Lung disease

DSC_1641bPhil Jones in his column ‘View from the top’, (Pro Landscaper, August 2015) looked at the threat to parks from ongoing budget cuts to local authorities, offering the startling conclusion that ‘privatisation is the least of our worries’. If that’s so, I can’t imagine what he considers the worst case scenario.

Rewind to July this year. A report by London Councils, the umbrella organisation of London local authorities, presented the stark vision of councils so cash-strapped that they would have no choice but to start turning parks over to private companies to run, or selling off land altogether. Local authorities’ budgets in the capital have been cut by 47% in real terms since 2010, and at this rate, they argue, councils will be forced to let go of their parks sooner rather than later.

Doomsday headlines in the press at the time heralded this as the ‘privatisation’ of parks, with giant fences and ticket barriers going up overnight – for paying customers only. We won’t see London’s wealth of designed and natural landscapes turned into members-only fitness club facilities and outdoor gyms immediately. The less headline-grabbingly apocalyptic but actually more alarming reality is that councils will cease funding the voluntary organisations that now manage many green spaces. Neglected and uncared-for spaces easily become local blights. What was a park becomes wasteland and the justification for selling off for redevelopment is conveniently provided. Green space will be lost, not with a bang, with a whimper.

While lamenting what he sees as the irreversible decline of parks, Phil is oddly dismissive of those trying to protect them, writing off local organisations and pressure groups as ‘just another cause, a niche campaign by those who have a vested interest in keeping parks and open spaces’. Doesn’t every oxygen-breathing city-dweller have a vested interest in urban green space? We benefit from parks and green spaces in so many ways, whether we’re aware of it or not – cleaner air, cooling, natural drainage, habitats, biodiversity and green infrastructure to name but a few. Parks are the lungs of the city; the environmental benefits they provide are essential, whether we visit or not. I take my lungs for granted, but it doesn’t mean I don’t need them.

Phil calls for a champion for parks, for people with clout to be involved, for huge campaigns – all big, heavyweight, top-down stuff. To that I would have to quote Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Contrary to Phil’s profoundly pessimistic view of local politics, people can influence development decisions, to use the localism powers of the planning system to keep community assets in the community – and just a determined few people can make a difference.

The fundamental issue here is the austerity agenda and accompanying devaluation of public services. If parks have become neglected and degraded it’s as a result years of budget cuts and the loss of knowledgeable and experienced staff, which is now reaching crisis point. Turning parks over to be run for profit does not address these problems; privatisation is not the answer. (I would say that actually whatever the question is, privatisation is not the answer.) Parks need funding that reflects their profound value, with expert care and leadership provided by committed professionals and well-trained staff. It’s as simple as that. Phil is right to refer to ‘our precious parks’ – they are. And that’s why I can’t think of a fate worse than privatisation.

A version of this article appeared in Pro Landscaper magazine October 2015