European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research -

COST Action C11

Problems with Urban Parks in the UK

The state of the Urban Parks and Greenspaces of UK cities has at last been recognised as a major issue to be addressed by central and local government . A major investigation has been underway for the last year.
The paper
Green spaces: better places, published by the Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions , London (May 2002) is the result of this work. the report can be downloaded in full.

To help the group understand the background to the concern about the decline of the urban park the following paper, which gives a short overview of the issues, has been added

Anne R. Beer 


Feb 2002


A version of this paper is in press for publication in Danish

The background to the decline of the urban park in Britain&endash; the impact of over twenty years of neglect on the quality of parks and greenspaces

Anne R. Beer, Emeritus Professor University of Sheffield, Environmental Planner



This paper aims to highlight some of the problems that have occurred in Britain in relation to urban parks and open space. It looks in particular at what has happened as ideas about privatisation have taken hold and local authorities (the agencies traditionally responsible for looking after parks and greenspaces) have struggled to meet increasingly stringent controls on spending.


It is important for european readers to be aware that there are substantial differences in the relationship between local and central government in different countries. At least since the changes that began to occur from the early 1980s, when the government led by Mrs Thatcher was in power, central government in the UK has taken almost total control of the amount of money local authorities may raise in taxes and their spending. In the UK locally raised taxes are a small proportion of the total tax on an individual and central government, therefore, directly subsidises local authorities through allocating a part of the general national tax take to them. There is now a very high degree of central control over how that money may be spent at the local level and despite government changes this shows little sign of changing in any way that would allow a vastly increased expenditure on parks and open spaces. It is this lack of flexibility which, in relation to publicly owned open space, has ultimately meant that all local authorities have had to cut back the funding available to manage and maintain them.


Some of the present approaches that are being considered in Britain for coping with the decline in the quality of different types of publicly owned urban greenspace, as well as with the issues raised in applying the principles of privatisation to such spaces, are outline below.


The present state of the parks

Many of Britain's traditional urban parks are in a "disgraceful condition", according to a report published in August 2001 (1) which had been commissioned by the DTLR, EH ,CA* (the responsible central government ministry and the quasi-governmental Agencies with responsibility among other things for the historic urban fabric and the greenspaces on the urban fringe) together with the Heritage Lottery Fund ( an official body with responsibility for investing in schemes which benefit local people by among other things funding the restoration of historic parks). An audit undertaken by the Policy Studies Institute for this report revealed fewer than one in five of all parks are in good condition. The report concluded that 82% of people in the UK do not now have access to "good parks and open spaces" and that a total of £3 500 000 000 (Euros 5 700 000 000) would be needed just to restore urban open spaces to their pre 1980 state. It should be noted that by 1980 the parks and open spaces of British cities were already viewed by many professionals as being in a degraded state . It can be argued that the aspiration to aim for a return to that level would still not create urban parks of an adequate quality to support the full range of needs of our expanding urban populations.


The present poor state of urban greenspace in Britain is now recognised as being the cumulative effect of 20 years of neglect. A neglect directly caused by the cut backs in funding at local government level as central governments sought to reduce public expenditure. This was linked with the imposition of a variety of privatisation initiatives all aimed at reducing the cost to the public purse of a whole range of tasks previously undertaken by local authorities including planning, managing and maintaining parks and other greenspaces.


The 2001 report recognised that a cycle of decline in the quality and usefulness of British urban greenspace prevails. It emphasised that if this is not rapidly reversed through a new approach, with additional resources including funding it will be impossible to reverse and have a devastating impact on the quality of life in the cities. The DTLR has reacted by setting up a special high level urban taskforce chaired by a minister which is presently working on the issues involved and will be reporting in 2002. This report is available in full on internet


Lack of information about urban greenspaces

A decision in the mid 1990s to allocate funds for the renovation of historic parks of national importance made the official bodies involved realise the importance of having a national picture of the state of the nation's urban parks. For instance, no consistent data were available in 1996 when the Heritage Lottery Fund first started making money available available to renovate historic (a term which in this context can be taken to apply to all urban parks built before 1914 and a few well designed traditional parks built after that time)..


