The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 313.
On 30 November, 2017, I attended a Westminster Briefing Workshop, with colleagues from the Countryside Management Association. This is a brief summary of that event, with some personal reflections .
This workshop was aimed at parks and urban greenspace practitioners and promised to explore good practice in funding and management, as well as an update on recent government initiatives in the sector.
Ian Leete (Local Government Association) provided a good overview in his opening address. He emphasised the decline in green space funding, confirming that local authorities faced a funding gap of £5.8 billion by 2020 due to government austerity measures (a loss of 75p in every £1 of core funding). But Ian also emphasised the growing recognition of the importance of parks and green spaces across a wide range of public benefits. The CLG Committee’s The Future of Public Parks Report1 lists many of these, including health and well-being, community cohesion and identity, local economy and active travel, biodiversity and access to nature, as well as increasing climate and flood resilience. Their consultation on parks attracted many thousands of responses. They can have been left in no doubt as to the importance of these places to a very wide range of people.
The CLG Committee’s report concluded with 16 recommendations, many of which covered well-trodden ground. But the recommendations also included a wide range of actions encouraging local authorities to look beyond public funding to initiatives such as independent trusts, private sector investment models, and funds from the health sector. They also recommended the creation of a new Parks Action Group, whose role would be to provide leadership and share good practice within the parks sector. The Parks Action Group has now been created, with members from the Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE), Fields in Trust, the LGA, the Parks Alliance, Natural England (our own Dave Solly), National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, Heritage Lottery Fund, Groundwork, National Trust, and Keep Britain Tidy – but we are yet to hear any specific news about their work.
Some of the most interesting information provided by Ian Leete was on a Natural Capital valuation study2 undertaken in London. This has established that for every £1 spent on green spaces, Londoners benefit by £27; that Londoners avoid £950 million per year in health costs because of parks; and that the value of parks’ recreational activities is estimated at £926m per year. However, how these types of valuations can be then turned to increasing private investment in the basic infrastructure and associated services was not so easily answered.
Dave Morris (Chair, National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces) provided his usual inspiring talk about the benefits of involving local communities and Friends groups. But he also had a warning – such groups need support – to build confidence and capacity – they are not a panacea for funding crises.
Helen Griffiths (Fields in Trust) talked about the work of this long established body (established in 1925 as the National Playing Fields Association). 2732 parks and green spaces across the UK are now specially protected through their `Deed of Dedication`. Helen also reinforced the wide range of public benefits arising from these green spaces. Helen mentioned another useful report from APSE3 which paints a bleak picture for publicly funded services. Of the parks professionals who responded, 95% either “agree” or “agree strongly” that the lack of investment in parks and green spaces will have health and social impacts. Their report also highlights a growing trend in the use of parks as festival and event spaces. This is one indication of the attempt to grow income generation from urban green spaces, and can of course have both community benefits, but also real challenges.
Fields in Trust are publishing their own research report shortly, “Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces: Establishing the Economic and Wellbeing Value“, which will attempt a robust economic valuation of parks and green spaces. Figure 1 includes some of the headline findings from this report. But, as Helen herself concluded, the collection of evidence alone is not sufficient unless it is used to inform long-term strategic decisions to recognise the full value, and invest now in securing our parks and green spaces in perpetuity.
Figure 1 – Headline Values of Parks and Green Spaces (Fit for the Future, 2018)
Alan Carter (The Land Trust) explained their model of managing and investing in parks in perpetuity. The Trust is an independent charity, governed by a board of trustees (with a remarkably similar membership to the new Parks Action Group) managing over 60 green spaces around the country. Alan also emphasised the wide range of benefits arising from well managed green space (is there a pattern developing here?), as well as the importance of partnership working, community engagement, and long term investment. The range of funding streams mentioned was helpful, and included: service charges from residential or commercial properties; endowments; section 106/Community Infrastructure Levy; operational income; commercial use of sites, e.g. private events; onsite charges, e.g. car parking, concessions; rental income, e.g. grazing licences; and third party grants, e.g. English Woodland Grant scheme, Landfill Communities funding.
