Guest post by Emma Wallace of Harrow Green Party
In June 2021, Harrow Council published its ‘Annual Public Health Report 2021’, this year entitled ‘Let’s Go Outside: Using Nature to Recover’. As the title suggests, the report focuses on the opportunities Harrow’s green spaces provide to ‘promote a healthier lifestyle’, aiming to encourage people to exercise and reconnect with nature. The Director of public health at Harrow Council, Carole Furlong, has “outlined the positive impact that parks and reserves have on people’s mental and physical fitness, particularly in light of the past year, when coronavirus has dominated daily life” (Harrow Times, 9th June 2021). Indeed, since the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, parks and green spaces have been “propelled into the nation’s hearts and minds, proving their status as lifelines for local communities.” (Parks Fit for the Future, Local Government Association). Many of us during the various lockdowns have come to appreciate, seek out and discover local green spaces to carry out our daily exercise, walk dogs, play sports, relax and meet others (when the rules allowed) and experience local wildlife. The open green spaces provide time for quiet contemplation, visual relief, somewhere to breathe clean air and a break from our ever congested and urbanised neighbourhoods.
Our green spaces have undoubtedly helped to enhance our mental and physical wellbeing during the pandemic, and it makes sense that the Council should highlight this for future community health benefits. Whilst it is great news that they are recognising the value of our many wonderful parks and nature reserves, it is essential that the Council reflects on the other roles and purposes our green spaces have, such as supporting local biodiversity, wildlife conservation, helping to prevent climate change and local flooding. Further thought needs to be given to how an increase in public use will impact them, both in their ability to continue to act as safe, well maintained and welcoming spaces for the community, but also how they will be able to meet biodiversity and climate targets. There also must be some reflection on and acknowledgement of the vulnerable state they are already currently in. In the last decade, parks have faced unprecedented council budget cuts, impacting on their maintenance and overall condition, whilst coping with a steady increase in public use. It is these issues I will explore further below to try and ascertain what impact the last ten years have already had on Harrow’s parks and green spaces, the continued challenges they face and what actions need to be taken to ensure their future survival.
West Harrow Recreation Ground
Harrow’s Green Belt, Historic Parks and Green Flag Awards
Harrow has an extensive amount of open green space, with 20% of the borough’s land identified as such, placing it number ten out of the thirty-two London boroughs (Natural capital accounts for public space in London, London Government, p.12). This green space is formed of more than 80 separate areas, including parks, allotments, nature reserves and cemeteries, as captured in the Harrow Biodiversity video, commissioned for the Woodland Trust Tree Charter Festival in November 2020. The North of the borough boasts Green Belt land, including Bentley Priory, Harrow's most important nature reserve and only biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SINC) (Harrow Nature Conservation Forum). In total, Harrow has ten nature reserves and several other wild open spaces in the borough (Harrow Annual Public Health Report 2021, p.12). There are twenty-eight parks, which are distributed relatively evenly across the borough and most of which are accessible within 10-15mins of walking from a resident’s home (OPEN SPACE PPG17 STUDY, Harrow Council, p.4). Four of our green spaces are nationally registered historic parks and gardens, including Grims Dyke and Bentley Priory. There are also four locally listed green spaces, including Pinner Memorial Park and Harrow Weald Park (Historic Parks, Harrow Council). On top of this, five of Harrow’s parks have repeatedly won Green Flag Awards - Canons Park, Harrow Recreation Ground, Roxeth Recreation Ground, Pinner Memorial Park and Kenton Recreation Ground – handed out annually to the nation’s best parks “as a way of encouraging high environmental standards” (Green Flag Parks, Harrow Council).
A Decade of Increased Use
Our parks have long been considered “treasured public assets”, illustrated by the steady increase in use over the last decade (Public Parks report, Communities and Local Government Committee, 2017, p.22). This has left them in an ever more vulnerable state, open to overuse, facilities falling into disrepair, increased litter, anti-social behaviour, wildlife disturbance and general ecological degradation. This can be seen in part, as a consequence of Harrow’s population increasing by 7.6% over the last ten years (Population Estimates, Harrow Council) and a proliferation of building developments arising all over the borough. New housing has repeatedly focused on high-rise tower blocks (recent examples include College Road, the Kodak site and Palmerstone Road), consisting generally of single-use apartments, with either no or minimal access to gardens or green space. Our roads have also seen a dramatic increase in traffic over the last decade, resulting in ever more toxic air and increased dangers for cyclists, pedestrians and runners (Road Traffic Statistics, Department for Transport). This has resulted in an increasing number of people utilising Harrow’s public green spaces for their leisure and health. If we couple this with the recent surge in use of our parks and green spaces over the pandemic, with many more people now working from home (a trend that does not look to be fully reversed post-pandemic), our green spaces have never been under so much pressure.
