Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 58 of Session 2005-06, dated 10 October 2006

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“A healthy and civilised way of life in towns and cities depends on dwellers having access to good quality parks and other green spaces. The good news is that initiatives by central government have helped to stop the decline of urban green spaces in many parts of England.

“But other places are not so lucky. In one sixth of all urban neighbourhoods, mostly in inner cities, green spaces are deteriorating. In socially deprived areas, very little contributes more towards the sense of a run down infrastructure than the sight of local parks scarred by litter and vandalism and which have become no-go areas for families and older people.

“What is needed is a more strategic approach by central government and by local authorities, many of whom have allowed the provision of good green space to slide down their list of priorities. Many have also shown scant regard in their green space planning for local needs, including - incredibly - those of children and teenagers. Better planning based on more reliable information must go together with improved provision of advice and support by central government for the poorest performing local authorities.

“Recent progress in improving the quality of urban green spaces in many parts of the country may yet turn out to be temporary. Without resolute action and clear thinking, the risk is that the process of decline will set in once again.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 58th Report of this Session, which examined initiatives by and performance of the Department for Communities and Local Government, CABE Space and Groundwork UK in enhancing urban green space.

Good quality green space enhances the quality of urban life and contributes to wider Government objectives such as improved health, more sustainable neighbourhood renewal and better community cohesion, especially in more deprived communities. Neglected parks attract anti-social behaviour and have the potential to undermine regeneration of deprived neighbourhoods.

Up until recently, the quality and management of urban green space was regarded as the exclusive responsibility of local authorities and other local agencies. But in response to the findings of a 1999 Select Committee report which noted a general decline in the quality of green space, central government decided to intervene. The Department for Communities and Local Government (formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) now leads a number of initiatives to raise the profile of green space and enhance its quality.

These initiatives have helped to bring about a halt in the decline of the quality of green space in many neighbourhoods. The number of residents satisfied has risen and is over 60%. However one in six urban local authorities say their green space is in decline. A national target has been set for resident satisfaction with green space, but achievement of the target masks continuing dissatisfaction in a large number of neighbourhoods. Over 90% of urban authorities have satisfaction levels of 60% or more, but residents in deprived communities have not shared equally in the improvements seen. Central support, advice and funding needs to be better targeted at poorer performing local authorities.

The Department does not know whether the amount of urban green space is shrinking or growing. To help balance the needs of urban development and green space provision, planning authorities need to develop a vision of the value and role of green space which is shared by local partners and citizens. Yet many planning authorities are making decisions in an information vacuum and have yet to conduct a full analysis of their current provision and/or local needs as required by Planning Policy Guidance Note 17. Only 38% of urban local authorities have adopted a green space strategy and those that do exist are often weak, failing to prioritise spending options, set out clear allocation of responsibilities or provide timetables for implementation.

As schemes like the renovation of Sheffield Botanical Gardens show, community groups have played a commendable part in bringing about improvement in green spaces, large and small. Yet not all local authorities have consulted widely, and the needs of children in particular are often not well reflected in councils’ green space priorities. Green space managers need to be equipped with the necessary skills to engage communities and especially children and young people, and develop a local vision for green space but the Department has made slow progress in developing an appropriate national skills programme to address these needs.

Almost a quarter of the £693 million funding made available each year for green space is now provided through direct grants from central government and the national lottery. The large number of funding programmes each with their own objectives and criteria need to be rationalised to reduce bureaucracy. A commitment to maintenance should be a condition of funding for refurbishment and capital improvement schemes. Some local authorities spend five times as much as others maintaining their green space, and there is scope for improved efficiency. Green space managers need to better demonstrate the value for money with which they use resources by improving local financial management and reporting. Key lessons from central government funded projects to encourage local authorities to be innovative in their management of green space need to be fully identified and spread.

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