Paul Rabbitts MLA FRSA
Author, Parks Historian, Public Speaker
The Abuse of Parks is the Abuse of Society
I have sat for long enough and read the reports, seen the pictures, headlines, tweets, Facebook updates and had conversations with my own team and colleagues. I have spoken at length with colleagues across the country who are managing parks in Manchester, Nottingham, Rugby, Salford, Merseyside, Bournemouth, Newcastle, in fact UK wide. Litter, mountains of the stuff, tonnes of it being dropped and dumped in our parks and green spaces. In Rugby's parks, there are 10 tonnes of extra litter being removed from their parks per day. Similar in Salford's Parks where tonnes of rubbish have almost double compared to last year. We see reports of people 'shitting' in McDonald's Burger boxes and leaving then in parks and on beaches for council staff to remove. Thousand's of gas canisters of Nitrous Oxide appearing in parks and left and these are not even illegal. Reports that the Met Police can no longer control our streets, let alone parks. So is this a symptom just of coming out of lockdown? Is it a change in societal behaviour? Is it partly a result of austerity? few police officers and parks staff? Or that pubs and clubs, bars, cinemas are all still closed? What makes a human being think it is acceptable to take a dump in a McDonald's throwaway big mac box and leave it for some poor soul to remove? Matthew Wright on TV called them 'pigs' and was condemned by many for saying such a thing. But pigs would not even behave like this. They are worse than pigs. It is feral behaviour with no limits. These people do not care. We have seen ugly scenes on our streets as part of Black Lives Matters protests, rioting, vandalism, spitting at police officers. Parks staff have been spat at and abused.
I took a call from a Guardian reporter today who was doing a feature on litter in parks and wanted my views as Chair of the Parks Management Forum. Chaos, its chaos out there, and parks teams are struggling to cope with it after years of austerity and parks maintenance budgets stripped to the bone. Many proffer solutions: better signage, CCTV, Fixed Penalty Notices, Council's need to do a better job (Please really???), the police need to take action, more bins. So why are we experiencing such behaviour and what is the answer? We live in a society that is now largely divisive, confrontational, with leaders that have spouted bile and hatred, from Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, stirring up society, pulling communities apart. If we don't respect our leaders, then we become dysfunctional, out of control, without any boundaries as to what is acceptable. Bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour. And behaviour has been shocking, at times disgusting. Society is protected by our public services and public services have been stripped bare. Local Authorities, already struggling now have to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19. We rely on our public services for our basic needs - healthcare, safety, protection, wellbeing, cleanliness, housing, social care to providing recreational facilities that support all these. Yet these have been decimated so when we start to lose control, the spiral of decline increases. So the answers?
This is no easy fix in the current climate, but we can certainly start with strong leadership and setting better examples for all.
Why Parks Matter...
In 2016, I published ‘Great British Parks: A Celebration’ which very much started out as a straightforward celebration of Great British Parks which was followed in 2017 by ‘Parkitecture – Buildings and Monuments of Public Parks’. Both books recognised the value of one of our finest institutions – the public park. I have worked in parks for over 30 years, managing, developing, improving and restoring them. They are my passion. With the current pandemic affecting us globally, there has been an incredible resurgence in the value of public parks, with politicians spouting walks in your local park, fresh air as being good for us, provided we socially distance ourselves (naturally) and the nation has embraced them once again. Government has ordered councils to keep parks open, allowing opportunities for exercise, and the value they are to our health and well-being. Wellness is now oft quoted. Walks in my local park here in Leighton Buzzard have seen more people out walking, running, playing frisbee, children on bikes, and this is despite the play area being closed and the gyms out of action. So are we valuing parks once again? We need to look back at history first as to when we acquired these wonderful public utilities, open to all, yet over the decades have been much maligned, neglected, abused, restored and then once again neglected. We need to break the boom, bust, boom, bust cycle and once and for all, value our parks and green spaces like never before. And it is never so relevant than this week – World Parks Week.
Parks were born out of the need to improve the quality of people’s lives as the Industrial Revolution took its hold. 100 years later, this was sadly abandoned as we embraced ‘the cost of providing’ rather than the ‘benefits (note the plural) of providing’, only to rediscover this by the end of the twentieth century. Thanks to successive studies and reports, surveys, analysis, continued lobbying, many parks have been rescued from virtual obscurity, primarily funded by the National Lottery, including the wonderful Avenham & Miller parks in Preston; Birkenhead Park on the Wirrall; Victoria Park, London; Heaton Park, Manchester; Leazes Park, Newcastle; Abbey Park, Leicester and many many more. The figure from the National Lottery Heritage Fund now exceeds £1 billion allocated to rescuing our most important public parks. The irony is perhaps wrapped up in history itself – history tells us that parks are good for us. So is this lottery funded parks renaissance really over? In 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report on the condition of parks in the UK called ‘State of UK Public Parks - Research Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund June 2014’ and was followed up by a similar report in 2016. The picture was bleak and none more so apparent with the fate of many parks, being sold off, developed, features being closed such as in Ryelands Park in Lancaster, with the ultimate destruction of its iconic bandstand in June 2017.
Way back in in 2006 CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this required the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. Yet funding for public parks and urban green spaces was significantly reduced between 1979 and 2000, losing an estimated £1.3 billion in total. A timely report published in January 2013 by the International Federation of Parks and Recreation Administration (Ifpra) concluded that there is evidence for a range of benefits of urban parks and that there is sound scientific evidence that parks contribute to human and social wellbeing (wellness?). Specifically, urban planners should focus on high quality parks in such areas, where the case is currently that parks are scarce and poorly maintained. Given the strong evidence for parks as promoting physical activity and reducing obesity (parkruns are surely the best example of this), more thoughts should be given to how parks are planned and established with good opportunities and amenities for exerting varied kinds of physical activity, such as walking and biking (exactly what politicians are telling us to do today but it takes a global pandemic for them to get this!). In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership, and in some cases, existence. The economic crisis of 2007 marked a change in mood and expectation among many green space professionals. In the 2010-11 financial year, local authorities were forced to implement significant savings. Local authority budget cuts (average 28 per cent over a three-year period, and in some cases up to 90%), brought an abrupt halt to many ambitions for significant capital investment in public green space across the country. The requirement to demonstrate financial sustainability still places considerable economic pressure on local authorities. It is getting worse. Local authorities no longer have any funding from central government since the withdrawal of the annual Revenue Support Grant. Basically, it’s now up to councils to foot all the bills.