A Decade of Underfunding
As the five Green Flag Awards attest, Harrow has a number of ‘jewels in the crown’ in terms of its parks. In comparison with other boroughs though, this is a relatively low number of parks to receive Green Flag awards. For example, neighbouring Hillingdon has sixty parks that have been awarded the Green Flag status, whilst the borough of Ealing has twenty-two Green Flag parks (Green Flag Award Winners 2020, Keep Britain Tidy). In Harrow, there are many other parks, often smaller, less central or well-known, that have unfortunately not achieved this recognised status. This can be seen as a consequence of our green spaces long being underinvested and neglected, lacking adequate Council funding, staffing or central strategy to create a well-connected and maintained green network in Harrow.
There have been severe Environmental service budget cuts imposed by Harrow Council over the last ten years, with funding to our parks and nature reserves hit particularly badly. In 2014, it was reported nationally that “Almost £60million has been axed from park budgets since the Coalition came to power in 2010 – forcing cuts in staff, early closures and equipment to fall into disrepair.” (The Mirror, 28th July 2014) Since then the situation has only got worse, with Harrow and other councils around the country being left in an almost impossible situation, as core central government funding to local authorities has almost completely dried up. It has been reduced particularly severely in Harrow, by 97% over the last decade (Wembley Matters, 27th February 2021). As a result, councils such as Harrow have been driven to spend their remaining annual budgets on statutory services, such as social care, to the detriment of the non-statutory services, such as parks. In 2015, Harrow Council introduced its most severe cuts to park services, reducing them to a statutory minimum with the aim of saving £327 000 (Harrow Council Cabinet Meeting, p.262). This reduction in Council services was partly achieved by converting some of the parks into wildlife open space, which require less overall regular management (p.218). The services which were highlighted for removal included, locking parks overnight, leaving grass areas to naturalised (with the exception of sports pitches), a reduction in pruning of shrubs and hedges to once a year and a reduction in litter picking and emptying of bins from twice weekly to once a week (Harrow Council Cabinet Meeting, p.262).
Pinner Village Gardens
Independent Funding and Grants
Whilst many local groups and residents fought these cuts, the majority were voted through in 2015 by the Council and since then many of our parks and open spaces have suffered an ongoing decline. Luckily, a range of Friends of park groups have stepped in to continue the overall management of a number of Harrow’s green spaces (more on this below). To plug the funding gap for the parks maintenance cuts, including buying new plants, trees, signage, gate locks etc and also, financing bigger projects, the Friends groups now have to apply to the Council for one-off funding or independent grants from external organisations. For example, it is the Friends groups who must be given credit for Harrow’s five parks retaining their ‘Green Flag’ status, with volunteers applying for separate funding grants to continue maintaining and improving the parks. There is also the Headstone Manor Park regeneration project, which has been possible due to the securing of millions of pounds through a range of grants, including from the National Lottery Heritage and Community Fund (Headstone Manor). This dependence on individual grants means that there is now an inconsistency and inequality in funding across Harrow’s parks though, with many spaces not benefiting from proactive volunteers applying for and managing the funding when received. The House of Commons ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ report on Public parks concluded, “it is a matter of concern that friends groups may be forced into competition with each other for scarce resources and that some parks are losing out to others. We believe that local authorities should consider their parks to be part of one portfolio, rather than as disparate individual sites.” (p.36)
Due to the severe budget cuts over the last ten years, Harrow Council has reduced or withdrawn the majority of its own park services and general maintenance, instead passing them over to volunteers. In 2012/2013, an “army of volunteers” helped landscape and improve numerous open spaces as part of Harrow’s Green Grid scheme (Harrow Times, 17th Feb 2013). After the swingeing park cuts of 2015, ‘Harrow Parks Forum’ was set up in 2016 to act as a collective voice for the network of now twenty-four ‘Friends of’ park groups, which aim “for all of Harrow’s Parks and Open Spaces to be beautiful, well-maintained and litter-free, safe and welcoming, to have appropriate facilities and equipment, and to be loved and used by and for the benefit of the whole community.” Harrow Parks Forum also supports Harrow Nature Heroes, which encourages a younger generation to get involved in our green spaces, providing “fascinating and fun nature and wildlife sessions across Harrow Parks and stunning nature reserves”. Our nature reserves and wild open spaces themselves are overseen by Harrow Nature Conservation Forum (HNCF), a Sub-Committee of the Harrow Heritage Trust, organising groups of volunteers to maintain these spaces. There are also many other groups which play a part in looking after and advocating our green spaces, including Harrow in Leaf, Harrow Biodiversity, Harrow Litter Pickers and our two Harrow London National Park City Rangers.