Alan felt the Land Trust model particularly benefitted communities – particularly those considering taking on legal ownership of parks themselves, as this could often be too burdensome. He also provided some interesting examples of working with the private sector – at the Port Sunlight River Park, Wirral, working with Biffa Waste; and Beaulieu Park, in Chelmsford, working in partnership with Countrywide Properties, where long term investment in the green infrastructure has been secured through a service charge model.
Figure 2: Beaulieu Park, Chelmsford (The Land Trust)
All the points from the Land Trust and Fit for the Future were well made, and of course there are many other trusts and social enterprises who are achieving great things in parks and green space management. But over lunch time, many of us, from both local authorities and NGOs, were left wondering if the latter are really able to cover the funding gap in core public sector funding. Will we not all be trying to do the same thing and competing for the same, limited resources?
Paul Todd (Green Flag Award) provided an excellent overview of the Green Flag awards and their significance in establishing and celebrating excellence in green space management. Finally Paul Rabbitts (Head of Parks, Open Spaces & Projects, Watford Borough Council) completed the formal sessions with his sometimes humorous, sometimes bleak – but always inspiring, discussion around the role of the park manager. Paul demonstrated how he had lived through all the various reincarnations of the role – from horticultural supervisor to multi-tasking manager and innovator. He warned about the loss of many traditional skills, but was also encouraging about the new role. He had some headline take away messages – we need to keep reminding people that we are `parks` people, and we need better careers pathways. But the sector also needs champions – particularly within government. He also suggested a new professional body might be needed (perhaps something for CMA to reflect upon?). He concluded by emphasising the importance of a strategic vision, exploring all options to maximise investment, and ensuring a future for all our parks and green spaces – something we could all agree upon.
- Communities & Local Government Committee (2017), The Future of Public Parks, https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/communities-and-local-government-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/public-parks-16-17/
- Greater London Authority, National Trust & Heritage Lottery Fund (2017) Natural Capital Accounts for Green Space in London, access on line at https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/parks-green-spaces-and-biodiversity/green-infrastructure/natural-capital?source=vanityurl .
- APSE (2018) Local Authority Parks and Green Spaces Services, http://apse.org.uk/apse/index.cfm/members-area/briefings/2018/18-11-state-of-the-market-2018-local-authority-parks-and-green-spaces-services/ .
Here is a copy of our Department of the Natural and Built Environment’s Annual Research Review for 2016-17 – DNBE Research Review 16-17 – final merged–
One of our main aims in the Department of the Natural and Built Environment is to work with local groups to enhance landscapes and biodiversity, and improve people’s enjoyment of these places. One of the ways we do this is through our research and consultancy work.
Recently, Professor Ian Rotherham and myself joined colleagues in SHU’s Outdoor Recreation Research Group to support the work of an exciting, new landscape project in Sheffield. The Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership (SLLP) is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of its national landscape partnerships programme, and is hosted by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust. The project offers a unique opportunity to manage the area’s natural and built heritage as one, with a common vision – on a landscape scale and for more people to enjoy.
This area of North West Sheffield is an outstanding example of a living landscape – rich in history, abundant in wildlife, vibrant communities and strong traditions. It is dominated by fast flowing rivers which rise off the Peak District moors and tumble through steep sided valleys to meet up at the city of Sheffield. These rivers powered the early years of the industrial revolution, and the reservoirs they feed now provide drinking water for the city’s growing population and much-loved places for recreation.
Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership area
The name of the project comes from a programme of tours, developed in the 1950s, by a Sheffield bus company, drawing inspiration from the numerous reservoirs which define the area. Sheffield’s Lakeland Tour
The partnership is hoping to create a more natural and resilient landscape for everyone to value, understand and enjoy. To do this, it needs to balance the needs of wildlife, agriculture, forestry and recreation, and support a landscape which provides clean water and air, helps to reduce flooding, and benefits the health and wellbeing of communities within the Lakeland area and in the city.
In 2017, SHU’s Outdoor Recreation Research Group was commissioned by the SLLP to undertake an Access and Gateways study; to provide visitor information for the project, and develop priorities for enhancing recreation and people’s enjoyment of its rich cultural and natural heritage.
Working with colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Well-being, our study involved the gathering of primary and secondary data for the SLLP project, as follows:
- An assessment of nationally available data from Natural England and the Ordnance Survey to apply to the local area, identifying visitor trends and potential growth areas.
