DEFRA Inquiry into Urban Green Spaces

Another one that came out of nowhere. A Public Inquiry in urban green spaces from DEFRA. This was unusual that it was not from DLUHC or what was DCLG as per previous inquiries. Our response is as below:-;

Response to the Public Inquiry into Urban Green Spaces for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee


The Parks Management Association

October 2023


We launched the Parks Management Association during the Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020. It seemed like a good time to do this. The crisis had turned the spotlight on the public parks we all work in on a daily basis. The Government, at the time, decreed that they must stay open; at a stroke endorsing our belief that they are an essential service.

People flocked to them in record numbers and staff had to work tirelessly throughout the crisis to keep parks clean and safe and beautiful despite the pressures that mounted daily – large numbers of people, social distancing, high levels of littering and having to react to ever-changing government guidance.

The Association has partly been established to lobby for the need for good-quality public parks.  This case has been made incessantly over the last twenty five plus years and continues to be made.  It has however, been set up to give a voice to parks professionals, those who know more about these places than anyone.

We work in them daily; we know our trees and our flowers, our water management and our ice-cream sales, but we also know our users; we know how vital parks are across our communities, and especially in poorer communities. These are not pay-per-entry leisure facilities or stately homes; free access to good quality parks and open spaces is as fundamental to physical and mental health as free access to health care. We are often called ‘The Natural Health Service’.

As a result of lottery funding, there has been a significant increase in awareness of the importance of urban parks. We are delighted that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has instigated this further inquiry into Green Spaces at a most crucial time in our history, with threats to our many spaces due to climate change, loss of biodiversity, austerity, the impact of post-Covid-19 and the significant impact of reductions in local government funding. We are also deeply concerned about the loss of skills in the sector.

However, we also recognise that in 2017, a similar public inquiry was instigated by Government, and the outcome of that inquiry was negligible, if not wholly ineffective and no perceived positive outcomes came from it as well as a similar Inquiry by the House of Lords into the impact of Covid-19 on the use of our green spaces.  We hope that this inquiry does not suffer a similar fate.

How successfully are the Government and Local Authorities protecting and increasing urban green spaces, and what trends can be seen in the extent and quality of those spaces? 

Organisations such as the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) have carried out significant research since 2017 along with the Heritage Lottery Fund who commissioned  the State of UK Public Parks in 2014 and in 2016.

This report summarised the following – and we re-produce this verbatim as it answers the above question in significant detail:-

In 2016 the previous ‘State of the UK Public Parks’ report was published by the Heritage Lottery Fund. That report identified that there was a need for central government, local authorities and a variety of partners to work together to address the problem of declining budgets, and the impact of the loss of finance on the quality, availability and future sustainability of UK’s parks. In our (APSE) 2021 ‘State of the UK Public Parks’ report, published by APSE, we are disappointed to have to repeat many of the warnings made 5 years ago. Funding for our parks is once again at a tipping point with the loss of parks funding in further decline from £500 million lost between 2010 and 2016 to a further £190 million in 2021. A total of £690 million over the past decade. Whilst our report reflects on initiatives to stimulate parks, we find that continued austerity measures have not been ameliorated by central government support, which has amounted to sporadic and small-scale grants to support initiatives such as ‘pocket parks’ and small renovation projects. In many cases, funding can only be accessed by costly and inefficient bidding systems, which take little account of local need. As a consequence, the financing of urban parks has continued to be woefully inadequate for local authorities, who manage around 85% of the UK’s urban parks. Moreover, the impact of the COVID-19 health pandemic has created further challenges for UK parks. At the very point that parks became the lifeline for local communities during lockdown and travel restrictions, the ability to raise income from activities such as cafes, sports pitch hire and events was effectively stopped by public health restrictions. This income had become a lifeline to parks during the age of austerity, to meet the gaps in local budgets. Parks have therefore faced a double whammy; the loss of income but at the very point when footfall in parks has massively increased, placing additional budgetary pressures to clean, and maintain, our parks for the benefit of local communities. It is therefore disheartening that our 2021 ‘State of the UK Parks’ report has to repeat our earlier warnings of a looming crisis. We find that once again the level of funding for parks will not meet the needs of local communities, and yet parks could be regarded as a ‘spend to save’ investment initiative, meeting the outcomes of many public policy objectives.’

