What Future for Sheffield’s Parks and Open Spaces?

The end of another year – and some things to celebrate and maybe some things to be concerned about.

Celebrations first…. Just as we all expected, a  BBC Countryfile poll concluded at the end of December 2014 that Sheffield is indeed the best city in the UK for countryside lovers. Sheffield received over 70% of the vote, and Countryfile is now proclaiming Sheffield “Outdoors City of the Year”.

Not in the least surprising to those of us who live and work in Sheffield of course. Perhaps the most heart-warming thing about the poll is the comments from local people expressing their love of the city, and its parks, woodlands and open spaces. Over 5600 people voted for Sheffield and many left their own personal thoughts on why their local green spaces mean so much to them. Equally important was the ease of access right from the city centre, up our beautiful river valleys and out to the woodland and moors beyond – a third of the city lies within the Peak District National Park.

  Ecclesall Woods  Ecclesall Woods

A recent study by Sheffield Hallam University (commissioned by Sheffield City Council) reinforced the importance of this natural heritage for the city. Because of its special topography (Sheffield is built on seven hills), its parks and woodland heritage, and its proximity to the Peak District, outdoor recreation opportunities are far greater and resulting participation is much higher in the city than in the rest of the UK. It has a long and proud history of walking and climbing in particular. The SHU study also emphasised the importance of the outdoors to the city’s economy – with consumer spending estimated to be around £93 million and estimated employment generated by this outdoor economy nearly 1600 FTEs.

We moved to Sheffield in 1981, and, as well as the sheer friendliness of the place, it was the access to beautiful parks, woodlands and countryside, which persuaded us to stay. There is also a very strong sense of `place` in Sheffield. It’s partly to do with its industrial heritage and its importance in the steel and cutlery making industries – still rightly celebrated today. But it’s also to do with the clear connection between its landscape and its history. Sheffield wouldn’t be Sheffield without those seven hills – and its river valleys and woodland. My erstwhile colleague, Professor Mel Jones, has referred to “ten thousand years of human history” to explain the links between our landscape and the development of the city. The rivers produced the water power which drove the beginnings of the industrial revolution, and the woodland produced timber and charcoal to fuel the mills. The surrounding hills produced more water – and also the millstone grit to produce grindstones. The rest – as they say – is history.

And local people really value these links with their natural heritage – not just now, but over many generations. Norfolk Park, in the city centre, is recognised as one of the first free public parks in the UK. The laying out of the Park began in 1841, and it was opened in 1848. Queen Victoria visited the park in her Diamond Jubilee year in 1897, when she heard 50,000 local schoolchildren sing in her honour. The Duke of Norfolk gifted the park to the City of Sheffield in 1910.

 Norfolk Park poster  Poster for the Sheffield Fayre in Norfolk Park

It was also in Sheffield and Manchester that local campaigns for access to the hills began in the early 20th century. These culminated in perhaps the most famous of the `Mass Trespasses` in 1932, when ramblers walked across the then private estates of the Duke of Devonshire to protest about the lack of public access to their local countryside. Climbers tell me that the gritstone edges above Sheffield are also the birthplace of climbing (“God’s own rock”). The Peak District was designated as the first national park in the UK in 1951, largely because of local people campaigning to both protect and enjoy their local countryside.

Glimpses of Sheffield 

Glimpses of the city centre from the hills near Ringinglow.

But are there concerns ahead?? It would seem so. We are facing one of the greatest assaults on the public realm since many of these nationally important places and services were first created. Our Government is withdrawing huge amounts of financial support , in the name of `austerity`, from the organisations responsible for their upkeep. Support which is essential to ensure these public services and public places are cared for in perpetuity and enjoyed by all. And we seem to be sleep walking alongside this assault, too easily convinced that an apparently civilised society cannot really afford to maintain and promote such services.

Sheffield City Council has had to make savings over the last four years of £238m, due to Government cuts. In 2015/16 it has been announced that they are required to reduce their budget by a further £60m. It must be a very bad time to be a local councillor. I attach no blame whatsoever to the City Council here – they are in an impossible position. What decisions would you make? Cut family support, old peoples’ services, children’s social care, or maybe schools or public libraries? Or look more closely (again) at the Parks, Woodlands and Countryside Service?