- Over 1000 people in the area were surveyed through on-site surveys, a local residents’ questionnaire, and an on-line survey, to explore current interests and the potential for new uses.
- Community groups and other stakeholders were interviewed, to gain an understanding of the detailed knowledge local people already have about the area, particularly its cultural and biodiversity value.
- Community workshops were held in Sheffield and in local villages, to discuss ideas for further development.
Our conclusions identified some emerging priorities for the SLLP:
- People already visit and enjoy the reservoirs, hills and river valleys of this part of Sheffield. But people also wanted more information about where to go and what to do, and to better understand the natural and cultural heritage of the area.
- Many individuals and local groups have already undertaken much recording and sharing of the history and stories associated with the local landscape.
- The SLLP project can build on this existing knowledge, to form a basis for increased interpretation and enjoyment by local people and visitors to enable a broader range of people to enjoy this sense of place and its connection to the wider city of Sheffield.
- Our specific recommendations include: a community based project to capture and utilise existing knowledge about local heritage; increased information and interpretation provision; and access improvements associated with visitor hubs and community gateways.
Our full report can be read on the SLLP web site, and our recommendations have been incorporated into a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, to unlock a further £2.8m for natural and cultural heritage improvements in this part of Sheffield. We hope to hear in the autumn 2018 if the bid has been successful and if further work can develop to support landscape, cultural and biodiversity improvements in this part of Sheffield. We are also hoping that further research work – by both staff and our students – will provide more support for this exciting project.
National Parks include some of our most beautiful and inspiring landscapes. Covering nearly 10% of England, they make a huge contribution to the economy – tourism in English National Parks contributes £4bn a year – as well as playing a vital role in protecting and enhancing natural and cultural heritage. These areas have the highest level of planning protection, yet this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in, or close to, National Parks.
Stanage Edge, Peak District National Park (photo – Howard Crowe)
The Department of the Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, were asked to undertake this research project, funded by the Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and the National Trust, over the summer of 2016. We were asked to investigate the interpretation and application of the so-called ‘major development test’ (the test) in National Parks in England and Wales. My fellow lead researcher, Dr Cate Hammond and I have a long-standing interest in the protection of our National Parks, and we were ably supported throughout the project by one of our postgraduate students, Nikky Wilson.
We were asked to respond to concerns that despite the test being an integral part of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in or close to our National Parks. Our clients wanted us to investigate the effectiveness of the planning protection given to National Parks in England and Wales in relation to these major schemes.
The full report of our main findings can be read on line at http://www.cnp.org.uk/SHU-planning-research.
This is the current wording of the relevant paragraph in the NPPF (the test is slightly different in Wales):
“116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:
- the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
- the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meetinthe need for it in some other way; and
- any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.”
The test has been amended several times since it was first introduced in 1949 (then known as the ‘Silkin test’). Perhaps the most significant changes were actually made by William Waldegrave in 1987, when National Park Authorities (NPAs) were first required to consider the impact of approving or refusing a scheme on the ‘local economy’. Our research has shown that reference to the ‘local economy’ is a significant factor in the approval of major development applications.
We evaluated major development policies in the Local Plans of all NPAs in England and Wales. This demonstrated that there was significant variation in both the definition of major development and NPAs’ interpretation of existing policy. The definition of major development perhaps seems a fine legal point, but it can have significant impacts on the implementation of the test. A legal opinion provided by James Maurici of Landmark Chambers in 2014, emphasises that the definition of major development in relation to the test is a matter of planning judgment to be decided by the individual NPA. Importantly, national significance or absolute scale is not mentioned, but the severity of the impact on a National Parks’ special qualities is paramount.
We investigated the implementation of the test by searching NPAs’ planning portals to examine over 70 individual cases, and then a more detailed examination of fifteen selected case studies. We also undertook interviews with senior NPA planning officers and received comments from National Park Societies, National Trust planning advisers and CPRE local groups.
We are extremely grateful to all those NPA planning officers who gave up their time and local group members – often working as volunteers – who provided us with a rich background to many of the individual planning cases. We came to fully appreciate the size and complexity of these cases. Many local group members commented on their admiration of National Park officers dealing with such time consuming schemes. The research also identified many examples of good practice which we hope will be promoted widely amongst all the NPAs.