The overall trend is decline and this is confirmed by the ‘State of UK Public Parks 2014’, the ‘State of UK Public Parks 2016’ and followed up by the ‘State of UK Public Parks 2021’. With regards to the issue raised with regards to whether local authorities are increasing urban green spaces, Councils across the country are faced with a greater number of pressures on their parks assets from developers, having to meet unrealistic housing targets, with parks subject to disposal to meet such needs. Such headlines highlight the issue ‘Austerity-hit councils selling off parks and public buildings at a rate of more than 4,000 a year, research finds | The Independent | The Independent’ as well as Whilst many historic parks are largely protected due to heritage designations, we are seeing more and more applications affecting historic parks with park fringes, redundant depots or facilities being suggested for housing developments, reducing the footprint of many of these green spaces. It is an increasing trend.

What environmental challenges are urban areas facing, and how could wider access and inclusion to green spaces (including dog-friendly spaces) address these challenges? Areas to consider but not limited to:

  1. Increased temperatures and the ‘urban heat island’ effect
  2. Flooding risks and water quality in urban watercourses
  3. Air pollution and the associated health implications
  4. Noise pollution
  5. Climate change and carbon storage
  6. Pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems in urban centres
  7. Resource and waste management

Parks and urban green spaces offer many opportunities and the research by many academics into what benefits these spaces bring is substantial. Human health is intricately linked to the health of the surrounding environment. Improvements to the natural world are one of the main ways that green infrastructure features benefit surrounding communities.

What’s the “urban heat island” effect? Urban spaces that lack tree cover and greenery can create hot spots in cities up to ten degrees warmer than surrounding areas. The increased heat is dangerous for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. Most urban heat islands are concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods.

Cooler Air – Trees help mitigate the urban heat island effect, lowering ground temperatures to make spaces more comfortable and safer for at-risk populations.

Cleaner Water – Almost all green infrastructure features can filter out harmful pollutants such as heavy metals and fertilizers, keeping these hazardous chemicals out of our waterways.

Reduced Flooding – Green infrastructure features such as rain gardens can decrease the likelihood of localized flooding, protecting sports fields and other assets from water damage.3

Healthier Air – Green infrastructure elements such as permeable pavement and trees help reduce pollutants in the air, making it safer to breath and recreate.

However, urban green spaces offer so much more:-

  • A means to support the levelling up agenda, through the development of new parks to address the often-unequal outcomes in some of the poorest communities, when it comes to accessing green space where appropriate.
  • A means to support climate change action in both mitigations, in capturing carbon and enhancing biodiversity, and in amelioration, as part of action plans on flood defences, heat protection and air quality.
  • A means to secure the future green skills within the UK. Research has found that parks are at risk of becoming de-professionalised because of a failure to recognise the key skills needed for parks and the need for career pathways to ensure the future of the park’s workforce.
  • A means to engage communities in volunteering; the pandemic decreased volunteer capacity due to self-isolation and public health regulations but parks offer a golden opportunity to engage young and old alike, and all within our communities to take pride and care in their local environment and enhance inclusion.

The issues of inequality, which government states it wishes to address, poses a further conundrum. Not only are there problems in maintaining existing parks, but there is a clear need to create more parks in areas of need to level up the distribution of parks across the UK. In 2016 it was noted that, “…there is a growing deficit between the rising use of parks and the declining resources that are available to manage them. This gap does not bode well for the future condition and health of the nation’s parks.” Sadly, this is still the case in 2023, but made all the worse by the impact of COVID-19.

There is however an opportunity for parks services. The Government has stated as a key element of its 25-year Environment Plan to “leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.” It is suggested that the proper funding and management of one of the most highly used elements of the environment must surely be a key priority? Parks and urban green spaces provide our communities with first-hand experiences of connecting with nature, and by association a much greater appreciation of climate challenges. Furthermore, we know that parks improve the physical and mental wellbeing of parks users. We must surely all recognise the value of that investment for current and future generations?

