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Parks (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough)

Volume 644: debated on Monday 9 July 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

Even amidst the most built-up cities, we are blessed with parks and pockets of green space. Those spaces improve air quality, lower temperatures near congested cities and even harbour wildlife, but they are also the lifeblood of our communities. As we face an obesity crisis and concerns over public health, parks offer free and accessible opportunities for exercise and enjoyment. At a time when families are living in ever more cramped conditions and unsuitable housing, parks provide a much-needed environment in which children without access to other opportunities can enjoy being children. In an era of extreme loneliness and isolation, they are bringing people of all ages together, and in an age of unprecedented privatisation and commercialisation of public space, they remain free for everyone to use and benefit from.

According to the indices of multiple deprivation, my constituency is one of the most deprived in the country. Government figures suggest that we might expect to see far fewer parks and open spaces in such areas than in wealthier areas. However, Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, despite its legacy as a highly urban formerly industrial area, is an exception to this, having substantial areas of parks and open space across the constituency.

Sheffield can lay claim to being the greenest city in Europe, with a third of our city boundary lying within the Peak district and a history of prestigious prizes won, including the 2005 Entente Florale gold medal. We are blessed with hundreds of parks and open spaces, and residents have access to a huge range of facilities, from small play parks to ancient woodlands. The National Trust funded research in 2016 on Sheffield’s parks, which highlighted the huge value and benefit they hold for local people and the financial value that they represent to health and other public services.

I did not call this debate to bemoan a lack of parks for my constituents, nor are parks facing any kind of crisis of usership, with the city council reporting significantly increased numbers of park visitors in recent years. Last year, the Communities and Local Government Committee produced an excellent report on public parks. I agree with the thrust of its recommendations, as indeed do the Government, and hope that these can help improve parks nationwide. However, I wish to bring attention to the challenges of maintaining parks after years of austerity and the problems that having large parks alongside significant local deprivation can have.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I sought her permission to intervene beforehand. My constituency of Strangford is an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is wonderful. Does she agree that, whatever the increasing need for housing and facilities, we must ensure that parks are protected and enhanced, for they surely enhance quality of life and benefit all in our communities?

I completely agree and will say more about that as I continue.

The additional issues I have mentioned are often worsened by the funding shortfall. Since 2010, Sheffield City Council has suffered a staggering £430 million a year in cuts. The council looks after the vast majority of parks and open space in my constituency, but its maintenance of them is not a statutory duty. This contrasts with the situation for libraries; like parks, they are vital for young people’s development and enjoyment, but councils have a statutory duty to provide them. As councils have to make their Government-imposed cuts, parks and open spaces are of course facing drastically reduced spending.

In 2010-11, £40 million of Sheffield council’s £1 billion services budget was allocated for parks, sports and open-space facilities. This year around £30 million is budgeted. That is a real-terms cut of over 40%. That reduction is even more difficult to sustain as the council has not closed a single park in this time; maintenance has simply become incredibly stretched.

Sheffield’s parks funding cut is severe, but Sheffield has kept parks spending at a higher level than some comparable authorities. In recent months, there has been significant coverage of councils taking decisions to reduce parks spending even more drastically. It is not for me to criticise authorities who have utterly unenviable spending choices after years of cuts; however, I am glad that Sheffield has chosen to keep parks as a spending priority even under such difficult conditions. Figures from the National Trust’s research suggested that in Sheffield the savings from health and wellbeing benefits far outweighed the money spent. This is yet another example where cuts that councils have had no choice but to make have ended up costing far more down the line.

Turning to the impact of these cuts, like all Members, I get feedback from casework and constituency visits on the state of our parks, but this is inevitably a partial picture. To inform tonight’s debate, I launched an online survey for local park users. This is not scientific standard research, but I received 260 responses from local people and it has given a fascinating view of people’s thoughts and concerns.

It is concerning that nearly 40% of people feel park maintenance has declined over the past 10 years, but this is perhaps inevitable with the cuts that have been faced. More importantly, a quarter of respondents felt that the state of their parks was not acceptable. The council acknowledges that less than half the green space in my constituency meets the Sheffield standard—that it has been assessed as safe, clean and welcoming. This represents a divide in some parts of the city, which I will address shortly. Parks assessed as achieving the Sheffield standard represent up to 80% of the total number.

