Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Twentieth Report




Memoranda and verbal evidence submitted to the House of Commons Environment Sub-committee Inquiry into Town and Country Parks demonstrate a broad and growing consensus amongst a wide range of concerned organisations about the need for a national champion for parks and green spaces.


The key arguments for the creation of an Urban Parks and Green Spaces Agency are set out in the Committee's Report.

Specialist National Agencies, set up by successive Governments and popularly known as 'quangos', play an important role in the administration of Britain's public realm. The influence of the national agencies such as the Sports and Arts Councils, the Countryside Commission (now Countryside Agency), English Heritage and the Museums & Galleries Commission (soon to be the Museums, Libraries and Archives Commission) has been key in raising the profile of their relevant services, in providing advice to local authorities and, in most cases, awarding grants. These national agencies are also a key source of advice to central government and possess substantial lobbying power. They invest in research and teaching to raise the level of scholarship and knowledge in their respective fields. For example, the need to retain registration and designations under the Museums and Galleries Commission scheme has helped persuade many local authorities to look elsewhere for savings. Similarly, the Sports Councils are deeply involved in schemes which identify and reward quality in local authority provision.

The lack of such strategic support for public parks and green spaces has placed this service at increasing disadvantage. The maintenance of parks and green spaces is often the single largest heading in the leisure services budget and cuts are less noticeable where they do not trigger the immediate closure of facilities. Free entry to parks means that few authorities have any real idea of the numbers using this facility and no immediate or obvious penalty is paid if visitor numbers decline. Perhaps most insidious is the decline in skills, professional expertise and scholarship within local authorities to an extent that many fail to appreciate fully the scale of the decline over which they preside.


A new agency would work with local authorities and other regional and national agencies to enhance the economic, environmental and social value of urban parks and green spaces for the long-term benefit of places and people. It would not replace, or in any way diminish, the responsibilities of local authorities in providing and maintaining parks and green spaces. The new body would not own or manage any such land directly.


'Urban parks and green spaces' should include all such spaces freely accessible to the public for recreation in its broadest sense i.e. urban parks, recreation grounds, playing fields, burial grounds and cemeteries, woodlands, water bodies within public green spaces, amenity greens, greenways, commons and allotments.


The proposed agency would be similar in design and purpose to several national agencies already operational in comparable areas of activity. Accordingly, the following aims for the Urban Parks and Green Spaces Agency have been based on the terms of reference of national agencies already established in other sectors.[183]

1.  to promote the importance and benefit of high quality parks and green spaces in our towns and cities (CABE)

2.  to encourage the understanding of parks and green spaces through educational initiatives and grant programmes, promoting community involvement (CABE)

3.  to have a key strategic role as a champion and standard-setter for its sector and the prime source of advice to Government, (MLAC)

4.  to establish links with other national bodies such as the Lottery Distribution Bodies and the National Agencies for Sport, Arts, Countryside, Heritage and Nature Conservation in policy formulation (MLAC)

5.  to be a funding body and have the opportunity to operate challenge funding initiatives across the sector (MLAC).

6.  to have an international perspective, researching good practice overseas and ensuring that full advantage is taken of EU and other sources of funding. (MLAC+)

7.  to strive to ensure that parks and green spaces are known to and widely used by all as key resources for health and personal fitness, community development, lifelong learning, economic development and enjoyment. (MLAC)

8.  to promote social equity and economic opportunity for the people to enjoy these local and national assets (CA)

9.  to lead with research and advice through liaison and support of the research and academic community, ensuring research is relevant and informs good practice (CA+)

10.  to focus on the social, economic and environmental well-being of the urban landscape at all levels - from the biggest city to the smallest neighbourhood, involving business and in the voluntary sector (CA)

11.  to raise awareness about environmental issues by educating and informing people (EA)

12.  to protect and improve the environment and contribute towards sustainable development through the integrated management of parks and green spaces (EA)


It will be for the Agency to determine the tasks it should undertake in order to pursue the above objectives. However, the following are some suggestions:

1.  Help to develop the Green Flag Park Awards into a comprehensive standard for quality parks

2.  Produce a guide on the legal aspects to the provision and management of parks and green spaces, including a comprehensive interpretation of the duty of care placed on parks authorities.

3.  develop a methodology for conducting environmental, social and economic impact assessments for parks and green spaces and institute a major research programme into the benefits of parks and green spaces to places and people

4.  develop innovative partnership programmes of grant aid to local authorities to encourage greater public use and appreciation of parks and green spaces

5.  develop programmes to promote good health and widen the educational role of parks

6.  develop a national database of parks and green spaces

7.  produce guidance to local authorities in the development of strategies for achieving best value and promoting local agenda 21.

8.  monitor the stewardship of local authorities and publish an annual report to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.


The budget for a new agency will depend on whether it is to be a grant making body or an advisory body. This proposal assumes a grant-making body. It is necessary to back up policy advice with grant-aid if that advice is to be effective. Respondents to the House of Commons Environment Sub-committee Inquiry into Town and Country Parks made clear the decline in budgets suffered by parks and open spaces and argued that at least a partial re-instatement of the lost resources is needed. To be effective, a new national agency would need a budget comparable with other agencies in the field - ie between £30-50m p.a. Such a budget would still be substantially less than the budgets of such organisations as English Heritage and the combined Sports Councils and significantly less than the funds lost to parks.


A review should be set up to explore the feasibility of a national Urban Parks and Greenspaces Agency and would need to resolve the following issues:

Should a new national agency for urban parks and green spaces -

1.  be responsible to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

2.  be established under Royal Charter as per Museums & Galleries Commission, Sports Council?

3.  be for England, England & Wales or whole UK?

4.  have any formal relationship with The Royal Parks Agency?

5.  be a grant awarding body?

6.  take a direct responsibility for the Green Flag Park Award Scheme?

7.  have a regional structure for England?

In addition to the above, there are broader questions such as how the new body will be funded and how it will relate to the work of other agencies. For example, the new body would be expected to work closely with English Nature, English Heritage, Sport England, the Environment Agency and the Countryside Agency. In respect of the latter agency, the responsibility for country parks would need to be considered. And there is also the issue of whether a new national agency should be responsible for the work of Groundwork and the National Urban Forestry Unit.

If the agency is to be UK wide, consideration would also have to be given to the work of parallel organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whose remit, priorities and actions may become increasingly divergent under new governmental structures. It is, for example, interesting to note that Scottish Natural Heritage has just supported the production of a Parks and Open Spaces Strategy for Dundee.

A further question is what role, if any, the new agency should play in the administration of lottery funds for parks and green spaces e.g. Heritage Lottery Fund's Urban Parks Programme and the New Opportunities Fund's 'Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities' initiative. Lottery money for sport and the arts is administered directly by the national agencies but a new agency could work closely with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the New Opportunities Fund without taking direct responsibility for the award-making role.

Alan Barber & David Lambert
October 1999

183  Key: MLAC = Museums, Libraries and Archives Commission. CABE = Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. CA = Countryside Agency. EA = Environment Agency. The sign + shows where there is significant amendment i.e. more than a simple substitution of the words 'parks and green spaces' Back

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Prepared 8 November 1999