To what extent will Government initiatives such as the Green Infrastructure Framework, the levelling up parks fund and urban tree challenge fund adequately address the issues associated with a lack of green space in towns and cities? 

To be brutally honest, such initiatives are very limited in addressing the issues we have raised above. We have seen some funding released via Levelling up Fund. Colleagues in the sector have indicated that funding has been welcome but does not address the dire needs of the sector. The recent round of funding allocated to authorities with highlighted open space deficits with an award of £84,000 per authority was welcome but looking at the scale of decline, has made no difference at all. Funding and the implementation of Pocket Parks has had limited impact and previous funding from DLUHC has been sporadic and ineffective. One example was a local authority that received £15,000 as part of the levelling up fund agenda as a grant, which allowed the purchase of a set of swings in one of its parks – hardly transformational. This is not an unusual reflection. The APSE report of 2021 states the dire financial crisis that local government is in and the impact on funding for parks and urban green spaces.

This chronic problem of under-funding, which continues today (2023), has had acute manifestations even though cuts in park-spending had the short-term attraction of being less noticeable than cuts in other provision. But lack of maintenance, of buildings and water bodies for example, leads to acute problems of high-cost repairs which remain entirely beyond the ability of most local authorities to address. Lakes are closed or left half empty, flower beds left unplanted, and furniture left untouched after vandalism. Park building once fallen into dereliction and closed become too costly to repair. And a lack of basic maintenance signals to vandals that this is an area abandoned by those in control and thus territory for them to occupy. We are seeing this in parks that were rescued because of lottery funding. In 2022, People’s Park in Halifax, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and an early recipient of lottery funding was noted as in poor condition – the bandstand was boarded up, the fountains and water features empty, and the historic colonnade covered in graffiti. We have seen the recent publicity in the decline of children’s play areas in the last few months.

Despite the influence and investment of the National Lottery, it has only scratched the surface in terms of the number of public parks in poor condition. Estimates vary between 2,500 and 4,000 public parks and gardens of historic interest, and the lottery has addressed only some 250+. Nor can we reasonably hope that the lottery can sort out all the problems. It too has come under financial pressures and now no longer sees parks as a priority with no dedicated fund for this area – we now have to compete against all heritage sectors and as a result the number of applications to the Heritage Fund for public parks has fallen dramatically.  By its nature it can only address the acute problems of capital expenditure. The underlying drift of budget cuts and ad hoc management remains by and large unchanged.

Will the Government achieve its aims to increase the amount of green cover to 40% in urban residential areas? What other additional measures should the Government take to increase green urban space?  

Unlikely that they will achieve this. Our colleagues at Fields in Trust have carried out significant analysis with regards to the amount of green space in our urban areas and have assessed that 6.1 million people are not within 10-min walk of a green space. The have stated that the availability of open green spaces within a close walking distance is critical since it supports physical activity and encourages us to engage in regular exercise. This is not equal for everyone, and a segment of the population still lives farther than 10 minutes from the nearest local green space. Whist this is clearly an issue for many, the fact remains that the quality of existing green spaces is declining and those managing these spaces do not have enough resources to maintain their existing estates. It is our concern that these spaces are important and require adequate resources to maintain them. Whilst the introduction of Biodiversity Net Gain and the Green Infrastructure Framework will improve access to green spaces, whether existing, enhanced, or new green spaces, there must be adequate resources in place to maintain these.

Is access to urban green spaces equally distributed across all sectors of society? Do the environmental and associated health risks disproportionately impact certain groups? What barriers to access exist and how can they be addressed?  

We would refer you to the work that Fields in Trust have carried out in this area.