So the future of UK public parks in 2016 was at a crossroads and today, 2020, it now faces an even greater challenge with future austerity and a deep recession looming. ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2014 - Renaissance to risk’ and its follow up in 2016 perhaps gave the clearest picture. They reported that maintenance budgets were being reduced, capital was less available for improvements, park facilities were becoming more expensive to use, management and maintenance skills were being lost, and some parks and green spaces were being sold or transferred to others to maintain. This is despite over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year. Over 70% of park managers have recorded increased visitor numbers to their principal parks between 2013-14. Yet 86% of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect the trend to continue for the next few years and beyond. Just as worrying is that 71% of households with children under 10 years of age are concerned that reductions in council budgets could have a negative impact on the condition of their local park. This is already having an impact with a number of local authorities who have already seen the positive result of ‘one-off’ lottery investments, struggling to sustain the quality of the once restored landscape. The picture becomes even more bleak.
Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. J.C. Loudon writing in the Gardener’s Magazine in 1829, campaigned for public parks as ‘Breathing Places’ for towns and cities. 176 years later, The Times (13/11/15) reports that ‘its mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’. Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoed this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them. Three words that sum up the absolute value of parks and green spaces – health, social and recreational. The Covid19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of parks to us all. For those of us that have been the guardian of them for decades, we know this, and the great British public know this. Local authorities and the few park managers that remain over the last 20 years have been innovative, creative, dogmatic and pragmatic when it comes to their parks and green spaces. But there is now one lesson that government must recognize – parks matter, no matter what. We know there is a recession coming and times will be hard, but if there is one institution that matters and has positive benefits on everybody, it is the local park. Perhaps now is the time to cease the constant boom bust cycle we have tolerated since the Victorians gave us these social assets. Ruskin has been quoted countless times, but there is no better conclusion in my view that:-
‘The measure of any great civilization is in its cities, and the measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares’. Or perhaps the more recent quote from David Lambert above, that it’s ‘bleedin’ obvious’. “
Paul Rabbitts FRSA FLI
Head of Parks, Heritage & Culture
Watford Borough Council
|Posted on July 4, 2019 at 4:50 PM||comments (8328)|
So after a long day today, I have escaped to my 'cave', put on Fleetwood Mac Rumours and logged on and decided to do a blog. As I write I am not sure what will evolve but lets see where this takes me.
It has been a busy few days and I am feeling well travelled especially with lectures which are becoming more geographically dispersed. From the Surrey Hill and Cranleigh Arts Society, to Hestercombe Gardens Trust in Somerset, to Helmsley in North Yorkshire to Chelmsford in Essex - the common denominator is my passion for parks and the heritage within them. What I love about the lecturing and the sharing of the passion, is the people I meet and the places I visit. The Surrey Hills are simply beautiful and 2 lectures to the Arts Society in Cranleigh, I was in a venue that Van Morrison and Eric Clapton have performed in! Both lectures were incredibly well received and what I especially love is the spontaneity that is generated - who would have thought a talk on parks would have included the Bay City Rollers, the Bristol Stool Chart and Brentford Nylons. Well it did in Cranleigh. Mixing it up a bit. Variety. Spontaneity. The same happened in Helmsley too although the talk was on the Royal Parks but we mixed it up a bit. It was also incredible to have my folks there who met a chap who knew them from over 20 years ago on a visit to the Falkland Islands.
The visit to Hestercombe was stunning and again it was made by those you meet. Philip White MBE rediscovered Hestercombe, a Lutyens / Jekyll Garden and has spent decades restoring it and turning it into an incredible visitor attraction. The gardens are stunning but whilst I enjoyed the visit to the gardens, spending quality time with Philip is what really made it. Passion. Enthusiasm. A love for what you do. Courage and tenacity.
In Chelmsford, I was judging the heritage of three parks for the council there on behalf of Green Flag. All three were excellent parks and again I met some great individuals doing valuable work. Their landscape architect / officer left a mark in particular, her enthusiasm and love for what she does shining through.
So where am I going with this? I suppose the best way to put it is that a friend and colleague said to me a while ago I need to be seen to be mixing it up more - she said I was an activist and that I need to keep at this. I was also called a radiator and that radiators were thin on the ground and to keep away from those that drain. The reason I lecture and do my talks, the reason I write, the reason I want to see a Parks Institute established, the reason I write blogs and the reason I go so much about the value of parks, open spaces, the heritage within is that i believe in it, and i get cross when I see things that are just not right. We have to make a difference and my way of making a difference is to continue to mix it up - keep up the lectures, be an activist, a radiator and to listen to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours more often.
|Posted on May 18, 2019 at 12:30 AM||comments (399)|
Defining passion - 'an extreme interest in or wish for doing something, such as a hobby, activity, etc' as well as 'very powerful feelings'. Passion is a strong desire that can get you to do amazing things, passion is the fuel in the fire of action. When you have passion for something, you love it even when you hate it. I have been pondering passion latterly for a number of reasons. I have often been told that I am passionate about what I do, and yes I am. I love what I do but I suppose this was questioned recently when I was approached for a new job opportunity in one of the big London Boroughs. It really pulled at me and questioned my ambitions. However, as good an opportunity as it was, my passion for my job, my work and my place and the people I work with and for far outweighed any opportunity elsewhere.