Our main findings suggest that the existing test is generally well supported by NPAs. It is not the actual wording of the test which causes any significant issues. As one local group member commented to us “the policy would have been sufficient to turn down xxx application, had they wanted to”. However, there is strong support for more guidance on the interpretation of some of the terms in the test, such as ‘public interest’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Although the current wording of the test in the NPPF is weaker than the original Silkin test, the most recent changes do not appear to have had any significant impact on decisions. Local and national decisions continue to reflect central government’s agenda at any particular time, and also the continuing challenge of supporting National Park purposes whilst allowing local economic development. Enabling the sustainable development of local communities whilst ensuring National Parks’ primary purposes to protect and enhance these special landscapes for everyone to enjoy, remains the challenge at the heart of these complex cases.
As a result of our main findings, the CNP, CPRE and the National Trust have published a series of recommendations aimed at both National Park Authorities and the English and Welsh Governments. These include:
- Government should reconfirm its commitment to National Parks in the forthcoming 25 Year Plan for the Environment by clearly stating how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement.
- National Park Authorities should ensure their local plans are clear about how the major development test should be applied in relation to the special qualities of the National Park in order to help reinforce and support local decision-making.
- The Government should make it clear that the duty to ‘have regard’ to National Park purposes applies to developments in the setting of National Parks. Ministers should also emphasise that this duty applies to all public bodies, including neighbouring planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities. This should be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
- The Government should ensure that developers are aware of the additional planning protection afforded to National Parks and encourage them to engage with local planning authorities at an early stage when considering any development in, and just outside, National Parks. This should also be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
- Natural England should take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are effectively protected from major development. This should include producing an annual update setting out how the major development test is being implemented and providing guidance or training for NPAs to address any issues identified. Government should support Natural England to fulfil its statutory responsibilities for designated landscapes.
- To ensure that the many sensitive and important areas for biodiversity and wildlife in National Parks can be safeguarded, it is essential that protections for nature are maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.
We hope our research has helped our clients’ work to provide the highest levels of protection for these designated landscapes.
One of my research interests is the management of protected landscapes, particularly national parks – and I have been lucky to visit and study national parks and other protected areas around the world. I was also a government appointed Member of the Peak District National Park Authority for ten years between 1995 and 2006.
The EUROPARC Federation is the network for Europe’s natural and cultural heritage managers – all those authorities set up to protect and manage these special landscapes. The Federation works to improve the management of protected areas through international cooperation, exchange of ideas and experience, and by influencing policy. As a Member of the Peak District National Park Authority, I have attended many of their annual conferences previously, and it was therefore with great delight that I attended their 2016 conference, although now just as an independent academic.
The conference was held in the regional nature park, Parc Jura Vaudois, just north of Lausanne in Switzerland. The theme of the conference was “We Are Parks!” This meant a focus on how we engage with different communities in protected areas, and how we can explain the value of such areas to these various stakeholders.
We had a range of fascinating presentations from some high level speakers, including the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Director-General, Inger Andersen; and Carlos de Oliveira Romao, Project Manager from the European Environment Agency (EEA). All spoke passionately about the need to protect the environment and the increasing challenges facing us. Carlos Romao provided some sobering facts and figures from the EEA on biodiversity decline (particularly linked to intensively farmed land) and their recent State of Nature in the EU 2015 report . Inger Andersen suggested that protected areas have to be the “beacons of hope to spread the message of sustainability“. She concluded that society needed to stop seeing environment and development as polar opposites, and focus on the need to integrate social, economic and environmental improvements in all areas. All these presentations can be viewed in full on the Europarc web site.
Our charming Swiss hosts provided considerable background and context around their own protected areas. All countries have their own approach to creating, governing and managing these areas. Switzerland has a political system founded on a very local level of democracy, with referendums required for many decisions. They also have a complicated set of relationships between the Federal Government, the Cantons, and local communes, which can add to the complexity of governance arrangements.
