Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 362 - 379)




  362. Can I welcome you to the last session this morning and can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Ms Woolley) Dave Tibbatts and Helen Woolley from the Urban Parks Forum. I am a Director of this organisation.

  363. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Ms Woolley) I would like a few moments for introduction. As you know, the Urban Parks Forum is a not-for-profit company created in response to a growing demand for help in overcoming the generally neglected state of a lot of our urban parks. This was acknowledged by the Select Committee who learned a lot through that process. The Urban White Paper has confirmed that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and that the Government should work with the Urban Parks Forum and DETR (now the DLTR) who have funded the Urban Parks Forum for a three-year period to help develop good practice, undertake research, and create a web site. In addition, there is additional funding from the HLF to fund two posts to develop a network of "friends of parks", a term which I think is very expressive anyway, friends of open spaces, in the north and south of the country. Personally I am a Director of the Urban Parks Forum and a chartered landscape architect. I have worked in both the public sector, for Sheffield City Council, and the private sector. For nearly ten years I have been a lecturer in the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield. One of the things we are currently doing is undertaking research for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions in looking at improving urban parks and play areas. In fact, I have just been biked in from a focus group in Bexley which was quite an interesting experience for that research. I would like to make a few points about the draft as it stands. First of all, on the timescale, we feel in the Urban Parks Forum that it would be helpful if the final publication of this document could wait until after the task force has reported because there is a lot of work going on and the six working groups, the research that we are undertaking are all inputting into that, and I would have thought it could be helpful for the final document to wait until all that gathered information is there and available. The Committee I am sure by now is fully aware of the many benefits and opportunities that parks and other open spaces, particularly in urban areas, can provide and I do not propose to dwell on those. One of the things I would like to mention is that one of the most consistent things about the draft as it stands at the moment is its inconsistent use of terms. Again I suspect that this has been mentioned by other people and all I would like to say is without proper definition of what is "formal" or "informal" space—and a lot of people in the field use the terms "active" and "passive" recreation—and what is "recreation", what is "sport", what are "facilities", these things mean that any guidance to planners is going to end up perhaps being interpreted in a chaotic and not a meaningful and constructive way across the country, and that does concern me. My final point I would like to mention relates to the manner in which a lot of planners operate. If a planning policy guidance about sport, open space and recreation is to be sensible and have a good impact on strategies and policies and how developers are dealt with in these issues, I believe it is appropriate for the PPG to give some guidance on how planners might operate for the benefit of the communities using these facilities. I believe that it should be recommended—I do not know how strongly a PPG can word it—that planners should not work in isolation, because I feel very often they do. Previous research has identified that and from practical experience I am aware of this. Planners should work with the managers of the open spaces, but I would take their remit further than that. There are a lot of other government programmes at the minute which I feel planners in relation to sport as well as open space should link into, issues such as the Government's National Childcare Strategy where providers of services for early years are having to produce development plans and link in with what is happening. I am aware, having talked to some of those providers in Sheffield, that they are very positively looking at how play spaces and small open spaces associated with buildings can be used for children's play, which is very important in child development. Also the issue of planners dealing and looking at how educationalists and schools might be involved, and health issues. What happens if you have a planning application for a hospital? Are you just going to cram the hospital onto one small piece of land with no open space? The benefits of open space in recovery from ill-health are well recorded and yet many hospitals are built without any view from a window let alone access to open space. The care of elderly people, people with disabilities, all these things need to be very realistically addressed by planners as they deal with this. I would like to see the PPG somehow address this almost in a preliminary statement.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Clive Betts?

Mr Betts

  364. You may have given an indication of how you are going to answer this question already. The Urban White Paper promised that the PPG would lead to improvements on parks and open spaces and it gave a list of commitments as to what the improvements would be. Do you think the promises have been fulfilled in the draft PPG?
  (Ms Woolley) Not fully, no. Some of them have. The fact that even the Urban Parks Forum has been given funding is a very important step. That is funded for three years and I would not deny the importance of that and what we hope that will achieve. But I think that open spaces have not been dealt with in such a strategic and cross-thinking manner as the Urban Parks Forum would like to see happen. Linking this in with the issues of urban renaissance and the compact city, all these issues have not been fully addressed. If we think of how planners might look at an urban area, if they are trying to build on all the brown field land and create a compact city, what does that mean for open space? If you build too densely you might not have any gardens or open space or parks at all. It will be so compact that the quality of life for people would go down in a lot of different ways. I think that some of those issues have not been brought out enough so far.

  365. Are you saying it is the revision to PPG17 itself that is not right or in fact that that revision has been done in isolation from other policies like PPG3?
  (Ms Woolley) Perhaps a bit of both. I do feel it has to some extent been written or drafted at this stage in isolation and has not looked enough at the other PPGs and other government policies, so I think it has been treated in isolation to some extent, and I think the draft itself is weak in certain areas.