These volunteers carry out essential work in maintaining and improving our green spaces in Harrow, including acting as park wardens, carrying out general gardening, rewilding, tree planting, monitoring wildlife, frequent litter picking, improving paths and maintaining facilities, locking gates, organising park events, fundraising and securing grants. The commitment and dedication these local volunteers show is inspiring and without them I can only imagine how immeasurably worse our parks, wild spaces and nature reserves would be. It must be recognised though that depending on volunteers to oversee and maintain our parks requires members being available on a regular basis and willing to give an extensive amount of time and energy. The Mayor’s London Green Spaces Commission Report published in August 2020, identified that volunteers “require ongoing support and management by park services. They can add real value but are not in themselves a sustainable solution to longer term funding.” (p.23) I believe that it is unfair to expect so much from local volunteers and instead, it is the council who should be recruiting permanent, paid and well-trained staff to provide a regular and comprehensive service across all our parks and reserves.
Privatisation and Selling off our Parks
Another consequence of a decade of severe council budget cuts is that our parks are extremely vulnerable to privatisation. “Because of this pressure, councils are looking at options for selling off bits of land, outsourcing parks management and making money by allowing private companies to rent out the space.” (Parks Should be in public hands, We Own It). The outcome of this is a loss of public control, removing parks from their original purpose to provide free, public, communal spaces for everyone. Parks also have an important role to play in improving social cohesion within communities, as identified in Harrow Council’s Annual Public Health Report 2021’ (p.5). This cohesion is undoubtedly severely hindered by the commercialisation of parks, preventing various groups of the community from accessing them. So far, Harrow Council has largely avoided privatisation, although there have been several cases of park spaces identified for building projects. An example of this was the 820 flat ‘Byron Quarter’ development proposed in 2017, which would have resulted in the loss of land from Byron Park (Harrow Times, 18th July 2017). This development did not go ahead, but in July this year a new partnership between Harrow Council and Wates Residential was announced, identifying three ‘brownfield’ sites in the Wealdstone area, including around Byron Park for housing (Harrow Times, 11th Sept 2020). Reassuringly, Ms Furlong acknowledges in Harrow’s Public Health Report that the public health department will “include collaboration with the council’s planning department to ensure there is no unnecessary loss of green space.” (Harrow Times, 9th June 2021) I hope this proves to be true and helps towards protecting our green spaces from future developments.
Lack of a Connected, Long-term Vision
Parks have also been seen as an easy target for budget cuts because they “are not recognised for the value they could add to a range of other statutory council services, such as public health and well-being, economic development, social care, and environmental resilience.” (A review of London’s parks and green spaces: strategy, governance and value for THE LONDON GREEN SPACES COMMISSION, Feb 2019, p.6). Whilst Harrow Council has recently recognised the value that our parks bring to public health, this strategy does not appear to connect with others involving parks, such as the Council’s Climate Change Strategy 2019-2024. Instead, the Public Health report appears as a standalone report, lacking a wider strategic vision of how it converges with others or may impact the numerous other roles our parks already play. This lack of connection between strategies has a negative impact on the health of our green spaces, as there is no acknowledgement of how the individual projects will actually impact the parks as a whole. There generally appears to be a lack of recognition that parks are living, breathing organisms that need to be continuously maintained through the seasons to ensure their continued health (as revealed by the ongoing Council cuts to park budgets).