I have delivered a number of lectures recently too and I have to admit, the meeting of people and sharing my passion and experiencing the passion people have for what they love too is simply wonderful. I find it enlivening and fulfilling. Today this was further reinforced by a phonecall from my good friend Dominic Liptrot from Lost Art who was on his way back from an event in Edinburgh and called in to see the restored fountain in Princes Street Gardens. Whilst this is his work, the joy of what he does and feels cannot be described in words.
At the same time, whilst we often thrive on such energy that is generated by what we do, it is important to remember that during challenging times, we need to look after ourselves and control our emotions. Being passionate for something and especially with work, can lead to others taking advantage and becoming overloaded. It is important to get that balance right. My friend and colleague Hayley sent me this earlier this week and it is possibly one of the most enlightening pieces of advice I have been sent.
So my philosophy is:-
Be careful what you wish for
The grass isn't always greener on the other side
And take care of yourself..... and others
|Posted on April 26, 2019 at 11:20 AM||comments (612)|
Purpose of paper
The purpose of this paper is to outline the current situation with regards to the lack of professional representation of parks managers and to detail a way forward by developing closer links with the Landscape Institute and an opportunity for parks professionals to have an established organisation to represent them.
There are 418 principal (unitary, upper and second tier) councils in the UK – 27county councils, 201 district councils, and 125 unitary councils. There are around 11,000 local councils in the UK, from town councils to parish councils. These councils manage between them 27,000 public parks across the country and employ a significant number of professionals to manage and maintain them within such service areas including streetcare, waste services, leisure services, community services, neighbourhood services and cultural services. It is now a rarity to find an authority that retains its distinct ‘parks service’ often absorbed into a wider departmental structure, yet the public perception is very different, and still perceive that ‘parks departments’ still exist. However, over the last 20+ years, there has been a significant reduction in the number of professionals dedicated to the management of parks and open spaces with headlines such as ‘last of a dying breed’ and media coverage not only in the trade press but also in mainstream media (The Guardian and the Daily Mail, BBC Radio). Like many public services, austerity has hit hard and soft services such as parks have and continue to be hit hard with park management professionals often becoming marginalized and in many authorities, redundancies have occurred with significant posts lost.
During this period, a number of organisations have represented parks professionals including:-
• ILAM (Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management) which became ISPAL and ultimately CIMSPA, neither of the latter organisations representing parks professionals;
• The Urban Parks Forum, becoming GreenSpace which folded a number of years ago;
• CABE Space, which was a government funded Quango responsible for championing urban parks and professionals, but was disbanded and became part of the Design Council, no longer representing parks professionals.
Since the disappearance of these reputable organisations, no single body represents the body of individuals who continue to manage our urban parks. As part of the recent public inquiry into public parks (before the government became all absorbed with Brexit), one of the key issues raised was the lack of a professional body to represent parks management professionals. To this day, there has been little progress despite the continued need and representation from the industry.
The Current Position
With no professional body representation, a number of other bodies exist that have indirect links and to a degree have ‘carried the flag’ for parks. These are as follows:
The Landscape Institute (LI): represents the interests of landscape architects, landscape managers and landscape scientists, a chartered institute with entry by examination. A number of landscape architects have entered the world of parks management (including myself) and left the LI. The LI is keen to expand its portfolio of professional representation and there is now a ‘parks chapter’ representing parks professionals within the Irish Landscape Institute.
The Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE): representing the public sector generally and covers all areas within, from waste, streets, leisure, culture, parks etc. APSE is currently the only organization that currently is responsible for local, regional and national networking with seminars and conferences covering parks. They are also exceptional at collecting data with regards to trends. APSE is also a commercial organisation.
Parks Action Group (PAG): a small group representing parks interests working with national government – membership of this group covers key stakeholders such as Green Flag, Groundwork, HLF, National Trust, and others.
Green Flag: managed by Keep Britain Tidy Group and with dedicated officers, the only significant organization that network nationally (and now internationally) with local authorities and parks professionals. There are over 1,800 Green Flag Parks and despite current downward trends, the numbers of GF parks are increasing. However, a number of key local authorities have significantly reduced their number of applications and in a number of instances, ceased altogether. Why is this?
Parks Alliance: a small organisation who lobby government and promote the importance of parks nationwide, made up of individuals who are passionate and advocate the importance of parks, particularly via social media.
Regional Parks Forums: Across the country, there are a small number of green space or parks forums, and include ParksHerts, the West Midlands Parks Forum, Birmingham Open Spaces Society, Bristol Parks Forum, and the London Parks and Open Spaces Forum. Each of these represent regional interests and are made up of local authority officers and arrange local workshops, networking events, sharing of information and are provide local support networks.
GreenSpace Scotland: As Scotland’s parks and greenspace charity, they have been influential in shaping a supportive policy context for greenspace and promoting good practice on greenspace delivery in Scotland. Now a social enterprise, they are an exemplar organization in promoting the benefits of green space, developing policy and supporting the sector.
The Gardens Trust: The Gardens Trust is the only UK national charity dedicated to protecting and conserving our heritage of designed landscapes. They campaign on their behalf, undertake research and conservation work, and encourage public appreciation and involvement. Through the national network of County and Country Garden Trusts, they have access to people and local expertise throughout the country. The Gardens Trust is also a membership organization which relies on members and donors to support their work. Increasingly, they are becoming more involved in parks issues where there are specific interests related to landscape design and heritage.
