Over the course of the next parliament, our green spaces face an existential crisis. In rosier economic times, the last Labour government embarked on a major program of investment in the public realm. There was not just a sense that our major public services were beginning to buckle – ‘24 hours to save the NHS’ – but that our social fabric was becoming dangerously frayed. During this period, decline in quality of urban green spaces was halted: by 2005, 84 per cent of urban local authorities believed their green space was stable or improving, up from 44 per cent in 2000.1
But now the state continues to withdraw from public life at a hurrying pace. December’s autumn statement made it clear that austerity is not nearing an end: it’s not even halfway through its work. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) reports that the government’s spending plans are for a total cut in public spending of 10.1 per cent of GDP over 10 years. At this halfway stage, 48 per cent has happened, 52 per cent is still to come.
With spending on health, schools and international development still protected, the burden on the other, already stretched departments is likely to intensify. The OBR projects a real terms cut to unprotected departments of 43.4 per cent from today’s level by the end of the next parliament. Adopting its best Sir Humphrey tone, their analysis of the autumn statement says:
“The implied cuts in [departmental spending] during the next parliament would pose a significant challenge if they were confirmed as firm policy, one that would be all the greater if existing protections were maintained. But we do not believe that it would be appropriate for us to assume, ex ante, that these cuts would be inherently unachievable.”
Whether they are “inherently unachievable” or not, it’s obvious that an already precarious spending situation is about to get considerably worse. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, spending by English local authorities (excluding those with a national park) on open spaces has fallen by 14 per cent, almost £15.5 million.3 A significant number of authorities are considering selling or transferring management of some of their parks and green spaces over the next three years.
But in a globalised world that feels increasingly complex and out of control, these local places matter more than ever. The Fabian Society’s report Pride of Place recently showed how people forge their identities in the environment that surrounds them and the communities they live there with. Local parks and play areas, woodland and waterways are where people walk their dogs, greet their neighbours, play with their children and connect with nature; they are where we go to take exercise or take time to reflect. These are the community sites where we develop our sense of self and way of understanding the world. These spaces are often taken for granted. But we saw what happens when we feel they are under threat: an attempt to sell-off the nation’s forests was met with huge public resistance, a genuine sense of popular uprising, fueled by a feeling that something integral to our identity was being taken away from us.
Pride of Place found that the ties that bind people together are felt to be eroding. In a poll, 68 per cent said they felt that community sprit has declined over their lifetime. As you might expect, this view was particularly strong among the over 60s (over 80 per cent) but more than half of 18-24 year olds felt the same. This is in many ways the defining challenge of our times. How to keep our society together in the face of powerful forces that are driving us apart, at a time when our political institutions are suffering from perhaps terminal mistrust, and Whitehall’s traditional policy levers are no longer felt to have the answers.
Our open green spaces more than ever provide a crucial community ballast,6 where we can come together, build relationships and reverse the long-term trend towards individualism and isolation. How can we ensure our green spaces continue to exist and allow nature to thrive, that they are properly managed and remain accessible to all during a period of continued austerity? And how can this be done in such a way that maximises civic life and community participation? The traditional model of council-maintained open space may no longer be available to us, but a new path offers what Jon Cruddas calls “radical hope”: as the old order fades, tremendous opportunities present themselves for thinking anew.
We can manage our green spaces in such way that empowers citizens, bolsters people’s sense of place and encourages democratic engagement. To create, as the academic and former MP Tony Wright puts it, “accessible arenas for active citizenship”.
Local authorities have so far sought to manage tight budgets through efficiencies: either through the smarter deployment of resources, like concentrating maintenance budgets on significant or historic public parks, or by seeking to commission elements of service provision in a way that drives savings. But the scale of cuts still to come for local authorities and other public agencies involved in provision of access to the environment means that this is not a sustainable approach. In many areas, a more radical re-imagining of services will be required.
This needs all levels of government to take a new role and this report considers each of these in turn and how to recalibrate our existing institutions to support a popular environmentalism. It suggests that Natural England should be reformed to lead the co-ordination of green infrastructure across government and ensure that its wide social, economic and environmental benefits are recognised by all departments. It stresses the continued importance of local authorities for leading this agenda. Even with reduced resources our local authorities must continue to be the custodians of the places we live and Green Partnership Boards could provide strategic leadership of the local environment. And it outlines a series of opportunities to engage people more directly in social action to protect and enhance their local environments. But first and foremost, this agenda will require political leadership, making the reinvention of our parks and natural spaces a national political priority for the next government.
The new Fabian research report ‘Places to Be’ by Ed Wallis is available to read online here.