Sheffield city council’s balance sheet shows its parks as a £16m liability. Traditional accountancy methods focus on a park’s saleable value, or its operational costs associated with maintenance. So England’s 27,000 parks are considered as financial liabilities rather than the amazing asset to our health and wellbeing that any of their 37 million regular users could vouch for. They also deliver a range of ecosystem services such as improved air and water quality, flood risk mitigation by absorbing water run-off, and cooling the urban environment as well as providing much-needed habitat for wildlife. By using a “natural capital” accounting approach that puts a value on all these social, environmental and economic contributions, Sheffield discovered that for every £1 spent on its parks, they generate £34 of benefits.
Yet this true value is not widely measured or recognised. As Ian Walmsley, Stockport council’s green space manager told the Communities and Local Government select committee parks inquiry, “an argument has never been successfully made that if you spend x on a park, there will be a saving in the health budget and therefore you should take money out of the health budget and put it into parks”. As a result, the MPs inquiry report published last week warned that parks are at a tipping point of decline, ravaged by a 92% reduction in their budgets since 2010-11 because of local authority cuts. Less money means fewer park rangers, less maintenance, more litter, dog poo and antisocial behaviour, including gang and drug-related activities, and gradually much-loved local parks turn into dangerous eyesores. Tragically it’s the small, green spaces in poorer, built-up areas that suffer disproportionate cuts to park rangers and maintenance. We have been here before. Uncared-for, litter-strewn parks were emblematic of Thatcher’s Britain before an injection of public spending by a Labour government and £850m of lottery cash revived them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Andrew Hinchley, green space development officer at the London Borough of Camden, told MPs if we had new ways of valuing the services parks provide for improving water quality, for example, then you could ask water companies to pay towards their upkeep.
The committee wants councils to publish strategic plans to recognise the real value of parks and to set out how they will be managed (possibly by a charitable trust, as Newcastle is looking into) to maximise their contribution to wider local authority goals such as promoting healthier lifestyles. It suggests the government’s obesity strategy could fund parks. It also suggests that it could be a legal requirement for councils to produce such strategies.
Yet this alone won’t save parks from decay or the bulldozers. Birmingham city council told the inquiry that pressure for housing development was “nibbling away” at existing green space, and smaller green spaces are less likely to receive protections under planning policy. Just beyond the diesel particulates of many busy main roads, small but vital green lungs are already being lost to privately funded redevelopment.
Yet children living in deprived areas are nine times less likely than those living in affluent areas to have access to green spaces and places to play. And these are the same children most likely to be obese and to have diabetes and respiratory problems. Planning legislation has to prevent the loss of parks – with mature trees that absorb traffic noise and pollution – to housing and commercial development.
i-Tree software maps city trees and calculates the financial value of the “ecosystem services” they provide. For Torbay it’s £280m. These facts helped the council’s tree officer to win more funding for planting and maintaining its trees. In London it is £6.1bn. What is needed is i-Parks software, which also measures parks’ health and wellbeing services.
Britain led the world in increasing networks of green spaces in the 20th century to improve the health of urban communities through a mix of municipal leadership, private philanthropy and voluntary endeavour. Can we do it again now, by valuing them for the 21st century?
• Alison Benjamin is editor of Society Guardian
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