The National Trust: The NT has taken up the challenge of wider issues around the management of urban green spaces and is working with the NLHF on the parks accelerator programme and assisting a number of local authorities based on the NT model in looking at better ways of managing parks eg Newcastle, Cambridge, Birmingham and London. This is an interesting development especially as they have secured funding to assist with this programme.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF): The only organisation that has funded and has basically been the savior of many of our public parks and has funded a number of parks management posts. As of 2018, they no longer have a dedicated parks fund but will continue to fund park. The Issues
Since the demise of ILAM, GreenSpace and CABE Space, it is clear that no singular organisation represents the parks sector and management functions within. What groups that exist are either entirely regionally focused, supported by volunteers, or have a partial interest in urban parks. Whilst this may be perceived as a strength, it results in a disjointed approach to the representation of the parks sector with the question remaining, who truly represents the interests of the parks sector. The strength of a singular organisation representing the sector is now deemed essential. The creation of a new chapter within an existing and established organisation would benefit parks professionals in the following way:-
• Sector representation – a seat at the table with a single voice; • Developing and enhancing opportunities for succession planning within the sector – developing the park managers of tomorrow;
• Skills, Learning & Development opportunities – so sadly lacking;
• Sharing and networking forum nationally;
• Collective of expertise – the level of expertise in this sector is immense – creating the 21st century park manager;
• Create and strengthen links with wider sector and beyond.
So why the Landscape Institute? The Landscape Institute has responded and appears to have recognised the value that parks management professionals can bring and the relationship that there is between the wider ethos of the LI, the enhancement of the Landscape Management sector within the LI as well as the wider landscape sector. The LI has established a Landscape Management Forum with its aim to extend its representation of Landscape Managers, currently with very few members in the LI. The LI also has national and international recognition, and works across the wider sector with links to organisations such as Historic England, Natural England, Environment Agency, the National Trust, AONB’s, Groundwork, BALI and a number of government agencies. The longer-term future of the Landscape Institute would also be strengthened by the introduction of a wider membership portfolio.
A way forward – a proposal
If the LI are serious about representing parks professionals, a number of issues need to be considered:-
• What are the lessons learnt from previous parks ‘bodies’ such as ILAM, GreenSpace and CABE Space that have failed? These previous organisations were respected within the sector and successful and are sorely missed. However, financial issues, discontinued support from government were all part of the reasons they folded.
• What examples are there of best practice? West Midlands Parks Forum and GreenSpace Scotland are good examples. The Irish Landscape Institute have established a ‘Parks Chapter’ and is well considered.
• What is the scope of representation? Urban Parks? Country Parks? Local government representatives? The current LI LMF includes representatives of National Parks and AONB groups. These are very different from urban parks issues and management functions. The model established by the Irish LI with a parks chapter needs to be explored further. Whilst Landscape Managers from Protected Landscapes (AONBs, National Parks, Natural England etc) all have a part to play, the issues affecting urban parks managers are very different to those of Protected Landscapes.
• Level of membership and entry levels – very different from the current P2C route. How do we define this? Years of experience? Level of responsibility? Are there different levels of membership? This is an issue and a competency framework needs to be established and entry criteria firmly created. Much of the competency framework for parks management is based on experience or degree level qualifications in Environmental sciences such as Ecology, amenity horticulture, geography, and in some cases landscape architecture. The entry level is very wide.
• What can the LI offer? What’s the carrot?? There will be a membership subscription which is currently high for a CMLI or Associate level and has seen a number of existing ‘landscape architect’ qualified park managers leave the LI. There needs to be a clear offer – a separate chapter representing park managers, a distinct journal? Newsletter? Website dedicated to parks? Offers of training and development? Progression? Seminars and conference opportunities?
• A clear voice representing parks – the LI team are very landscape focused but who within is the parks champion? A parks chapter based on the Irish model? • Who should be involved in taking this forward? Organisations and individuals?
• Timeline is crucial. The industry is struggling and this needs a dedicated resource to deliver this – staffing and funding. Can the LI afford or is there an opportunity for external funding? HLF? MHCLG? My view is we need to establish an external working group that will report to the LI and develop a firm proposal to take this forward. A precedent already exists where the Irish Landscape Institute have established a ‘parks chapter’. It would be prudent to involve them and look at lessons learnt and how successful this has been. See link below. http://www.irishlandscapeinstitute.com/member/the-parks-professional-chamber-ili/
A considerable opportunity exists for the representation of parks management professionals that would be mutually beneficial to both the parks sector as well as the Landscape Institute. There are clear relationship benefits to both sectors and excellent examples to be learnt from elsewhere. The recommendation is to establish a dedicated working group of leading parks professionals with wider input from other key individuals from the wider parks sector. This group will report to the LI with firm detailed proposals based on the example of the Irish Landscape Institute.
|Posted on March 16, 2019 at 7:15 PM||comments (5535)|
In the Autumn 1999 edition of Historic Gardens Review, Linden Thornton (now Groves) wrote an article ‘Gambling’s Gains’ describing the effect of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘impressive impact’ on urban parks through its incredibly successful Urban Parks Programme, describing it as ‘its greatest success story’. Implemented in 1996, the now National Lottery Heritage Fund has invested over £900 million in the last 22 years into public parks. They have been the savior of some of our most important cultural landscapes. Yet in December 2017, they announced the closure of ring-fenced funding for public parks – the popular ‘Parks for People’ programme and in 2019 announced a new far more streamlined heritage programme aimed at a wider heritage sector, including public parks. This came after many years of austerity which saw cuts in many parks budgets nationwide, in places up to 90%. The loss of dedicated Lottery funds was seen by many as the ‘nail in the coffin’ for many parks professionals who have dedicated years of their professional lives in promoting public parks. However, let us go back to the very beginning and look at the wider context of public parks.