The infographic below provides a glimpse of the City Council’s revenue budget in 2014/15. Of the £36m spent on Leisure and Culture, I believe around £7m is spent on the Parks, Woodlands and Countryside Service (this in itself is a significant reduction from around £9m several years ago).

Sheffield budget

So what is to be done?

I believe the 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.

Many of the different groups and organisations with an interest in Sheffield’s green spaces, along with officers from the City Council, met before Christmas to discuss some of these issues, in two workshops organised through the project. We discussed the range of public benefits which parks and green spaces provide, and how these could be used to create greater support for the management of these areas. And we were all passionately committed to protecting what Sheffield already has and to promoting these areas even more effectively for all Sheffield residents. But, throughout those workshops, I felt a great sense of foreboding.

There is no further case to be made for the protection of local green spaces – because the evidence is already overwhelming. Ironically, the Heritage Lottery Fund itself has brought much of that evidence together in a recent 2014 publication The State of UK Public Parks. In that report, the benefits 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, and yet there are threats which these services face right across the UK. This HLF infographic summarises both their importance and some of those threats:

HLF image 2

So Sheffield is certainly not alone in the challenges ahead. A Nesta report on Re-thinking Parks earlier this year  reflected on some alternative models for funding these services. I imagine we will be exploring all of them in the new year.

Many of these ideas in this report should be explored – but will they be able to replace the significant public funding that these areas have come to rely upon? Increasing community engagement through `Friends` groups is hugely important, and we have successful examples in Sheffield (the Botanical Gardens are a good case study). But I am not sure they can work at all scales or completely replace the skills and long term capability of an effectively funded public service.

 Sheffield botanical gardens  Sheffield Botanical Gardens

Endowment funds and charitable trusts sound promising. There are good examples in the United States in particular, and in the UK, the parks and green spaces of Milton Keynes are managed using this model. The Milton Keynes Parks Trust, was established by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to own and manage, in perpetuity, the strategic open space in the new town. It took a 999 year lease of 4,500 acres and at the same time was given an endowment of around £20m. The endowment was mainly in the form of commercial property in Milton Keynes and the rental income is used to fund the Trust. The Trust’s green estate now comprises around 5,000 acres of parks, meadows, river valleys, woodlands, lakes and the landscaped corridors which run along the main grid roads– about 25 percent of the new city area. The Parks Trust now runs on a revenue budget of around £4m per year.

I am certain we will be looking at this model closely – but a £20m endowment? There were particular circumstances in Milton Keynes, and it is again difficult to see how this can be achieved in Sheffield.

Increased funding from public giving or corporate donations? Many of our earliest parks and green spaces were originally created through this mechanism, whether it was through local entrepreneurs such as J.G. Graves or local landowners such as the Duke of Norfolk. But do the same wealthy individuals or corporations with the same degree of local connections still exist today? There are many environmental charities in South Yorkshire who compete for such funds – how successful have they been?

There is a danger in such pessimism of course. We could be judged as unimaginative or set in a model of funding created in better times. So I really do hope that the HLF- Nesta project reaches some helpful conclusions, and I look forward to working with the project organisers.

But let us not lose sight of the public values at stake. The HLF’s The State of UK Public Parks report sets out five aims for the future. These include developing new funding models; establishing new partnerships; getting local communities more involved; and collecting and sharing data. But the HLF also calls for renewed local authority commitment to ensure that everyone has access to and can enjoy well managed and high quality green spaces close to where they live and work.

Without this commitment, there is a danger that our precious green spaces will become neglected and under-used. The HLF refers to a “spiral of decline”. We could be in danger of losing the immense social and environmental value of our local natural heritage.

Sheffield City Council is, I believe, committed to doing all it can to prevent this from happening. But they need decent and fair funding from central government to support their initiatives. And the City Council also needs support from its residents and local organisations to demonstrate they value these areas as well. The City Council has asked local people to respond to the latest announcements about future budget cuts (via its web site or email: budget@sheffield.gov.uk). There will also be a city wide consultation exercise early in the New Year.

Over 5600 of us voted in the BBC Countryfile poll to share our love of Sheffield’s green spaces – to explain why the city makes us proud. We need to make our views known even more widely as well.

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