There still are basic maintenance budgets to cover upkeep, but the standards have inevitably been reduced for grass cutting and horticultural work. Alternative plans such as keeping some areas with longer grass with wildflowers are prominent in parks across my constituency. Alongside the general reduction in budget and the resulting challenge to general maintenance, council parks officers identify major problems in maintaining high-quality parks. One is the lack of money to replace equipment and facilities in parks and to regenerate more severely run down parks, and I will address this point later. No doubt parks nationwide suffer from this.

A second major issue is that of antisocial behaviour. Countless studies in recent years have shown that more deprived areas bear the brunt of antisocial behaviour, and police figures from my constituency unfortunately confirm this. We also know that local authorities such as Sheffield, which have higher overall levels of deprivation, have suffered disproportionate cuts. Antisocial behaviour gives councils a significant problem when looking after parks today. Many of our parks suffer frequent damage of all kinds, with issues ranging from motorbikers riding over the grass to bin fires. Many of the parks have no working swings for local children, with replacement swings delayed or sometimes shelved until the antisocial behaviour decreases.

These incidents serve to make our parks less safe, and, put simply, the budget of the Sheffield City Council parks department cannot cover the frequent repair and maintenance associated with higher levels of misuse. This is deeply unfair on the vast majority of people who use their local parks responsibly and are deeply proud of them. To give an example, residents recently expressed concern about the state of Longley park, a large local park that many residents feel is not being kept in the state that they expect or have been promised. It is very close to where I grew up, so it holds a special place in my heart. At one time during my childhood, it boasted an outdoor swimming pool, which is a rare thing these days. It was partly the concerns expressed to me and to the local paper that crystallised my thinking about the need for this Adjournment debate.

Longley park is a prime example of antisocial behaviour affecting people’s enjoyment of their parks. It is a large park but it lies in a wider area of deprivation. It also has a difficult geography, in that large parts of it are not overlooked, making antisocial behaviour more prevalent. In my survey, one constituent who lives close to the park said:

“I don’t feel comfortable spending much time in it. Most times it has kids on motorbikes going round the paths which means you have to walk with dogs and kids on grass that hasn’t been cut and is full of dog waste.”

As people see their local park looking less well kept, less care is generally taken to respect the space. This situation is not a major problem for every park, but where it is, it really is a vicious circle.

The answer is not simple. The problem is a consequence of the general slashing of local government and community policing budgets. In common with all Labour Members, I have long been concerned and vocal about cuts across the board, but parks embody the problem of the effects of cuts multiplying. One concern expressed locally and in my survey was that parks in other parts of the city received more maintenance compared with local parks in my constituency. Although that is not the case, the damage caused to many of our local parks can make it appear to be the reality.

The additional maintenance needed for parks in deprived areas is not the only concern. There are myriad other issues as well. It is more difficult to sustain commercial activity such as events, funfairs or cafés in poorer areas, so there is less additional income to invest, compared with parks in wealthier areas. Facilities such as cafés can also mean that staff are regularly in a park to deter and report antisocial behaviour and other problems. I am positive about the plans that the council is making to bring more facilities and income to the largest parks in my constituency, but the income in parks in the wealthier parks of Sheffield has meant that, with some exceptions, they will always receive more in additional income to assist their maintenance.

As I mentioned earlier, councils across the country are struggling to fund upgrades and replacements for park facilities that are reaching end of life, particularly play equipment, which is notoriously expensive. If not replaced, the equipment becomes dangerous, more easily broken and less attractive to use. Where parks have faced high levels of misuse, replacements are not only needed sooner, but parks officers rightly look to replace damaged equipment and structures with more resilient items. With the decimation of council capital budgets and concerns about the sustainability of lottery funding—an incredibly important source of funding for park upgrades —parks face a maintenance crisis. The ending last year of “Parks for People”, the largest lottery funding pot for parks, leaves the future uncertain at best.

