Following a series of lottery handouts to allegedly elitist institutions, the fund has turned its attention to a subject close to the hearts of the estimated 8 million people who visit a park each day.
The Urban Parks Programme plans to restore and rejuvenate historic open spaces in towns and cities throughout the country over the next three years. Launching the scheme in Sheffield's Weston Park, fund chairman Lord Rothschild invited applications from parks, gardens, town squares, town moors, seaside promenade gardens and historic cemeteries, and said funding decisions were expected to be announced by March next year.
A recent report by Comedia/Demos, on which the programme was partly based, estimated that more than 40 per cent of the population use parks for recreation, fun and fresh air on a regular basis. Geoff Mulgan, director of Demos, said yesterday: "We're delighted they have taken on an issue which to most of the policy-makers in London seems mundane but is in fact where life is lived.
"Whereas so many of the visible beneficiaries of lottery money have been elitist and exclusive institutions, there is none less so than the public park. That's why, in terms of value for money and improving the quality of life there's more bang for the buck available in the parks than almost anywhere else at the moment."
In the 19th century, Britain pioneered an entirely new model for public parks, imitated around the world. Mr Mulgan hopes the new programme will prove equally innovative. Parks should be "showcases for biodiversity" and cater for sports ranging from American football to Tai Chi, he said.
Clare Hartwell, the Victorian Society's northern architectural adviser, had one reservation. "I think it is quite likely that some parks in the north haven't even been identified yet," she said. "In London there is extremely good knowledge of the history of the park and obviously those parks with a good body of research will be the first to attract money. It's going to be more difficult to target the parks which are most in need of financial help."
Britain has the largest proportion of recreational green space in urban areas of any comparable country. In a recent Mori poll, commissioned by the fund, 65 per cent of the population nominated inner-city parks as the aspect of heritage they felt was most important to preserve, and 74 per cent thought that it was "very important" to make local parks cleaner and safer for children.
Sheffield is just one city which would benefit from lottery money. "We've a population of over half a million, making at least three million visits a year to Sheffield's parks," said Elizabeth Thring, director of recreation and amenities for the city council.
"Our Victorian forefathers were very generous in providing wonderful parks which became the lungs of the city. However, the maintenance paid into parks has gone down 50 per cent in real terms over the last three years."