It is perhaps a curiously British thing, that many of the early urban parks, and almost all those now described as of national or local historic importance, were areas of land legally given "in Trust" to their city by their original owners (often wealthy local industrialists in the late 19th early 20th centuries). These areas were given in effect as presents to the citizenry and for their perpetual free use. This situation has luckily made it impossible for anyone to propose applying the principles of privatisation in what might otherwise have seemed the most logical way &endash; that is by charging directly for admission and use of facilities. It is also a situation which has done much to protect such areas of open land from the grasp of developers.


There is no accurate information about the quantity or quality of non historic parks and greespaces in the UK. The situation is only a little better today since the publication of the Public Parks Assessment report in 2001 (1). Prior to 2001 there were no reliable data on numbers, areas, location or on the condition of the historic urban parks ( even though most of them were under local authority control) and even now the data is patchy and inconsistent. This situation occurred in Britain mainly because the provision of parks and open spaces has never been a statutory obligation on British local authorities. Any spaces that have been provided and maintained by a local authority were looked after on a general assumption that it was a "good thing for the public" to have parks and recreation grounds, rather than because of any nationally accepted "standards of provision". There were many attempts to draw up agreed national standards from the 1930s onwards (see National Playing Fields Association - ) but no government did more than imply it would be nice if local authorities tried to meet these in their planning proposals.


The figures on the numbers of parks produced by various bodies differ greatly. For instance, ten years ago the UK Audit Commission estimated the number of parks and open spaces in UK towns at 34,553, of which 5500 were described as formal Park (a term which perhaps can be taken to coincide with the present term "historic park") . A further 17,300 parks and gardens were identified as being in the ownership of private bodies. However, another survey by CIPFA (the Local Authority Accountants) estimated that there were 123,000 parks. The final agreed figure is still awaited despite recent efforts to gather more and more detailed data from local authorities &endash; a major problem has turned out to be that if there is no parks department no one seems to hold the required data. So to make a true estimate of the scale of the problem is difficult &endash; one can only say it is massive and that it has been estimated that 82% of the do no live near good quality parks.


Of the parks in the 2001 survey (1) 12 per cent were defined by their managers as in good condition, 63 per cent in fair condition and 25 per cent in poor condition. It was further established that the condition of the majority was in decline. This initial survey was very superficial and cannot therefore be regarded as reliable, however, it does confirm the general impression that the condition of parks is poor and often worsening and that urgent action is needed to reverse the present situation. .From this survey it also appears that the "good" parks are on the whole getting better while the "poor" parks worsen as local authorities support "prestige" sites at the expense of the less noticeable areas of land. Perhaps a reason that few tourists would realise the true state of affairs &endash; seeing only the well maintained sites.



Declining budgets, Compulsory Competitive Tendering and the impact on greenspaces.

Although park revenue budgets decreased by about 20% between 1980 and 2000 it is now possible to see that dramatic cuts in parks authority budgets, in real terms allowing for inflation, also took place in the five years leading up to the period of the Thatcher government. There is no doubt that these cuts were already causing problems for parks maintenance staff when they were followed by central government enforced reductions in the period 1979/85. By the time of the 1989/95 reductions in budgets, the full impact of CCT (compulsory competitive tendering) was helping further reduce money available for parks. Budget cut backs and CCT combined to result in the destruction of a very high proportion of parks departments. The result was that staff with skills in looking after greenspace were subsumed into other departments or made redundant in large numbers.


By the end of the 1990s few local authorities had any senior members of staff with any training in or understanding of the special needs of greenspace or parks . So there was no one to argue the interests of greenspace against other seeminly more important factors in the internal decision making which is involved in the allocation of budgets within a local authority. The loss of skilled parks officers as well as greenspace workers can now be seen to have had disasterous consequences for the quality of the urban greenspaces. This in turn has had a direct impact on the quality of life in many cities. A situation which is in direct contradiction to government's stated intentions to improve the livability of cities as the focus of their drive to get more people to live in city centres and reduce commuting.