For centuries, public parks have played an important part in the social and civic life of communities. Public parks are deeply rooted in the physical fabric, spirit and identity of thousands of places across the country. The construction of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for London 2012 provided the country with a rare opportunity to create a brand new public park. Providing the setting for the Olympic and Paralympic games, it was admired and enjoyed by millions who came to watch the Games. This new twenty-first century park is just a short distance from Victoria Park, London’s first public park, that was built in the nineteenth century. Both parks neatly frame the country’s long tradition of park-making, with one named after Queen Victoria, the nation’s first monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park named after the nation’s only other monarch to celebrate the same achievement.
The public park, however, is deeply rooted in Britain’s Industrial Revolution and Queen Victoria’s reign witnessed an intense park-making period on a scale that has never been seen since. The second half of the nineteenth century saw an ambitious era of investment in the infrastructure and social fabric of towns and cities. Prominent landscape architects and park designers, including Edward Kemp, Edward Milner, John Gibson and Joseph Paxton, were designing and constructing many of the great Victorian public parks of the time - Gateshead’s Saltwell Park, People’s Park in Halifax and the celebrated Birkenhead Park in the Wirral to name but a few. All remain as a testament to this period of immense and creative civic investment for the public good. The government at the time formally recognised this need in the 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks. This urged towns and cities to develop public parks with legislation to support the purchase and dedication of land for this purpose. Whilst the committee expected that most of the funding should come first from private sources, it acknowledged that ‘it should be the duty of the Government to assist in providing for the health of the people’.
As towns and cities continued to grow, the Public Health Act of 1875 was passed by government to combat chronically poor living conditions and limit the spread of diseases through better sanitation. It provided the much-needed impetus for building public parks by giving local authorities the ability to raise government loans to buy land for recreation. At the turn of the twentieth century, a radical new approach to town planning emerged through the vision of Ebenezer Howard and his garden cities that incorporated the benefits of both town and country. The first, Letchworth Garden City, was formed in 1903 and included good provision of green space and public parks. Welwyn Garden City followed in 1920 and the urban planning model provided a template for many of Britain’s post-war new towns. Most were planned with generous allocation of parks and open spaces that have faced mixed fortunes in recent years. However, while most public parks have been created for public benefit through the enlightened speculation of landowners, the generosity of benefactors and the vision of local councils, many have failed to safeguard the necessary resources for their long-term management and maintenance. This is a fundamental issue that has made public parks increasingly vulnerable to changing patterns of public funding and contributed significantly to their decline in the last decades of the twentieth century.
From the late 1960s, public parks embarked on a long spiral of decline. The Countryside Act of 1968 set up the Countryside Commission and led to the creation of a large number of country parks to meet the growing demand for countryside recreation from an increasing number of car owners. The reorganisation of local government in 1974, recommended by the Bains report, placed parks departments within wider leisure services and, by the 1980s, urban parks faced increasing financial pressures from year-on-year budget cuts. Compulsory competitive tendering, introduced in an attempt to bring greater efficiencies to local government, saw many parks managed by external contractors, with low tenders delivering even lower standards of maintenance. This diluted management expertise and ‘the emphasis on economy rather than on quality squeezed budgets for in-house training’. ‘Urban Parks in Crisis’ ran the headline of an article in the Landscape Design Journal in 1984 illustrating the growing professional concern for the declining condition of many public parks. By the start of the 1990s, parks were increasingly being seen as a liability rather than asset, making them vulnerable to part-development or even sold off in their entirety. Dr Stewart Harding, who set up the first Urban Parks Programme at the Heritage Lottery Fund, observed that ‘those all-important signals of “conspicuous care” disappeared – the neatly trimmed lawn edges, the litter and weed-free flowerbeds, the band concerts, the flowing fountains.
By the time the full effects of progressive reductions in capital and revenue spending became clear, parks began to look as if they had been abandoned’. This increasingly visible plight of public parks was highlighted in a series of important reports including ‘Public Prospects: Historic urban parks under threat’ published jointly by the Garden History Society and The Victorian Society; ‘Grounds for Concern’ published by the GMB union; and a policy statement and symposium on ‘The Future of our Urban Parks’ by the Landscape Institute. In 1995, following 18 months of research, Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole published the influential ‘Park Life’ report. This was followed with ‘People, Parks and Cities’ that was commissioned by the Department of the Environment to identify good practice to help halt the decline of urban parks. By the mid-1990s, there was a major shift in the fortunes of public parks that included the launch of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme (UPP) in 1996, as described previously. Further progress was made as the momentum for change gathered pace. The 1999 House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry into Town and Country Parks marked an important milestone, summarising, ‘We are shocked at the weight of evidence, far beyond our expectations, about the extent of the problems parks have faced in the last 30 years.’ The Urban Parks Forum was established the same year and was followed a year later by the Government’s Urban White Paper, ‘Our Towns and Cities: the future’. This picked up many of the themes of the Select Committee acknowledging that ‘we must lead and develop a shared vision for the future of our parks, play areas and open spaces’. One practical action saw the formation of an Urban Green Spaces Taskforce that recommended in its final report the formation of a national agency for urban green spaces. A year later, in 2003, CABE Space was launched as a dedicated unit within the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). It led a programme of research, best practice and enabling to improve the planning, design and management of parks and public spaces. At the same time, the Urban Parks Forum was officially relaunched as GreenSpace, providing a national network supporting park managers and community groups. From 2010 there was, however, a shift in the fortunes of public parks. Following changes to CABE’s funding in 2011, the organisation was downsized and transferred to the Design Council, marking the end of a dedicated and properly resourced national public space programme. Two years on, GreenSpace was forced to close through a significant reduction in its income and grant funding. Public parks no longer had a fully funded and dedicated organisation supported by government, with the resources and capacity to act either as a national champion or representative of the professional sector. We were now in the ‘age of austerity’.
