Sunday 12th March 2017
Clive Betts, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee and Labour MP for Sheffield South East
With no legal obligation on local authorities to fund and maintain public parks, and with council budgets coming under increasing pressure, there are fears that Britain’s 27,000 parks could be under threat.
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee responded to those concerns by launching an inquiry into the future of parks last summer, and the resulting report, setting out our findings, recommendations and conclusions, is due to be published this February.
We wanted to look at how parks should be supported now and in the future, which included exploring alternative management and funding models. The Committee was also keen to gauge the value that people place on open spaces and find out who was using them and for what.
The response to our call for evidence has been remarkable, and clearly demonstrates the strength of feeling among communities across the country towards parks. Parks are cherished community resources, and it is evident that people want to see them properly protected for many years to come.
The Committee received nearly 400 submissions of written evidence, more than any other inquiry that we have conducted in this Parliament. The fact that a great many of those came from volunteer groups, who put in time and effort to maintain their local parks, reinforces just how much these amenities matter to the public.
We received more than 13,000 responses to our survey, which we conducted online and face-to-face. The responses further enhanced our understanding of the issues, not least by providing us with a picture of how parks are being used, how people travel to their local park, how often and what they do there.
Roughly nine out of ten people considered their local park to have a “very positive” impact on their community, while close to half visit their park two or three times every week.
Our inquiry has also given a focal point to campaigners striving to protect parks. We received around 4,000 emails as part of an email campaign and, perhaps most strikingly, a 322,000-signature petition from the online campaigning organisation, 38 Degrees.
Those signatories want to see the protection of parks written into law. We were pleased to welcome some of the petitioners to Westminster to present their petition in person and to answer questions from the Committee at one of our public evidence sessions about why they valued their local park. It was particularly compelling to hear their personal stories about why their local parks matter to them and their families.
To imagine every one of the 322,000 people who signed the petition having similar stories to tell is a powerful thought.
We held four public evidence sessions, during which we also heard from representatives of local authorities, charities, organisations who are exploring different ways to manage and fund parks, and the Minister responsible for parks, among others. The Committee also visited Newcastle to see for ourselves the challenges parks are facing.
The inquiry also managed to grab the attention of youngsters, with nearly 90 letters coming to the Committee from school children. We also saw good levels of social media interaction, namely on Twitter, where close to 1,000 messages were posted using the inquiries dedicated “MyParkMatters” hashtag. We were delighted to be able to showcase a few of the photos which people shared on the hashtag when we published a summary of the survey results.
The Committee is extremely pleased that so many people have chosen to take part in our inquiry and to share their views with us. The more that people engage with our work, the more effectively we can assess the ways in which Government policy affects people from different backgrounds and communities across the country. We have listened carefully to all of the evidence which we have heard during our inquiry, which has helped to shape our recommendations to the Government on how to protect England’s parks.