Much of the work undertaken in earlier decades by Parks Department staff has now been privatised. While it can be argued by accountants that this process did save public money (which on paper it did); if the result is such a decline in the quality of those greenspaces in which the public takes such pleasure and which they recognise does so much to enhance the quality of urban life, it is very doubtful that the result of applying CCT to greenspaces can be viewed as satisfactory.


"Best Value" criteria have recently bee introduced to support decision taking relating to awarding contracts (private or public. This was as a result of increasing disquiet about the impact of CCT in relation to a whole range of local authority work - where the cheapest bid won the contract and quality depended on how well the tender documents had been drafted by the local authority staff. Using "Best Value" in theory gives a chance to take into account the quality of the end product, the likely the impact on the users as well as the sustainability of the work the contractor proposes to do not just the total cost. The use of the "Best Value" system for contracts has been viewed as a particularly important change in relation to looking after greenspaces. It has, however, not been in use for long enough to be able to judge its success in reversing the decline in quality so visible in so many greespaces. For it to be effective in relation to greenspaces, high caliber inhouse staff with a good understanding of the special needs of greenspaces, their users and their particular maintenance and management problems will be needed. A major problem is that the shake-out of such staff over the last 10 years means many local authorities such skills. An additional complication is that there is some evidence that central government is not too happy about the almost inevitable increase in costs to the local authority budgets of applying this "Best value" modification to the contract procedure, so it remains to be seen whether this too will be superseded.


Renovation and regeneration of greenspace

Different approaches are being developed for different types of greenspace. Perhaps the most successful so far has the work on those historic urban parks classified as of national importance.


Developing approaches to the renovation of Historic urban parks

The Heritage Lottery Fund launched the urban parks programme in 1996. Grants totalling £50m (79m Euros) were awarded during the first three years of the scheme. It has proved so popular that of the current awards stand at £230 million. This programme runs until the end of 2002. It is at present unclear what will happen next and from which sources further funding can be expected. Under a separate scheme, the production of an historic landscape survey and restoration plan for each of 135 historic parks identified as of national importance is under way. This is costing £1.6m (2.4m Euros) of national lottery money. By 2002 grants have been awarded to 161 parks - on average £1.4 m (2.2m Euros) per park. The major expenditure has been on renewing hard landscape features and the replacement of worn-out buildings and facilities. Only a small proportion has been spent on other vital elements such as plant material, new staff posts and better security. It should be noted that the Heritage Lottery Fund monies can only be "unlocked" for use if at least 25% of the sum is raised from local funding which includes donations by local businesses. To see an illustration of this process, visit the Sheffield Botanical Gardens website -


Developing approaches to the renovation of the "other" urban greenspaces


It is particularly noticeable that little money is or has been available for those parks which are not defined as nationally or locally significant historic parks . At present most of these "other" parks are just being kept as tidy as local funds allow, many only occasionally have the grass cut and litter removed. It is these much more common greenspaces accounting for 90% of all urban open spaces in terms of numbers of parks that need to be improved very urgently, but where can the money come from? It is just such spaces private enterprise will not be interested in funding &endash; there is no prestige to be had in such work. Local people may on occasion come together to undertake a renovation or restructuring project on a specific space but research from many countries has shown that such involvement, which relies on individual enthusiasm, is almost always transitory.


There is clear evidence that some local authorities manage their limited funding better than others &endash; this is being studied at present by the DTLR Committee on "Green Spaces, Better Places" ( interim report is available on internet : ……………….. ) The same committee is determined to encourage good practice by desseminating information about what has worked well in different situations. Their aim is to draw up Best Practice Guidelines to help local authority staff and those to whom they sub-contract work on parks and greenspaces. It is anticipated these will include:

ways of evaluating the overall quality of provision and the quality of individual sites

help with developing an understanding of the link between greenspace with different characteristics and people's values and aspirations in relation to them,

indications of how enabling partnerships can be formed,

ideas about how to create a "shared vision" for the future of a space, so that it is possible to work towards agreed goals for the financing and implementation of a scheme,

how to ensure sustainability in all its aspects is considered in the planning , design and management of greenspaces. This includes using the potential of greenspaces to support an often rich level of biodiversity in urban areas.



