Rundown of city parks 'threatens urban heritage'

The Victorian park, one of the glories of Britain's urban heritage, is suffering death by a thousand cuts as local councils steadily reduce the amount of money spent on maintenance, a symposium in London was told yesterday.

Alan Barber, a green-space management consultant, said: 'Many urban landscapes are neglected and under-used, the tree population is in decline, the skills of public horticulture are being lost, recreation grounds are green deserts and our public parks are being eroded.'

Since the introduction of the poll tax four years ago, he said, hard-up local authorities have repeatedly cut park budgets because they are under no statutory obligation to maintain their parks.

The formula governing what local authorities have to spend - the Standard Spending Assessment (SSA) - takes no account of public parks or green spaces. The consequence is that what local authorities spend on open space bears no relationship to what citizens pay in council tax or what they get in revenue support grant.

Whereas locally raised revenue used to amount to about 45 per cent of a council's budget, it now comprises around 15 per cent. The remaining 85 per cent of funds is revenue support grant money which is mostly prioritised for other services which councils are bound by statute to deliver.

'To watch our heritage of urban parks decline whilst the nation's politicians wring their hands in despair over crime, health, education, pollution . . . and the yobbo society, without ever seeing the connection, is a very frustrating experience,' Mr Barber said.

Parks were the victim of a 'triple whammy': the SSA formula does not include them; local authorities had no statutory duty to maintain them; and there was no agency such as the Countryside Commission to champion their cause.

Ken Worpole, a writer, researcher and policy adviser who is co-directing a national study of parks for the think- tanks Comedia and Demos, said the context for the park in modern Britain was radically different from Victorian times.

Cars had given people the freedom to travel further afield, 85 per cent of the population had access to private gardens, and parents were less prepared to allow children to make unsupervised trips.

He said the important issue was not how much space was available but how well it was used. Parks had an almost spiritual importance, a free space where other values prevailed. They could become arenas in which it was possible for new citizenship notions to develop.

Who goes down to the park today?

Two-thirds of park users are male, one third female.

The elderly population is now under-represented in park use.

Most people now visit parks in groups.

Women feel they need a 'prop' - a dog or a child, for example, - when they visit a park on their own.

Ethnic minorities visit parks at certain times of the day and week to achieve safety in numbers.

More than 70 per cent of people still walk to their local parks as many as three or four times a week.

Councils spend nearly pounds 1bn a year on the upkeep of parks.