Edition number 84; dateline 1 May 2017A new report for parks and why they shouldn't have bothered.
The Commons communities and local government select committee has published a report on parks. It makes for depressing reading. Not because of its content: all the usual platitudes about the value of parks to our communities, the local economy and our quality of life are all present and correct – but because it has been written at all; that parliamentarians – who are all honourable people – have decided that it needs to be written and that their time, and that of their officials and parliamentary staff, would be usefully employed in its production.
So far, so snarky. What’s the problem with reiterating the value of our most important public open spaces? After all, the committee report does an adequate job of summarising the key points of the current state of parks and, in the respectful and measured language of cross-party consensus, acknowledges that our parks are facing some serious challenges. Parks may well be, it is suggested, at “a tipping point” that “could have severe consequences”. It even goes as far as to concede – no small example of radicalism this – that the financial strictures placed on local authorities could be seen as a contributory factor.
None of the contents of the report will come as a surprise to readers of the Leisure Review (hello to you both) or anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the sport, leisure and culture sector. The report is composed of largely uncontentious and generally well-meaning material but, with so many people’s time at such a premium, one is obliged to wonder why parks and why now, not least because it has been done before and the issues are largely unchanged.
The definitive report on parks, titled Park Life: Urban Parks and Social Renewal, was published in 1995 by Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole. It captured the attention of ministers at a time when public expenditure was dealing with the effects of long-term reductions in public spending and local government was being systematically undermined by central government. Parks had suffered as a result. Park Life had a genuine impact: ministers took notice, professional bodies with an interest in and a commitment to parks (remember them?) got organised, and funding was found, even if it did happen to be found in a quiet backwater of the national lottery.
The issues being faced by parks in the 21st century are remarkably similar to those at the end of the last century. Austerity is now and was then government policy. It is and was also government policy to ensure, for electoral and ideological reasons, that the main impact of austerity falls on the least well-off, for whom parks are an essential and perhaps only affordable option in terms of their leisure pursuits. It is and was government policy that local authorities are continuously charged with reckless inefficiency and decried for spending public money on local services and public assets.
Someone with a passing knowledge of parks would have been able to advise committee members
that they might simply have changed the date on the top of the Park Life report and saved quite a lot of time and money.
So why have they bothered? The committee asked itself three questions – “Why parks matter, what challenges are facing the parks sector, and how we can secure a sustainable future for parks” – but, having found the answers, can have had no intention of addressing the issues or changing the government policies that lie behind them. The most depressing words in the whole document may well be: “We believe that our recommendations will help to ensure that parks receive the priority they deserve, and to prevent a period of decline.”
As the honourable members know all too well, their recommendations will have no effect because all the causes of the problems are deliberate political choices made by government. The creation of “a period of decline” is government policy and ensuring that the effects of these policy decision are visited upon local authorities and the least well-off, whom local authorities have traditionally seen as a priority, are calculated outcomes. Whatever the report might include, Tory members of the committee are supporting the policies of their party, and Labour and SNP members are avoiding the issue unless the report investigates, highlights and decries the real causes of the decline in the state of our parks. In fact, everyone who was involved in the production of the report would have been better employed sitting in the Strangers’ Bar and flicking playing cards into a top hat.
Of course, this is not about parks. It is about the absence of any coherent government policy beyond the imposition of economic austerity. The culmination of the scheme to strip local government of all of its influence, finance and connection with local people that was begun under the Thatcher government is in the offing. The process of ensuring that anything of value that remains in public ownership – even if that means the grass that our children play on, the schools they learn in or the hospitals they’re born in – is sold off for the enrichment of those that have supported and enabled the looting of the public realm is almost complete.
The communities and local government select committee chose to spend time investigating the state of parks for the same reason that the Heritage Lottery Fund established its urban parks programme all those years ago: everyone loves parks and there is no political downside to demonstrating your interest in and concern for them. That the committee chose to go through the motions of showing concern for parks with no intention of addressing any of the real issues raised by their enquiry is a damning indictment of the parliamentary process and the moral integrity of everyone sat on that particular side of the table.
The next report on parks – indeed on any aspect of the sport, leisure and culture sector – will be a historical document. It will chart the process by which so much of what used to make our nation great – the cultural assets that everyone used to enjoy and have access to by right, the innumerable and often miniscule places and connections that used to shape lives and build communities – was lost. No doubt the honourable members will use carefully measured phrases to lament this disappearance. No doubt they will lay the blame at the door of inefficient local government and the local people who did not work hard enough to protect what they valued. No doubt they will blame everyone but themselves and wonder why it is now so difficult to find a top hat in the Palace of Westminster.
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