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Green spaces are vital venues for civic life

Posted on 21 April 2016

This is a guest blog by Ed Wallis, Editorial Director and Senior Research Fellow at The Fabian Society.

The recent Parkrun row has brought to national attention an issue which local authorities will face with increasing frequency over the next few years: how can we preserve essential services like green spaces in the face of rising demand and vanishing budgets?

One response to the plan to charge Parkrun participants came from residents of Stoke Gifford.  As they had paid their council tax, they felt they had the right to access public space without being required to put their hands in their pockets. This is not an unreasonable expectation, even if it does highlight the sometimes contradictory instincts that colour public debate over tax in the UK: our desire to marry US-levels of taxation with Scandinavian-levels of public service provision. It was also not the mood of the country at the last general election, which ultimately voted for a government that committed itself to an even tighter fiscal squeeze than its predecessor, while putting its major revenue-raising powers out of reach by legislating for a tax lock.

But a debate about tax and spend misses the broader point. Even if we were to return to pre-financial crisis levels of public spending, demographic pressures are such that we still be in search of new ways of supporting services. What’s more, it’s increasingly recognised that there are both principled and business cases for moving away from a passive model where councils deliver services to consumers, to an active model where councils collaborate with citizens.

So if we wish to encourage local authorities to resist the urge to respond to mounting pressures via increased use of charging or outsourcing to the private sector, then we are going to need to very quickly offer cash-strapped councils some better solutions. They do exist. Around this time last year, the Fabian Society worked with Groundwork, Keep Britain Tidy, RSPB and the Woodland Trust to publish a report called Places to Be: Green spaces for active citizenship. The report investigated a range of new approaches that could not only keep green spaces open in an era of tight budgets but crucially also encourage democratic participation and citizen control.

Our green spaces are vital venues for civic life, where we can come together, meet our neighbours, share experiences and build trusting relationships. This is what makes the move to charge people to exercise in their local park so short-sighted. At a time when there are huge forces that are pulling us apart – a poll for the Fabian Society report Pride of Place found that 68 per cent felt that community spirit had declined over their lifetimes – everything we do should seek to include rather than exclude. We need to design institutions that bring people together rather than put up barriers to participation in community life.

The pressures that local authorities face are real and going to get worse. But rather than seeing the Parkrunners as potential customers, they should be seen as productive partners; a source of community strength to draw on, not a financial resource to draw down on. From co-operatives to asset trusts to social enterprises to community organising programmes, there are a huge number of innovative approaches to green space management being trialled across the country, which can keep our green spaces vibrant, inclusive and accessible to all. The crucial task now is to swiftly work out how to scale them up and share best practice, to ensure that collaboration rather than charging defines the future of our parks.

The Fabian Society recently partnered with Groundwork on the conference Green Places: Putting the local environment at the heart of the devolution agenda. You can read highlights and listen to the discussions here.