The impact on local authority funding has been devastating and, in particular, the parks sector. With ongoing cuts in public funding (in particular, loss of Government Revenue Support Grant) and an increasing number of staff and skills being lost across the sector, there are now major challenges facing public parks. There is clear evidence as provided by the report ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2016’ commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which painted a bleak picture. Over 92% of park managers reported cuts to their revenue budget over the previous three years, with 95% of park managers also expecting their revenue budget to be cut over the next three years. Local authorities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham and Wolverhampton are now reporting up to 90% cuts to their parks budgets with no end in sight to continued austerity cuts. Yet the importance of public parks remains undoubted. Around 80% of the UK population lives in urban areas which will become denser in the future as almost 300,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031. Parks are set to become an increasingly important resource in urban areas to mitigate the environmental impact of this development and maintain local amenity and wellbeing, a strategy first embraced during the Victorian municipal park movement in the 1900s.
Yet we are at crisis point… again. So where do we go next? Is the renaissance really over? In a nutshell … yes it is! As far back as 2006, CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this will require the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on ‘Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces’. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership and, in some cases, existence. Yet there are over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year with over 70% of park managers recording increased visitor numbers to their principal parks. The correlation of reduced budgets and increased visitor numbers simply does not make any sense. Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The Times (13/11/15) reported that ‘it’s mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’ and the very same paper (26/02/19) reported ‘Growing up near green spaces is linked to better health’.
Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoes this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them’. Local authorities are now committed to seeking new ways of working and managing parks including new partnerships (Newcastle City Council have been working with the National Trust and have developed a new model to manage their key parks - a City Parks and Allotments Trust – but what about the rest of their parks though?), driving up income, developing commercial activities, relying on volunteers, and testing new models of management. There is still much to consider and this author believes that there are a number of other considerations that should be pursued. These include the need for a national Urban Parks Strategy, to be embraced by central government. The award from Whitehall of a paltry £13 million towards urban parks is not enough to reverse the chronic underfunding announced in February 2019 and would barely restore 4 city parks. There is a need for a single voice to promote public parks and represent the hundreds of parks professionals across the country – step forward the Landscape Institute, as well as a framework to assist and shape the development of the skills of the parks professionals of tomorrow. Yes, the renaissance is over.
But history tells us that another one will be along at some stage when we start it all over again.
Paul Rabbitts Head of Parks for Watford Borough Council and parks historian, lecturer and author
|Posted on October 1, 2017 at 5:55 AM||comments (592)|
As I was updating my website and pondering the successes of the year and looking back, it got me thinking about the essence of leadership, generating success and the management of change. Globally, we see varying degrees of leadership and celebrations of successes. Trump.... his leadership style is combative and he is celebration of success is more likely to be a hole in one at one of his courses. He is difficult to fathom out. North Korea is another style - leadership by fear, and celebrations of power, war and control; closer to home, Theresa May - leadership without any real control, without inspiration and looking over her shoulder, weak and uninspiring; and then Jeremy Corbyn - leadership of the growing masses, almost by hysteria, but followed by many who see the man but perhaps not the essence behind the man. All different styles, all celebrating successes where they can and rightly so.
Closer to home, I work for an authority with strong leadership, from the top downwards and successes are celebrated. I recently had to do a presentation on leadership and it did get me thinking again about it more and especially about styles of leadership. There are many styles to choose from. Have a look here and what style I felt I was. I liked no. 5 and 11 in particular and I felt this matched my personality as a typical MBTI as a strong ENFP. (Look up Myers Briggs types to understand this). My presentation was based around leading styles and how you have to adapt and flex those styles for different circumstances, and the teams and individuals you are leading - I was taught I would have to flex and stretch and move out of my comfort zones and I like to think I do. It was an interesting presentation and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So to successes. There have been many I have been party to this year at Watford and in my own 'doings'. Its always great to be invited to speak at conferences and workshops and I was honoured to speak in Stirling and at Tatton Park this year on bandstands and parks leadership respectively. At Watford, 11 Green Flags which is no mean feat for a small Borough like us and I insist we stretch and push and push. I do feel its important along with the whole ethos of Green Flag. We won a partnership award with Veolia our commercial partner this summer too as well as were a finalist in another category with APSE. It is important to celebrate success and shout about them. Be heard and be seen. Why? Because change happens and when things also go wrong, it is often what people focus on. Change is afoot and things have gone wrong or not as well. My paddling pools in Cassiobury are a great success but there have been challenges and criticisms and we have to face these, remembering that despite the successes come those who will criticise. Changes have been made. More changes are coming. Transformation is underway globally, nationally, regionally, locally and personally. Leadership has never been more important, strong leadership and transformational leadership. There are many poor examples we see everyday ("its an island, surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.....") and we must learn from it.
So I will celebrate my own successes, I will continue to be No 5 and 11 but flex when I need to too and I will embrace change with the caveat if its change that has a negative effect on my own world, I will be brave enough to change direction.
Green Flag Celebrations in Cassiobury Park 2017
The importance of believing in what you feel strongly about
Cassiobury Park Pools opened 1st July 2017 - a success
The Horticulture Week Custodian Awards at Woburn - winners!!