The first (and still only) national park in Switzerland was founded in 1914 in the Alpine region of Engadin (shown in red below) under its own specific legislation. But the Federal Parliament only approved the legal basis for creating new parks in Switzerland in 2007 when the Nature and Cultural Heritage Protection Act came into force. Unlike our own national parks, the Swiss National Park is a `wilderness area` and a state institution; governed and owned by the Federal National Park Commission (FNPC). Regulations are strict – camping is not allowed and there is very limited overnight accommodation in the national park. Dogs – even on leads – are also forbidden (imagine this in the UK!).
The 2007 NCHP Act allowed for the creation of new types of parks. The Parc Jura Vaudois is one of Switzerland’s 14 regional Nature Parks (and is in the far west of the map above – to the north of Lake Geneva). In many ways, these `lived-in landscapes` are more like the UK national parks, as every park has a significant population living in dispersed settlements, and these cultural landscapes have been created by centuries of human influence. Local heritage is considered as important as nature and landscape. Our base, in the Vallee du Joux, was described as the cradle of Swiss watch making. Outdoor recreation and tourism are essential components in the local economy and for the management of these areas.
Swiss Nature Parks can only be designated following a local referendum. Whilst this clearly establishes a sense of ownership within local communities, there also seemed to be challenges around the local expectations of economic growth through tourism, which the park authorities sometimes found difficult to balance with conservation objectives. So – very many similar issues to those faced in UK national parks, and it was fascinating to learn from the different experiences and practice elsewhere in Europe.
As well as formal presentations, we also attended various workshops. I particularly enjoyed a workshop led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on their proposals for a new global standard for protected area management – the Green List . In a local school room, we heard about the proposed criteria that could benchmark good governance, sound design and planning, and successful conservation outcomes, and we were given the opportunity to discuss the aims and process involved.
The standard has already been piloted in France and China, and most participants felt it could be a valuable tool in encouraging protected area authorities to measure and improve their management and performance.
My second workshop focused on the role of protected areas in enhancing people’s health and well-being. We shared ideas and good practice from around Europe, with particularly informative presentations from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Finnish parks and wildlife agency (part of their state forestry service – Metsähallitus). An inspirational project from Denmark, was described by Susanne Rosenild, a forest ranger employed by a local health service, to encourage various groups to explore and connect with nature. This project really emphasised the importance of health professionals and countryside professionals working closely together. We plan to set up a Europarc working group focusing on health, and a summary report has already been produced. I plan to follow up several personal invitations to visit case studies in Denmark, Finland and Norway to discuss the monitoring and evaluation of similar projects and share results from the UK.
As well as the workshops, we had the opportunity to explore the natural and cultural heritage of the area ourselves. We were taken on some interesting birding trips along the main Lac de Joux. This visit also explored some of the challenges experienced by conservationists in a country where farmers are so concerned about neatness and tidiness, as a sign of good stewardship. We were also accompanied on a very impressive visit to a local watch factory where the technical brilliance, craftsmanship and local pride in Swiss watch making was at its highest.
At the end of the conference, there is always a gala dinner, with lot of thanks and announcements about the next Europarc conference in the Montanhas Mágicas, Portugal. Awards and medals for various projects and officers are presented, and I was particularly proud to see Bryony Thompson from the Peak District’s Eastern Moors Partnership win an Alfred Toepfer travel scholarship to visit various parks around Europe to investigate how they provide an improved visitor experience and the links this might have to pro-environmental behaviour. Bryony confidently summarised her research for the whole conference and I’m looking forward to hearing about her results.
Overall, this event was informative and inspiring and it demonstrated how much we can learn from each other. Much of the organisation of the conference had been done by officers from the Parc Jura Vaudois on top of their usual work – and they did a brilliant job – friendly and efficient. Local people also welcomed us enthusiastically – from the street procession and night market (with fire juggling!), to the local bus drivers who ferried us about every day, and the ordinary passers-by who put up with us asking (in very bad French) directions to all the conference venues.
The very few UK participants attending felt we had to constantly apologise to our European friends over `Brexit`. Many of those friends shared some of our reservations about EU policy, particularly around the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU’s internal bureaucracy, but they were mystified about our decision to leave. However – as the exuberant Norwegians sharing my hotel kept reminding me – we are not leaving Europe (that’s geographically impossible) – just the EU. It’s possibly even more important that we maintain our links through organisations like Europarc during the uncertain times ahead.