We have brilliant friends’ groups in our parks and open spaces that devote time and energy to maintaining and improving the places they, and we, value so much, and I place on the record my thanks to the many groups in my patch. I am pleased to have been as supportive as possible to as many of these groups at their events. In some cases, such as at the wonderful Wardsend cemetery, volunteers have taken the lead role in restoring a precious historic green space, but, again, volunteers disproportionately benefit parks in more affluent areas. It is a simple fact that in many parts of my constituency there are fewer people who can spare the time to volunteer, which makes it harder to gather people together to sustain the friends’ groups that can make long-term improvements to a park.

Does the hon. Lady accept that councils also have a responsibility for health and safety? Roundabouts, swings and so on must be maintained, but councils must also deal with dog owners and dog waste. Both issues need to be addressed to make a park accessible and safe for everyone.

I absolutely agree. That is the thrust of my speech tonight, and I have already detailed the effects of cuts to budgets for policing and public services.

It would be easy to ask the Minister to consider making parks statutory services, so that councils could be held to account more easily for their maintenance. However, my local parks would not be helped one bit by that without the Government backing up the change with serious funding for local authorities to meet this requirement. Labour and the Conservatives have different views about local authority funding, and I do not think that we will resolve this difference tonight. As much as local authorities can innovate in developing and maintaining parks, it appears to be an unfortunate truth that there will always be higher costs. I ask the Minister specifically to ensure that councils have enough capital funds to create parks that are resilient to the challenges they can face. I also ask him to work with the Minister for Sport to ensure that lottery funds specifically support parks facing difficulties with misuse and the lack of commercial income that I have outlined. As welcome as the “Parks for People” programme was, its focus on heritage meant that parks in the most challenging areas sometimes lost out in favour of parks in traditionally leafier suburbs.

I thank Members and the Minister for attending tonight. I also thank local people, interested organisations and local parks officers who all offered a wealth of information, so much of which I could not touch on tonight. I hope that I can make a small contribution to ensuring that we have resilient parks and green spaces in every part of my constituency and in every city. Maintaining and improving parks for every citizen is an absolute necessity if we want to create a more equal, healthy and happy society.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on securing this debate and on her passion for her constituency and its parks. That passion shone through her speech. I am grateful to her for highlighting some important issues and sharing her experiences of the huge benefits that local green spaces bring to lives of so many.

I recognise the ambition of local councils, working together with their communities and Government, to preserve good-quality parks and green spaces now and for future generations. The Government are committed to ensuring that our parks and open spaces continue to provide vibrant and inclusive places for local communities to enjoy. Local parks are great at connecting communities and encouraging interaction between younger and older generations and between people from different backgrounds. I recognise that to achieve that shared goal we need to support local councils to deliver it, so it may be helpful if I set out what the Government are doing to support the hon. Lady’s local area and, more broadly, if I touch on some of the activity the Government are undertaking to safeguard parks and open spaces.

On overall funding for local government, this Government believe strongly that local people who know and understand their community are best placed to decide how funding should be spent in their area. That is why funding provided through the local government finance settlement is largely not ring-fenced, as it allows local authorities, which are independent of central Government, to manage their budgets in line with local priorities. In practice, that means there is no specific funding stream for parks, just as there is not for waste services or children’s services, for example. Local communities are best placed to decide on their own local priorities.

I pay tribute to the many local authorities that have done a fantastic job over the past few years to continue delivering high-quality services, from improving adult social care to maintaining our roads, public spaces and parks in what has been, for some, a difficult financial climate. The most recent local government finance settlement, announced earlier this year, provided a £1.3 billion increase in resources to local government over the next two years, taking the total to £45.6 billion in the forthcoming financial year. Of this, Sheffield will be able to access more than £1.2 billion between 2017 and 2020 to spend on all its important local services, including its parks. I am pleased to say that this year Sheffield will see a real-terms increase in the core spending power available to its council.

In addition to funding from the settlement, the current business rates retention scheme is also yielding strong results, and it is warmly welcomed by local authorities across the country. Sheffield itself estimates that, in this financial year, it will keep just shy of £5 million in business rates growth. All in all, there are significant financial resources that Sheffield can decide how to spend among its various priorities.

