Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 92 - 99)




  92. If I could welcome you to the third session this morning on our follow up inquiry into Town and Country Parks. If I could ask you to identify yourselves for the record, first of all?
  (Sir Jocelyn Stevens) I am Jocelyn Stevens and I am Chairman of English Heritage.
  (Ms Alexander) Pam Alexander, Chief Executive of English Heritage.
  (Mr West) Jeffrey West, Director of Conservation Management.

  93. I gather you would like to say a few words to us at the start before we go into questions.
  (Sir Jocelyn Stevens) Yes, please, Chairman. I would appreciate that opportunity. English Heritage rejects the criticism in the Committee's report, which is based on a misunderstanding of our role in relation to public parks and our achievements with the limited resources available to us. The vast majority of the 5,000 public parks in the United Kingdom are owned, managed and maintained by local authorities and funded through the Revenue Support Grant. English Heritage's principal responsibility in relation to public parks is the compilation against national standards of the Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England. The Register currently contains 1,365 historic parks and gardens, of which 162 are public parks. Since we began our five year review in 1996, 55 public parks have been added to the Register and we anticipate that a further 50 will be added by the end of our systematic resurvey in 2002. We are looking, therefore, at a maximum of 250 public parks in this Register containing 1,365. We are most concerned too about the way public parks have been under valued and under funded in recent years, and by the lack of maintenance, management, commitment and experienced staff provided by local authorities. We support strongly the Committee's recommendation that the Government ought to help local authorities find ways to reverse cutbacks in park maintenance, of which there is plenty of evidence. The plight of the public parks is so important that it will be a matter of immediate concern for the Government's Review of Policies Relating to the Historic Environment. This review was commissioned by DCMS and DETR on 31 January 2000. We suggest that no decision be made on establishing an Urban Parks and Green Spaces Agency until this Review, which English Heritage will deliver in September 2000, has been completed.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I realised you did not like our criticisms. I think we would have preferred you to have been a white knight riding to the rescue of country parks but perhaps we will pursue this through questions. Tom Brake, would you like to start.

Mr Brake

  94. I will perhaps let my colleagues pick up later on your rather controversial opening words and I will stick to the uncontroversial business initially. We are very pleased that a database is being set up with information about parks, that was clearly an area that our inquiries identified as being a major weakness, the lack of information. Can you tell us anything about the response rate, how many local authorities have responded, what sort of quality of information are you getting and so on?
  (Sir Jocelyn Stevens) I am not sure whether it is a misunderstanding about the database. What we have is this Register. It is not unlike the system we apply to our buildings, really, grading and inspecting and checking. That has been with us for a long time but it does not exactly add up to a database so it must be something else you are talking about, is it?
  (Ms Alexander) Can I respond on that? Yes, I think it is the work that we commissioned with DETR and the Heritage Lottery Fund from the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management. From the indications that we have had so far they have had a very good response. About 197—nearly 200—local authorities have responded so far with information covering 683 parks. It is indicating some very interesting trends. We have indications that about 15 per cent of those are in poor condition and that those that are in poor condition are declining so there is a clear evidence of a spiral of decline which is obviously of great concern. Around a third of the local authorities have no parks strategy and no plans for one, so this is obviously an area that we would want to explore further in the future. The report, which is of course an interim report, should be published in the spring and then we would hope to work with DETR and HLF to do further work, I am sure through ILAM, commissioning more detailed surveys, identifying specific problems, which parks are most at risk and what the priorities are to do something about it.

  95. As an organisation, English Heritage, what are you going to do now that you have already identified the trend of 15 per cent of parks in poor condition and decline? You have identified that a third of local authorities do not have a strategy. What are you going to do now with that information?
  (Ms Alexander) We will not work alone on this. The point of working with DETR and HLF was to try and ensure that all of the national bodies who were interested in this were able to identify the problems, firstly the paucity of data which your Committee established last time in your report and then to identify what the priorities were. I think it is a little bit premature before we have even got the interim report to be saying exactly what the priorities will be for action after that. One of them certainly would be to gather more information so that we are much clearer about what the nature of the problem is. The area where we feel we are able to act immediately is in giving guidance on ways of addressing those problems, the best means of drawing up conservation and management plans, the priorities and the skills training that we need to put in place, the work that is needed. I believe there are other areas that you may wish to pursue later that relate to those.

  96. Yes, I will probably come on to that in a moment. Just to concentrate a little bit on the mechanics of this database, who is responsible for the ongoing maintenance of it? Is that your responsibility?
  (Ms Alexander) Would you like to respond on that, Jeff?
  (Mr West) At present ILAM, the Institute, have simply been commissioned to do this as a one off exercise and the results will be published and they will be available to all the commissioning partners.


  97. Will they be publicly available as well?
  (Mr West) They will be publicly available. One of the questions which the commissioning partners will be addressing is whether this database needs to be maintained in future. I think it is pretty clear already that it will need to be maintained, and we shall have to discuss with our partners how that is best done.

Mr Brake

  98. At the moment it is a one off exercise and at the end of the process it could be that it will not be maintained by anyone?
  (Mr West) I am quite sure that one of the recommendations coming out of it will be that a permanent database is maintained. We shall have to discuss with our funding partners how that is best done. I am quite clear that this cannot be left as a one off exercise.

  99. Do you have a view as to which body is best placed to provide this ongoing maintenance?
  (Mr West) We do not have a firm view as yet, though clearly ILAM are perhaps well placed to do that and certainly we will be considering asking them whether that is something they will be prepared to take on in future.

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