Public parks and gardens generally have a serious problem of identity in terms of planning and other policy at both national and local level: they fall between departmental stools of built heritage, natural heritage, environment, leisure, and recreation. Historically, the DoE and DNH for example regularly passed the buck to each other during the campaign for urban parks in the late 1980s and early 1990s—neither willing to take responsibility. This is still the case today with the responsibility for parks generally, falling between DLUHC, DEFRA and DCMS. The following was announced in September 2017:- “Parks and Green Spaces Minister Marcus Jones today (19 September 2017) launched a new Parks Action Group to help England’s public parks and green spaces meet the needs of communities now and in the future. The new Parks Action Group will include experts from the world of horticulture, leisure, heritage and tourism, and will be tasked with bringing forward proposals to address some of the issues faced by public parks and other green spaces across England. To support them, government is providing £500,000 funding to kick start their work. The action group will propose what steps can be taken in line with the government response to the recent House of Common’s Communities and Local Government Select Committee report into the future of parks and green spaces.’ This group has not met for several years and in all but name, no longer exists. The last Parks Minister was an MP called Rishi Sunak!

Public parks should also be of interest to other Government departments. Apart from their cultural and environmental value, they represent a major resource in terms of promoting “healthy living”. They play a central role in economic regeneration. They are an irreplaceable educational resource. What is needed is thus a comprehensive response from central Government to this subject. Perhaps now is the time to develop a national strategy for Urban Parks and Green Spaces? In 1999, the government established CABE, and soon after had established CABE Space to champion the cause for parks and green spaces, producing best practice, guidance, evidence, case studies and a wider plethora of work that saw a resurgence in green spaces across the country, linked to lottery funding. CABE was dissolved in 2011 and that information and expertise lost. Its replacement, The Design Council does not champion the cause for parks and green spaces.

The Funding of Public Parks

The question of funding has already been touched on. However, as we perceive the problem in ours and others experience of campaigning for public parks, funding remains the nub of the problem and we hope that it will therefore be the focus of this Committee’s attention.

At present, funding of public parks is the responsibility of the relevant local authority or authorities. It is a non-statutory duty.  As such, local authority budgets for parks maintenance are annually at risk of cuts, a threat regularly fulfilled over the past 25+ years and evidenced in the State of UK Parks reports of 2014, 2016 and 2021. Faced with “hard choices” local authorities are repeatedly forced to make cuts in budgets affecting non-statutory services; parks have the added attraction in that cuts are not immediately apparent in their affect, although this is now becoming less so with the loss of play areas so apparent and highlighted in recent publicity.

The other factor in these annual decisions is that parks—unlike museums, sports or arts—have no official agency fighting their corner, and no comprehensive system of central funding which can be used as carrot-and-stick to encourage local authorities not to cut.

Should parks provision or maintenance be a statutory duty, to add to the host of statutory duties already competing for local authority funding? This would clearly benefit their political profile at local authority level. Some would argue that it makes little difference to the problems of under-resourcing, for example libraries are a statutory duty and are still suffering acutely from declining funding.

The crux of the problem is control of local authority budgets and the relationship between local and central Government in that control. An important factor in the protection of funds for other specialist provision such as arts, museums, libraries, sport, etc., is a national champion fighting at a local level. This has led many of those campaigning for parks to consider the possibility of some form of official agency to represent public parks. There remains a gap in provision which has come to seem glaring to all those concerned with public parks. Organisations like Natural England and the National Trust have taken a greater role in advising local authorities and other bodies, particularly through harnessing volunteers and Green Infrastructure development. The Future Parks Accelerator Programme led by the National Trust and funded by the Heritage Fund were worthy causes yet they are not agencies that wholly campaign on behalf of public parks or a singular issue . There is nothing to compare with the effective lobbying of the Heritage Alliance, or the Arts or Sports Councils of England.


We believe now is the time for Government to respond to the widespread public and political interest in and support for public parks, and we warmly welcome this Committee’s Inquiry for that reason. We hope that the Inquiry will seek to acknowledge the reasons for the decline in the condition of urban parks, and we hope it will address the means to reverse that decline, considering the intrinsic benefits they bring to our communities and environment.

We suggest there is an urgent need for central government to provide a long-term framework or national park strategy to help and if necessary, persuade local authorities to provide a decent level of maintenance in public parks.

We hope that the Inquiry will give serious consideration to the possibility that a national agency for public parks would offer the most effective and efficient means to address these issues.

Paul Rabbitts MLA MPMA MCIHort FRHistSoc FRSA


The Parks Management Association