Strong Leadership - and celebrating 11 Green Flags
Tab loves her job!!
|Posted on July 15, 2017 at 8:20 AM||comments (581)|
I am a great lover of parks and the ingredients that make up a great park. My fascination with the bandstand is undoubted as well as the parkitecture within. A few weeks ago, I visited Birkenhead Park, the grandad of our greatest parks, designed by Joseph Paxton and today remains the model for what makes a viable and healthy park. I loved it, but not because of the features within it but the complete design of it. I had heard that its design was simply stunning and its features were outstanding, but this park had something else – it was the total ‘sense of the place’ – the way I was led around it, the landscape opened up then closed around me, views opened up, the twists, the turns and the surprises. It was incredible. I don’t remember feeling like that before in such a park. It was a windy day – very windy, quite late on and I did have the park primarily to myself, but saw dog walkers, joggers, lovers, children, teenagers, office workers rushing home – it embraced all aspects of parklife I know and appreciate and more. It was and is a Paxton masterpiece. So, why am I pontificating about Paxton and Birkenhead in particular? Birkenhead is across the Mersey from Liverpool and like many towns and cities across the UK, is struggling. I was in the area Green Flag Judging - two on the Wirral and one in Liverpool. It was bittersweet as I failed one park and passed the other two but I know that boroughs across the UK are struggling with mounting funding crises – having to meet a vast array of agendas and having to prioritise. The loss of revenue support grant – continued austerity or so called austerity, and authorities like Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle cutting parks budgets, always an easy hit – by up to 90%. What was shocking on my visit was that the Liverpool Park I passed was managed and maintained by Liverpool ONE, and was not a typical local authority managed or funded park – it was central to a major commercial retail zone, it was immaculate and highly maintained, and well loved by the transient community that use it. But look behind the commercial heart of Liverpool and parks like Sefton Park, Stanley Park, Calderstones Park, Newsham Park and Walton Hall Park are suffering. Depleted resources, staff cuts and the return of the downward spiral of despair. This was none more emphasised than the article in the Guardian last weekend – link https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/09/the-end-of-park-life-as-we-know-it-the-battle-for-britains-green-spaces-rowan-moore?CMP=fb_gu" target="_blank">here – ‘The end of Parklife as we know it’ – it was the best written article I have read in a long time on the future of our parks. Cracks are appearing in so called austerity, but is it too late? The government we have in power (that no one wants) are obsessed with Brexit, so self -obsessed on saving their own skins and can quite happily conjure up 10 billion to keep them in power yet cannot find a single penny to save one of our most important institutions - the public park – the one institution that ticks every single box of nearly every single local authority priority – health, economy, education, environment, culture, heritage, climate, biodiversity, community, cohesion, arts – every single one. It is so obvious. It is time they responded to the recent public inquiry and reversed the impact of so-called austerity and started to fund local authorities once again in allowing them to provide decent parks for our many local communities.
|Posted on February 15, 2017 at 7:30 PM||comments (877)|
The Public Parks Inquiry is completed.
So, after waiting months, an incredible amount of submissions on the future of parks submitted to DCLG, and then the anticipation of something? What would be that something? Its conclusion was as follows:-
The significant interest in, and the overwhelming response to, our inquiry is a clear indication of just how strongly people feel about their local parks, how much they value them, and how important it is that action is taken to safeguard and secure the future of England’s parks and green spaces. Our witnesses—individuals, friends groups, local authorities, and other bodies—describe parks as being at a tipping point. As Cllr Trickett of Birmingham City Council told us: “We have been innovative and we have looked at alternatives, but the cuts are in very great danger of tilting the balance too far”.265 If action is taken, and appropriate priority given to parks, we do not believe it is too late to prevent a period of decline. However, if the value of parks and their potential contribution are not recognised, then the consequences could be severe for some of the most important policy agendas facing our communities today. 136.There is, clearly, no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Responsibility for parks lies primarily with local authorities. We believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions which are appropriate for their local circumstances. However, within a context of declining local authority budgets, we believe that there is a role for central government to play in providing vision, leadership and coordination, facilitating the sharing of lessons learned and best practice, and ensuring that the role of parks, their contribution, and their function as just one element of our wider green infrastructure networks, is recognised.
The findings have told us nothing new at all. Bullet points that I picked up on:-
• We recognise that parks have traditionally been seen as financial liabilities for local authorities, and understand that assessing the value of parks to their communities in wider terms can be complex. Parks are not financial liabilities. They are financial assets, they are community assets and in comparison to most other services provided by Local Authorities they are incredibly cheap to provide. Cost per user is pence in comparison to the delivery of a waste service or a leisure centre.
• In the planning and management of parks, local authorities must engage effectively in dialogue with their communities to assess and understand their needs, and to explain the decisions which they take. We have been doing this for the last 20 years since the advent of Green Flag - not even mentioned in the summary or conclusions??? Talk about teaching us to suck eggs!
• We believe that addressing the challenges which face the parks sector in a way which secures a sustainable future for England’s parks may require fundamental service transformation, which takes into account the wider value and benefits which parks deliver, beyond their amenity and leisure value. We have received a wide range of suggestions for alternative funding sources for parks, and examples of different approaches to parks management. A recent report by Dr Katy Layton Jones summarised that despit there being attempts at finding alternative funding models such as Trusts, ALMO's, community asset transfers etc, the core method in funding parks is in fact the tried and tested method - a local authority model with adequate funding to provide a decent quality service. Rethinking Parks by Nesta in my humble view really gave us nothing - it scratched the surface and the figures saved were a pittance. The scale of cuts in places in Newcastle and other large authorities are simply abhorrent. Transferring the 'problem' to another organisation such as the National Trust is a bold move. I am not sure its the answer. Nationally it has to be decent funded parks managed by Local Authorities.
• We recognise, in principle, the benefits of designating senior elected members and officials as parks champions with responsibility for highlighting and coordinating the contribution which parks make to the achievement of broader council objectives, and for preparing strategies for their parks and green spaces. We have all done this, BUT a strategy that is not underpinned by investment or funding is not worth the paper it is written on. A Parks Champion in a local authority - tried before - politicians come and go and a good politician can shout about the need for great parks and we have had successive parks ministers allegedly and they have achieved nothing - they come and go.
• We recommend that the Minister issues very clear guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and other relevant bodies where appropriate, to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies. I like this and I think it is important. Local Authorities now have a role to play in Public Health Agenda and I do think there should be more collaborative work between Health Trusts and Local Authorities - decent parks means decent health, the evidence is overwhelming. My angst here is the NHS is an alleged mess, underfunded and overstretched but if they could be persuaded long term of the savings that would be made by working with parks providers, and allocating 'budget' to preventative health care (quality green spaces, community activators, sport, activities, health works etc), there could be some real inroads made. My hope from the inquiry was this could be something revolutionary. Remember in 1833 with the Select Committee for Public Walks, the reason why we got parks was to improve public health. I hope the minister picks up on this.
