The quietly announced news that the Heritage Lottery Fund is closing its Parks for People funding programme comes as a shock. It should be a matter of huge concern, not only to the 90% of families with children who visit their local park at least once a month, but to all who care about the wellbeing of our towns and cities. Since it was set up in 1996, the programme has transformed hundreds of urban parks from no-go areas to thriving community assets, paying not just for repairs to bandstands, lakes, paths, gates and other features but also for new cafes, toilets, play areas and funding for new staff.
Austerity has hit parks departments particularly hard. As a non-statutory service, parks have been in the frontline of the cuts since 2010, with budgets falling on average by 40% – and in some cases by far more. Newcastle upon Tyne has seen a 90% fall, resulting in unprecedented plans to transfer the city’s parks to a charitable trust. Elsewhere, councils such as Knowsley are selling parks for development to fund future maintenance. Users have seen the impact in terms of loss of staff, reduced tidiness and increases in antisocial behaviour. Politicians, of course, have not.
Now the one dedicated source of funding for public parks has been cut off without warning. The HLF will continue to fund parks but in competition with other, elite, forms of heritage – and that will mean less money available. Money aside, the signal this decision gives that parks are marginal, or do not matter, could not be worse timed or further from the truth. Research by the HLF has revealed that by 2020 parks will be in a worse state than they were in the mid-1990s when HLF began its funding.
Good-quality parks are needed more than ever to combat the stress of surviving in austerity Britain, and the loss of Parks for People is another lurch into a spiral of decline which this time could prove terminal for many places.
David Lambert, Dr Stewart Harding, The Parks Agency; Ian Baggott, Communities First Partnership; Dr Anna Barker, University of Leeds; Matthew Bradbury, The Parks Alliance; Professor Robert Lee, The North West Parks Friends Forum; Dominic Liptrot, Lost Art; Anna Minton, author; Peter Neal, consultant; Paul Rabbitts, head of parks, Watford borough council; Dr Sid Sullivan; Professor Ken Worpole