Developing approaches for the decline in quality of London's greenspaces

As two thirds of the surface area within Greater London's boundaries are either greenspace or water - London is one of the greenest cities in the world. However, because much of this area is now recognised as suffering badly from decades of neglect. In 2000 the Greater London Authority set up a The Greenspaces Investigation Committee to develop an overview of the present state of greenspaces in London. The research by this committee showed that people care about their local greenspace whether that space is in the form of gardens, sports fields, parks or nature reserves. The public was aware of an accelerating loss of facilities and opportunities to use and enjoy greenspace, an awareness exacerbated by the fact that throughout the 1990s developers were purchasing any corners and areas of greenspace that they could legally get their hands on - for instance, in an attempt to balance their budgets many local authorities sold school playing fields despite often intense opposition from local populations.


The committee's research indicated that the public perception of the deterioration in quality of greenspaces, when studied as an aspect of user satisfaction was due to:

decline in quality of open spaces,

fear of crime in open spaces,

inadequate staffing of those spaces

all of which were seen to be directly due to the lack of funds to look after them and linked to the destruction or diminution of the mechanisms whereby parks and greenspace had been looked after in the past - the Parks Departments.


The committee were amazed to find that even in 2001 no one knew how much greenspace there was in London - each of the Boroughs keeping differing records and placing responsibility for the different aspects of greenspace planning and management in a variety of departments. They also identified a lack of data on the condition of the spaces even for most of those spaces for which there were records. They also considered there was too little information on how each space was used by local communities, who looked after it and how and who pays for the maintenance as well as how any necessary capital works might be funded.



The way forward

The enormity of the task to reverse the decline of greenspaces and parks in the UK has led to a series of government and local government initiatives. These are based on the growing understanding at all levels of government that there is a need to protect and defend greenspaces in the city from neglect as well as development pressures (2). Most of the initiatives have the brief to look for some way in which things can be improved without the public purse having to fund the improvements. As a result, all the statements produced under these initiatives inevitably stress that parks cannot be regenerated by local authorities working on their own - the capital and revenue funding is not there now and probably will never be made available.


Today, the pronouncements from these initiatives state:

  • any regeneration has to involve the whole community &endash;
  • the users have to be involved and to work with the local authority.


Whether this stated ideal is "pie in the sky" or achievable without the allocation of significant additional finds remains to be seen. However one thing is sure, different approaches will need to be applied in working out how to solve the particular problems of all the different types of greenspace found in cities. While the public may, through a range of financial mechanisms agree to be involved with managing and maintaining their immediate local greenspace (that adjacent to their home or their children's school), and organisations of enthusiasts may for a short time put the labour of their members into voluntarily improving public greenspace; in the end there are massive acreages of greenspace crucial to people's perception of the quality of life in their city and crucial to the enhancement of urban biodiversity for which there is no body other than the local authority capable of initiating and doing the work . What happens to these spaces in this era of privatisation? Will the present idea that the private sector should be more involved in the provision of resources, whilst ensuring that advertising and business promotion do not intrude on the public's enjoyment of such space really be implementable?



* DTLR = Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, EH = English Heritage, CA = Countryside Agency


(1) Public Parks Assessment, 2001, Urban parks Forum, London. Available on internet:

(2) Green Spaces, Better Places &endash; Interim Report of the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, 2001, DTLR, London. Available on internet: Now superceded by Green spaces: better places, published by the Department of Transport Local Government and the Regions , London (May 2002)


All rights reserved - © A.R.Beer ,2002

To add your own definitions or ideas just email Anne Beer.




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