• We welcome the steps taken by the parks sector in England to fill the gap left by CABE Space and Greenspace, such as the establishment of the Parks Alliance and the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Future Parks project led by the National Trust, and the work undertaken as part of Nesta’s Rethinking Parks programme to bring together a database of people and groups with an interest in parks. Are we getting CABE Space back? The government took it off us. I didn't see any reference to the HLF in the conclusions either. I am sure its in the body of the report. Or Green Flag? The Parks Alliance are made up of a small number of volunteers who work in the parks sector. We have APSE but do we have a body representing us? lobbying for us? How we miss ILAM!!
• We believe that early priorities for the group should include: establishing and maintaining an online parks information hub to make it easier for local authorities to find out about what other authorities are doing, to facilitate the sharing of learning and good practice, and to provide signposting to other sources of information or advice; and working with the Local Government Association to develop and implement options for establishing and supporting national or regional park manager forums in England, learning from the approach taken in Scotland. Yes we had that with CABE Space and their work was incredible. That information still exists.
In my conclusion, the inquiry was comprehensive, it raised our hopes but the outcome is that it has given us nothing. It was reinforced to me tonight with a Facebook update from the Friends of Small Heath Park in Birmingham who are witnessing the wholesale removal of shrub beds in their local park - a historic park for many reasons, because the City Council cannot afford to maintain them. The responses were highly critical of the council yet many if not most are left with some very stark choices. We have to fight to survive or the work many of us have done over the last 20 years will be undone. One glimmer of light I do have and I frequently cite is that many of our parks are 100 years old or more and whilst like life itself, they ebb and flow, they have survived decades of use and abuse, they have outlived governements, cuts, mismanagement, world wars, riots, vandalism and the majority of them are still with us. History tells us this BUT we should learn from history - it would save so much time, effort and money by so many (or so few of us today). #myparkmatters.
The Report is here
|Posted on December 12, 2016 at 2:35 PM||comments (181)|
I took the day off work today to go Xmas shopping. A day beckoned in Centre MK, and was bemused as to why we needed to go as most of it has been done online. Anyway, it wasn't that bad and 4 hours later, all done. What gets me every time I go to Centre MK is we pass by a number of regular rough sleepers every time. I pass by one every day going into Watford when I use the train. As I write this blog (which is going somewhere yet to be decided), Crisis at Christmas for homeless people has just been on. I live in a lovely house, we have spent too much decorating it and on presents. Its funny where our priorities lie - kind of happily spend £20 quid on sparkly lights and plastic santas and deer, yet people homeless on the streets. Its upsetting and hard to know what to do to make it all change. Change.... I don't mind change but I would love to change these kind of issues.
So where to go? 2016 has been a world of change. The world has changed. Brexit... (no one saw that coming)... Trump...(no one saw that coming)... the death of Castro... the destruction of Aleppo... the chaotic world of politics (Cameron gone, May in, Corbyn in and out and back in)... the most incredible Olympics ever... ! Personally, changes at work, departures including my boss imminently, a new one for me, a year tackling pretty chronic depression and sorting myself out at last with the odd relapse, decisions to make over my career and where to go next. Change is inevitable no matter what.
I am looking forward to 2017, I really am. I won't let Trump affect me, or Brexit, I can't change politics or what happens on the other side of the world. I have my family and 3 stunning children who make me so proud. I have some great projects ahead at work, really good projects - 3 books to look forward to publishing, more bandstands to find and visit, another holiday to Mallorca, some great gigs (Kiss, Green Day and Black Sabbath), graduation of my 2 eldest - jeez graduation, thats a thought.
So returning to the homeless I see. I can't change things, but I can and do care, I will give and I will donate and if I can even let those who need to know, know, I will. I will always care and hope things can change for the good.
Love to all
|Posted on July 31, 2016 at 1:50 PM||comments (588)|
This blog has being coming for a while now and for a number of reasons:-
"Councils might be desperate for cash, but charging parkrun isn’t the solution" Guardian 15th April 2016
But in MOST cases, the answer is decent funding for decent parks and managed by local authorities. The sector is struggling to be heard and has one singular voice - the Parks Alliance but not much else.
A glimmer of light on the horizon? a new governement in place - same policies possibly but a new Prime Minister and Cabinet who might listen. What have we got though - a public inquiry into public parks. This is so important and if you care about our natural health service then you need to play your part, whether as an individual, or as an organisation, group, Friends Group, local authority. Our green spaces and public parks matter. Without quality parks and green spaces, we are all less well off. Remember why we had public parks in the first place? Easily cut, easily lost? without doubt and we would be worse off without them.
The inquiry link is below. Please do your bit.
|Posted on July 8, 2016 at 4:15 PM||comments (3)|
Its been an interesting few weeks. Actually interesting is no where near a suitable description for what we have all just witnessed and been subject to. The papers are full of it... the news is full of it... people are talking non stop about it... in offices, on buses, on trains, at home and in restaurants. I am not talking about Top Gear... no... Cliff Williams, bass guitarist in AC/DC has decided to call it a day. Its probably the end of a great band, one of the greatest bands we have ever seen. Malcolm has gone, Brian has gone, Phil is no longer 'available' so all that remains is Angus. They should stonow and lets remember them at their height. From TNT to RIP, I have grown up with AC/DC. The arguments? Bon or Brian? Highway to Hell or Back in Black? Angus or Malcolm? No answer to any of them.
I am ignoring Brexit, guns, Corbyn, bombs and all that bollocks. Long live AC/DC