Another consequence of parks and green spaces being included in separate Council strategies is the absence of a single, consistent funding model. Financing of these schemes is either completely missing, or if included at all, consists of one-off, finite amounts of money from the individual department championing the project or from external grants, as mentioned above. For example, there appears to be no long term commitment to investing in our parks to support the Council’s recent public health strategy, with only a fleeting reference to funding in the report: “When resources allow to ensure and promote accessibility to green spaces by improving paths, signposts and information on local green spaces, particularly in areas of Harrow with limited green space.” (Harrow’s Annual Public Health Report 2021, p.14) I also wrote about the absence of funding to enable the Council to meet its Net Zero Carbon strategy, which draws on parks, back in April (Wembley Matters, 3rd April 2021). To resolve this, it is essential that the Council begins to take a “fully integrated approach to the planning, design and management of green space that could better address the potential collaboration and tensions across these areas, in the form of an overarching green infrastructure strategy.” (A review of London’s parks and green spaces, p.6) This would then facilitate the Council pooling its resources to meet the various strategies aims, whilst being an economical and sustainable financial model. This will then hopefully ensure the overall continued survival and environmental health of the parks and green spaces themselves.
The Natural capital accounts for public green space in London report from October 2017 reveals how there are actually huge economic benefits to be gained from our parks and that their value far outweighs the cost of maintaining them. A key finding for example is: “For each £1 spent by local authorities and their partners on public parks, Londoners enjoy at least £27 in value.” (Natural capital, London Government, p.3) This is reflected in Harrow’s recent public health report, which recognises the role green spaces can play in supporting local residents' mental and physical health, minimising the need for the use of a related NHS service for example. In London, this can amount to avoided costs “of £580 million per year by being in better physical health and £370 million per year by being in better mental health.” (Natural capital, London Government, p.3) It is essential that the Council uses this evidence to reconsider their cuts to park services, and instead acknowledge the role they can play in meeting a range of statutory services, whilst also being extremely cost effective in the process. This is a persuasive argument for the continued investment in parks and green spaces, saving the Council money, whilst relieving pressure on a multitude of public services.
Conclusion - Protecting, Preserving and Enhancing our Green Spaces for the Future
If Harrow Council is serious about residents making “the most of the range of green spaces on their doorstep as we come out of lockdown” (Annual Public Health Report Harrow Council, p.2) it is essential that they create a strategic vision for all our green spaces. This overarching and connected strategy needs to be long term, rather than consisting of one-off, short-term projects. It requires ongoing financial investment in our parks and green spaces and the recruitment of trained, paid staff, not dependent on individual grants or the goodwill of volunteers. The Council must fully recognise the role green spaces can play in supporting a range of statutory services, coordinating how to best share funding and resources to help improve all our green spaces to facilitate these services. To help with this, it is important that the Council clearly identifies the ‘social return in investment’ that parks and green spaces bring to the borough, and recognise why continued, ongoing financial investment is not just optional, but essential. Our green spaces are something that will save the council money in the long term, whilst also benefiting the local community (Natural capital report, London Government, p.7)
The Local Government Association is calling on the government to introduce a parks fund: “We must ensure that parks are accessible and are in a good state to support everyone in the future, that is why we are calling on the Government to introduce a local, flexible £500 million Green Parks Fund to help unlock small scale, affordable initiatives to help the nation’s parks and green spaces recover and flourish.” (Parks Fit for the Future, LGA). Whilst this money would of course be of use, I believe that for their long-term future, the government must also start to fund local authorities properly again to allow councils to fully take parks and green spaces fully back under their control and management. We pay council tax (now the second highest in London) for Harrow Council to maintain our public green spaces and it should ultimately be their responsibility to look after them. As We Own It states, “We have enough money for them - they should be properly funded and run for people not profit.” (Parks Should be in public hands, We Own It). It is the council who are best placed to create a connected, joined-up strategy for all our parks that ensures a consistency in maintenance across the whole borough. Only then will our parks and green spaces receive the maintenance and management they desperately need and ensure their continued and sustainable future for generations to come.