The North East has a long heritage of green, open spaces, stretching back over a century. The oldest park on Tyneside, Leazes Park, was opened to the public two days before Christmas in 1873, following a 13-year battle between the working men of the city and the council, sparked by a 3,000 signature petition for ‘ready access to some open ground for the purpose of health and recreation’.
It’s a familiar tale across the region. ‘Some of the city’s traditional Victorian and Edwardian era parks, such as Backhouse and Roker, were bequeathed by wealthy industrialists with the philanthropic aim of providing public spaces for people to enjoy some degree of rest, relaxation and escape from the often harsh environments in which they worked,’ explains Councillor Michael Mordey, Portfolio Holder for City Services at Sunderland City Council. ‘Other parks and open spaces, such as Herrington Country Park, were created on former coal mining spoil sites and mineral railways as these industries declined and closed.’
It’s one of the things that the region is rightly proud of. But it is increasingly under threat.
Council budgets have been slashed, and parks are increasingly seen as a nice thing to have – a luxury – rather than as essential services. Green public spaces, which once provided a verdant spine throughout the region, are under the hanging axe. A parliamentary inquiry, set up last year to investigate how to maintain public parks at a time of increasingly tightened purses, reported its findings this month.
Research commissioned by the National Trust shows that slashing parks’ budgets is counterproductive: the amount that is saved on budgets is counteracted by the amount of economic benefit tied to parks that is lost. Every pound spent on public parks is paid back and profits by a further £36 from the knock-on effect on the economy.
But still the amount of cash diverted to parks is dropping. No local authorities expect to increase their park budgets up to 2019. Local council funding is at historically low levels, and difficult decisions have to be made. The average revenue budget for all parks and green spaces at a local authority level has dropped from £3.15 million in 2013 to £2.57 million in 2016. In the North East, no council expects to cut less than 10 percent from its parks budget. Nearly 15 percent forecast that they will have cut more than a fifth. More than half a million pounds has been lost from the average authority’s parks budget in the last three years. As a result, services and standards at the country’s 27,000 parks are being stretched.
Frequently, these cuts are falling on the frontline of park services: 41 percent of park managers told the Heritage Lottery Fund that they’d been forced to cut back on horticultural staff – those who tend to the plants that keep the parks an attractive place to visit – since 2013. Another 35 percent expect the number of gardeners to fall further in the coming three years.
In Newcastle, the budget for public parks has been reduced by more than 90 percent. The city council is midway through a consultation about the future of Newcastle’s parks which aims to find a way to keep green spaces open to all, while saving money at the same time.
The plan in Newcastle is to turn over the running of 35 parks presently overseen by Newcastle City Council (and 50 hectares of allotments) to a charitable trust. They’d look at how best to stay open and raise money outside the auspices of the council, according to Councillor Kim McGuinness, who is the Cabinet Member for Culture and Communities in Newcastle.
‘Creating a charitable trust to manage our parks and giving them independence from the council gives them the freedom to explore alternative funding sources to help progress the sites for years to come,’ she explains. ‘Also, within the proposed model, any profit made within our parks can be ploughed directly back into our parks.’
‘Given the financial constraints on the council, all work, and not just in parks, is becoming more challenging,’ says Sunderland councillor Michael. Community ownership of parks is becoming an increasing trend.
‘The groups and friends of our parks, as well as the public who enjoy the open spaces, all have a role to play. It’s not just the council staff who work year-round to maintain these high standards,’ Michael says. One in 20 parks have moved from council management to community ownership in the past three years, and that’s expected to increase to one in eight parks in the next three years. Council-volunteer partnerships are being trialled across the country.
It could well be the future – a way of keeping green spaces open – and it already happens in our region. At Gateshead’s Saltwell Park, some of the council upkeep of the Victorian park is assisted by a friendship group, Friends of Saltwell Park.
‘In a way, we’ve taken on some of the running of the park, but in a way we haven’t officially,’ says Diane Ward, Secretary of the Friends of Saltwell Park. They run regular walks and events involving the community, and every month gather up to 50 volunteers to tidy up the park – a project started after some sections of the land, which is home to 12 Grade II-listed structures, became run down.
They’re not alone: nationwide, nearly eight in 10 friends groups help with maintenance of their local park; more than half preserve some features within the park grounds; and nearly 20 percent of groups are responsible for site security. In total, volunteers across the country provide an average of 3,700 days of work in each local authority towards the upkeep of regional parks, worth £77 million.
When they’re tidying, the Friends of Saltwell Park wear luminous yellow jackets emblazoned with their logo. It encourages people to come up and engage them in conversation, asking them what they’re doing. They explain that the council doesn’t have the money to pay for the upkeep of the park, so they’re doing their bit to help.
‘Some people say that’s great,’ says Diane. ‘Some people say the council should be doing all of this. But I think the days of the council being able to do everything is gone. We’re just an organisation passionate to keep the park looking great for everyone to enjoy and try to stop vandalism happening.’