The Department of the Natural and Built Environment Annual Research Review 2015-16.
I hope this article is seen as a celebration of the new initiative to promote Sheffield as the UK’s Outdoor City – which I wholeheartedly support. But also sharing some fears about the future management of our public realm, and asking the question whether we should be guided by our principles or by an increasing pragmatism in the current political circumstances.
I was privileged to attend the launch of Sheffield: The Outdoor City at a meeting of the Sheffield International Economic Commission on 16 October. This is a new initiative led by Sheffield City Council, based on findings from a research study, the Outdoor Economy Report , carried out by the Outdoor Recreation Research Group here at SHU.
Our Outdoor Economy Report revealed that the city has the highest household spend on outdoor equipment in the country, high participation rates and more than 200 outdoor businesses. The outdoor-related Gross Value Added (a measure of the value of goods and services produced in the economy) in Sheffield is £53.12m, generating an estimated employment of 1597 FTE jobs in the sector.
The report also highlights the major outdoor brands in the city, including Go Outdoors, Jagged Globe, the Foundry climbing wall, amongst many others, as well as major events such as the recent Tour de France, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, and the European Outdoor Summit.
Residents of Sheffield already knew all of this of course. About a year ago, a BBC Countryfile poll concluded that Sheffield is indeed the best city in the UK for countryside lovers. Sheffield received over 70% of the readers’ vote, and the BBC Countryfile magazine is already proclaiming Sheffield “Outdoors City of the Year”. Over 5600 people voted for Sheffield and many left their personal thoughts on why their local green spaces, parks, woodlands, the hills and valleys, mean so much to them.
So what can Sheffield gain by promoting itself as the Outdoor City? A panel of expert speakers all shared their thoughts at the launch. I was particularly impressed by Cllr Leigh Bramhall’s contribution – he emphasised the economic benefits to the city, but also the wider health and social benefits which can come from enhancing access to well managed green spaces. Cllr Bramhall was also careful to reinforce the notion of sustainable access. We need to encourage more people to enjoy the natural environment more often, but also to protect and enhance our special places.
The panel members also explored how this new piece of `branding` is more than just a bit of creative `marketing speak`. It actually feels true and grounded in a real sense of Sheffield – the place and its people. Sheffield is the important manufacturing city it is today because of its `ten thousand years of human history` founded on its seven hills and valleys, and the water, the woodland and the coal obtained from that landscape. These features have literally fuelled the development of the city we see today. Sheffielders have also had to fight for access to that landscape, and continue to campaign to ensure its protection. Now, as we face future challenges – both industrial and environmental – we can combine that pride in our natural heritage with our hopes for a greener, more sustainable economy based on advanced technology and innovation.
But there remain challenges if this new initiative is to go beyond just raising the city’s profile, to position Sheffield as a forward thinking and innovative green city building on its industrial and environmental heritage.
Widening participation in outdoor activity remains as critical and as problematic as ever. We know from surveys undertaken by Natural England, particularly their Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment surveys , that there remain barriers to everyone enjoying these same opportunities.
The 2013-14 Annual Report of the MENE survey confirmed that certain demographic and social factors affect the frequency of outdoors visits –
- People less likely to visit are those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability, those in the lower DE social grades, and those of Black & Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin.
- Population groups that visit the outdoors less overall, tend to take visits to towns and cities when they do visit.
- Those in the AB social grades are more likely to agree strongly that their local green spaces are within easy walking distance, of good quality and easy to access, than those in the DE social grades.
This underlines the importance of removing barriers to access to the outdoors across all social boundaries, particularly if we wish everyone to benefit from the health and well-being advantages engagement with the natural environment brings. But it also emphasises that green spaces within urban areas (and not just access to the Peak District) are even more important to those groups who visit infrequently.
A second area which I feel we rather glossed over in our celebration of the Outdoor City on 16 October, is the issue of how our green spaces, parks and woodlands – even our national parks – are to be effectively managed in order that more of us can enjoy them more often. Interestingly, at least two of the panel experts at the City Hall suggested that the great thing about the outdoors was that it was `free`. I could see a few parks and woodlands managers in the audience raising an eyebrow at that comment.
