering.’ Hear hear.

So… £9 million to spend on pocket parks. Let’s not spend it all at once eh. Where do we go from here?

  1. We need to jump on the COP26 bandwagon – whatever the outcome, it is catching many people’s imagination and there seems to be an energy about what’s coming out of Glasgow. We as a sector should now be lobbying our own politicians, making the point and demanding the resources to allow us to make a difference.
  2. We need to refocus at a local level – take a bottom up approach, and take our communities with us and empower them. Get them to kick off about the state of their local park or play area.
  3. We have to promote what is good in the sector – there is much to celebrate. Green Flag, numbers are increasing but lets encourage those who are not doing it. Let’s all be advocates for the sector – cut out the apathy and shout it out.
  4. We need to refocus our training – marketing, public relations, how to lobby, promotion. We are not good at it.
  5. We need to look at how we engage with our communities. Are they truly aware of the current crisis? Do they know the true value of maintaining parks. Ask a typical park user how much they think a litter bin costs? A set of swings? A bench? The basics! When I lecture on parks I make a point of telling people what it costs for such things as a piece of play equipment. Big Belly bins – £5,000 – they fall off their chairs. It is our communities that put the ‘X’ on the voting slips.
  6. We still don’t have a national brand – a collective strapline that we ALL use.
  7. Sector collaboration – the PMA have tried this and we have managed to pull sector leaders together but it takes time and most of all, a resource. If we all worked together as a joint sector like the Heritage Alliance, we would make such a difference, but we need a resource to do that?
  8. Funding – having attended SALTEX today (lots of lawn mowers and machinery), I was asked the question as part of a panel I was sitting on, as to why the private sector cannot fund public parks. Good question. S106, CIL, Lottery are all mechanisms but looking at history, we gained many parks through public subscription and through benefactors. Albert Park in Middlesbrough was bequeathed to the citizens of Middlesbrough by HWF Bolckow – the iron man of Middlesbrough. It’s all very well Bezos and Musk building phallic shaped rockets so they can pop up and see the moon and spending trillions doing it, but wouldn’t this money be better spent on something good for our communities? Beckham gets £150 million for being the face of the next World Cup? Really. He must be short of cash, but seriously the world has gone mad.

So I will bring my rant to an end. But let’s keep at it. Do Green Flag… just do it. Celebrate successes and most of all be advocates for what we do, cos if you don’t, no one else will.

Paul Rabbitts

Head of Parks, Heritage and Culture

Watford Borough Council