There are many local authorities across the length and breadth of our country that are doing great things at local level and exploring new and innovative approaches to attracting funding and reinventing park management. I recently had the pleasure of addressing the Local Government Association’s “Action on Parks” conference, and I was hugely impressed by the great examples of local authorities working collaboratively with local communities, health bodies and academics to explore new approaches to joining up services to realise the benefits for parks.

The truth is that there is no single answer to achieving good-quality green spaces. An example of the excellent work that local authorities are doing to help raise the quality of parks is participation in the green flag award scheme, which recognises a high standard of parks and green spaces. The scheme is owned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and operated under licence by Keep Britain Tidy. A record 1,500 green flags were awarded last year, illustrating the scheme’s success. We are seeing ambitious local councils striving to achieve green flag status for more of their local parks, and I am pleased to say that Sheffield is among the leaders, with 13 local green flag award-winning parks.

Furthermore, Sheffield is embracing opportunities for attracting new funding. Since 1996 the council has received £13.7 million of Heritage Lottery Fund grant investment for its various parks, which includes fantastic support for the botanical gardens and Weston Park.

In 2014 the innovative “Rethinking Parks” programme, delivered by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, awarded £100,000 to support two new projects in Sheffield to develop new ways to fund and manage parks. Since 2010, Sport England has invested just shy of £1 million in 30 grassroots sports projects across the city, including a £65,000 award to Wisewood Juniors football club to improve its football pitches.

However, no one size fits all. For example, Newcastle is a pioneer in exploring an innovative charitable trust model for its parks in conjunction with the National Trust, and Sheffield has also looked at that in the past. That model has the potential to make it easier to raise outside funding from social investment and businesses; to ring-fence budgets; to focus on a single objective of the parks in question; and to mobilise volunteers.

I am pleased that the Government have already taken steps to support improvements to our local parks and green spaces. We heard about the Communities and Local Government Committee’s excellent report—I agree with the hon. Lady that it was fantastic. In response, the Government created the parks action group, which is a testament to the importance we place on government at all levels coming together with the sector to identify the right solutions to the various issues she has presented this evening. I would like to give my personal thanks to the membership of the parks action group, who have worked tirelessly to explore some of these issues. Its membership is a veritable “Who’s Who” of the sector, and includes excellent organisations such as Fields in Trust, Natural England, Groundwork, Keep Britain Tidy, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Association for Public Service Excellence and many others. The group has begun to develop some key programmes of work, which will be supported by half a million pounds that the Government have committed to support its work.

That activity will support the delivery on six priority workstreams, which touch on some of the topics that the hon. Lady raised: exploring the funding landscape and proposing solutions; setting parks and green space standards; sharing a vision for parks and green spaces; empowering local communities; increasing knowledge and building skills, and increasing usage by all. I look forward to sharing more details on the work that the group will undertake to better secure the future of parks. I will provide an update to the Select Committee later this year, but I expect to be able to set out the programme of work in more detail in the coming months.

I wish to address the question from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the planning framework. I am pleased to tell him that the national planning policy framework offers protection to all recreational facilities, including parks. The framework is clear that recreational land should not be built on unless an assessment has been carried out and has shown clearly that a park is surplus to requirements or that the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location.

Lastly, I wish to deal with the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough raised about access to parks in a deprived area. She makes an important point, and one that I am keen to ensure becomes a reality as the parks action group carries on its work. She will be pleased to know that there was a previous programme called the “pocket parks” programme, whereby the Department funded £1 million-worth of small parks and almost 90 were created up and down the country. Ensuring access in deprived areas is a high priority for allocating that funding. I will be pleased to start looking through the results of that work to ensure that the money found its way to the right places, so we can use that work in formulating future plans in the parks action group.

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate and for ensuring that the value of parks is recognised. I pay tribute to local councils up and down the country for the hard work and dedication they put into parks. As we have heard, parks are often at the heart of our communities and are the space where families and local communities come together. I believe we have a shared vision of providing good-quality open spaces for our local communities, and I firmly believe that by working together we can build a better future for our green spaces.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.