Outdoor recreation is a bit like the National Health Service in this respect. It’s free at the point of use (if you ignore the travel costs, the gear, the food, etc.) – but it is clearly not free to effectively protect and manage any of these resources. We need highly skilled staff and we need ongoing maintenance budgets to ensure that our green spaces are kept safe, beautiful, rich in wildlife and accessible to all. In the past, these essential services have been seen as the `public realm` – managed either by local or national park authorities, or by non-governmental organisations such as the wildlife trusts and the National Trust. But what happens in an `age of austerity`, under a central government who are clearly not committed to the `public realm`, either philosophically or in practice?
We know some of the answers already – the Heritage Lottery Fund has brought much of the evidence together in a recent 2014 publication The State of UK Public Parks. In that report, the benefits of our green spaces are clearly and carefully laid out: local green spaces are central to family life in our cities and towns; they support health and happiness; they improve social cohesion; they promote local economic development; and they deliver a whole range of essential environmental services such as air quality improvements, climate and flood regulation, and enhanced biodiversity. The report also states that people value these assets. Yet there are threats which these services face right across the UK. This HLF infographic from that report summarises both their importance and some of those threats – budgets across all local authorities are being slashed in response to cutbacks from central government. Skilled staff are lost and not replaced, and increasing pressure placed on remaining staff to seek sponsorship and commercial opportunities across their services. Essential maintenance is cut back, as councils prioritise spending in services such as social care and education.
I have reflected in previous articles on this blog about the need for creative thinking on this subject. Both Sheffield City Council and the Peak District National Park Authority are seeking ever more imaginative ways of raising money from private sources. The Peak District National Park Authority has launched a `Sticker for Stanage`, which allows members of the public to support the management of that iconic estate (as well as some free car parking and camping!) through the purchase of a car sticker.
I believe Sheffield City Council has taken a bold and innovative step to try to plan the best way forward for the future. They have joined a project, along with Manchester City Council and the National Trust, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to explore alternative models for funding public parks and green spaces in the 21st century. Working with the think tank `Nesta`, this project will consider the wider benefits and ecosystem services which local green spaces can provide to our society, and look at different models for funding these services, such as endowment funds, charitable trusts, `Friends` groups, and public donations. A Nesta report on Re-thinking Parks earlier this year reflected on some alternative models for funding these services. We are still waiting to hear about some of the findings from workshops held earlier in the year to explore these issues.
So how do we – the public – wish to be involved in this process? We have some recent experience in Sheffield of how a public/private sector partnership might work in managing some of our finest green features – our street trees – and that has had a rocky beginning (to say the least). I can see how some of the larger charities such as the National Trust might be interested in our major parks, such as Endcliffe Park and Graves Park – but will they be able (or willing) to manage the local rec’ at the end of your street?
I also have a vague sense of foreboding around the increasingly limited options for the future management of the public realm. I understand that in a democracy, we are now stuck with the current government’s views – at least for the next few years. And I attach no blame whatsoever to our City Council – I am sure they would wish to retain these services within a properly funded public sector. I also share the wishes of those people who care for our parks and woodlands to manage them to the best of their ability with whatever funds they can find. But do I really want my public community spaces sponsored by commercial businesses or one step removed from local accountability? I am not so sure.
I find myself utterly torn between two possibly conflicting positions: adhering to the principle of ensuring our public green spaces are effectively managed and protected by people who have both the right skills and are electorally accountable; and the pragmatism of supporting any mechanism to ensure these places remain properly funded so they can be both protected and enjoyed by more people, more often.
The City Council is consulting us now on a new strategy to enhance our outdoor spaces, possibly through the creation of several new recreation hubs around the city. It is essential that all of us who care about the future of our green spaces in Sheffield make our views heard through this process. Let the City Council know what you value about these places and how you want to see them protected.
The consultation will last until 29 November – so make your views count. As well as using the Citizen Space web site, you can also email your consultation response to CreativeSheffield@sheffield.gov.uk or post it to: The Outdoor City Consultation, Creative Sheffield, 11 Broad Street West, Sheffield, S1 2BQ.
These are challenging times for the protection and management of our most valued public spaces – but we also need to get out there and enjoy them. The City Council’s new web site has plenty of ideas for places you can walk, run, climb and ride – www.theoutdoorcity.co.uk – just get out there and have fun!