Parks don’t feature that much in the parties’ manifestos. There is a picture of two people in a park in the Tory manifesto and a pollinating bee in Labour’s. If the election was based on this measure the Lib Dems would walk it – they have a picture of Leader Jo Swinson actually in a park toasting marshmallows with some kids (was a risk assessment done?). But having read all the manifestos, and the accompanying costings documents, there are some important policies that will shape the future of parks depending on who wins on Thursday. Let’s see if we can help see the wood from the trees.
All the parties are prioritising, to a greater or lesser extent, investment in infrastructure, tackling climate change and protecting the environment and improving health and wellbeing – and planting trees of course!! The role parks and green spaces can play in supporting these priorities is why parks matter. And they do get name checked once or twice in each manifesto probably for this very reason. However the really important questions are do the parties polices provide the means to unlock the potential of parks to tackle climate change, improve wellbeing and protect the environment? And if so how do they propose to pay for them within the different policy prescriptions put forward?
For the Tories it seems largely business as usual, seemingly continuing with their existing 25 Year Environment Plan, health and climate change policies including a promise for 30 million more trees! The major difference is really the reintroduction of areas based programmes (see our prediction back in February) aimed at improving local economies and cultural assets and investment in infrastructure. Most of this spending will be on capital projects and should provide opportunities to introduce green infrastructure as a key feature of well-designed places and in doing so unlock the potential of parks. It seems likely that the work led by Natural England on Green Infrastructure (GI) Standards will continue to support this. The downside is local government spending is likely to stay as it is, well below 2010 levels, so maintaining many new or enhanced parks created by this spending will be very difficult. Maintenance is likely to rely on continuing innovations in delivery with the liabilities laid off to the private or third sector.
The Labour Party’s manifesto also echoes many of the priorities of the current 25 Environment Plan including a promise of 2 billion more trees! However the scale of Labour’s infrastructure plans, including Social and Green Transformation Funds and a Cultural Capital Fund, present a huge opportunity for enhancing and enlarging green infrastructure and unlocking the potential or parks. Again this would be well supported by the GI Standards currently being developed. The big difference from the Conservatives is in revenue spending. Labour is committed to restoring local government spending to 2010 levels over five years providing some means of meeting the maintenance liabilities that will come with new green infrastructure. However spending on new parks will still have to compete with other local service priorities. But Labour also plans a Future Generations Well Being Act that would enshrine health in all policies and this may help local partnerships better share maintenance burden of parks with partners.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto continues the 25 Year Plan ethos including a promise of 60 million more trees! The Lib Dems also plan to increase infrastructure spending more that the Tories but much less than Labour and they propose a small increase in local government spending (still below 2010 levels) less then Labour but more than the Tories. Again the infrastructure spending would be well supported by the GI Standards currently being developed but the resulting maintenance liabilities are unlikely to be provided for it seems. However their spending plans include some interesting innovations supportive of parks compared to the other parties including a Green Investment Bank, establishing a Natural Capital Fund and introducing a new Nature Act. But it is their focus on wellbeing that catches the eye introducing a national wellbeing strategy and budget to reshape spending and giving local authorities more autonomy and powers to raise taxes locally. Specifically prioritising nature and GI is good news for unlocking the potential of parks and the proposed wellbeing plans and provision of more local powers may provide the means to make up the short fall in revenue available for maintenance.
Although it’s still a bit tricky to see the wood for the trees it seems there are three critical policy areas that will unlock the potential of parks whoever wins on Thursday especially if the new government wants to deliver on their health, climate change and environment promises. Firstly, all parties will spend on infrastructure and area based capital programmes and this means new green infrastructure including parks has to feature prominently. But investing in new or existing parks without providing for the proper maintenance for them is pointless. So ensuring local government and other land holders have the powers to secure the resources necessary to maintain their parks is essential. Secondly, taking a wellbeing approach to allocating resources, as practiced in New Zealand, provides a fantastic opportunity to take a place based approach to health spending ensuring the burden of paying for parks is shared more equitably rather than falling on local government alone. Finally, planning the quality GI that can realise the potential of parks in securing the desired health, climate change and environmental benefits and financing its delivery and maintenance to ensure parks are properly paid for will require strong local leadership that recognises why parks matter. That is the key to make parking count – whoever wins.