Mrs Ellman

  366. In your opening statement you stressed very much how you think open space should be related to other policies—health issues, provision for the under-fives. Given the strength of what you said, would it be enough for PPG 17 to make a general statement about that or do you feel that specific planning permissions should be tied to open space issues?
  (Ms Woolley) I would love to see specific planning permissions tied to open space issues, yes, and perhaps even a step further back in looking at how land use is allocated and how planners say, "This space will be for so many houses or for a hospital", or whatever and how they deal with that and allocate that land. Also it is very much how individual planning applications are dealt with. It does relate to the issues of density and whether you go upward or outward and, if you do either, what you do about the open space, which is an intrinsic part of so many people's daily lives.

  367. Looking at urban parks specifically, what would you have liked PPG 17 to say in relation to urban parks, in relation to green space and how we should use it?
  (Ms Woolley) It talks a little bit about the heritage of the open space but I do not think that an acknowledge that parks are a very important part of the urban framework, of the external part of the built environment comes over strongly. I think the importance of parks to urban life has been acknowledged by English Heritage in the register of historic parks and gardens, and the work HLF has done in putting £160 million into parks, but these are not mentioned in the PPG. It mentions the heritage money that has gone toward sport but not toward parks. Even an acknowledgement of what has happened in the last few years is not there. Therefore the basis for developing something stronger for parks is not there and needs to be built on. So reference to that. Also I do not think issues such as Agenda 21 and the importance of parks in the community and including people in those issues have come out in the draft.

  368. Was your Parks Assessment Report influenced by the inquiry this Committee conducted into town and country parks?
  (Ms Woolley) The first phase of that work was going on before the Select Committee met. I think, like any research, the analysis was done in as objective a way as possible. Would you say it was influenced, Dave? No, I do not think so. Dave did a lot more work on the actual assessment than I did. So I think not.

  369. What lessons should have been taken from your report and from this Committee's study and put in that PPG17 or put in anywhere else in any other requirement?
  (Ms Woolley) There are two issues, there is the draft PPG and then there is the "anywhere else". I think there are two key things that I would bring to your attention, of which you are probably fully aware, but this gives us an opportunity to focus on, and one is to do with the quality and quantity of open spaces and what is happening . Over a period of 20 years there has been an on-going decline in the money spent on urban parks. As you know from the report, we have estimated the cumulative shortfall of this to be in the region of £1.3 billion over that period of time and despite the Urban White Paper and setting up the task force, such decline still continues. Within the last month Oldham as a council has announced that it is cutting £1 million off its parks and open spaces budget of about £6 million, and the whole town is talking about this because they know it is going to mean decreased quality in the environment, loss of jobs and a whole range of other issues. The financial side can be considered by some to be nothing to do with PPG perhaps but in a way it is because the tool of Section 106 monies, if this were to be more often applied to improving some of the existing areas of open space rather than creating new open spaces that nobody is going to properly look after, could improve the quality of the open space. So I think that the financial side, the decline in money is something that can be taken on board through PPG17, through referring to Section 106 and what could be done with that, but also it needs to be addressed in a broader way by government generally in the ways you were discussing at the end with Ken.

  370. Is it reasonable to expect developers to pay to maintain existing open space?
  (Ms Woolley) It depends what you mean by "maintain". If you have got an existing open space, it may need to be completely redesigned in a way that is more meaningful for contemporary use in society. One of the things that has happened with the Heritage Lottery money is that it has been very welcome but it has only addressed historic parks, it has not addressed non-historic parks and it has not addressed those who have not managed to get bids in for whatever reason. And they may be the more socially deprived parts of cities, in fact. So I think that, yes, it is reasonable for a developer to be expected to put money into saying that they will improve this space. This is here, it is used, it is going to be used more by the people you are perhaps building houses for and therefore you could benefit the community very greatly by improving this space in redesigning and managing it, and you may even be putting money into a redesign that would mean lower maintenance costs and management costs in the end.

  371. If local authorities under pressure feel able to reduce their budgets for maintaining open space and parks, does that reflect a public view?
  (Ms Woolley) No it does not. I think it very much does not because in some places where this has happened there has been so much public outcry that the year after the politicians have had to do a U-turn and re-put the budget there. This does not take into account the fact that if you put money into open space, existing or new, it can decrease your costs elsewhere. There is research that shows if you get young kids involved in sporting activities, indoors and outdoors, that you can take them off the at-risk part of life for re-offending. If you put money into these facilities and they are used properly by schools and by early years, you can help child development in such a way that they are more likely to be positive members of society and less likely to be at-risk people as well. It is a whole cross-cutting issue. Another of the key issues (of the UPF research) is the fact that the quality of open space seems to be in decline with 39 per cent of parks and open spaces reported as being declining in condition, and poor parks getting worse. This trend seems to be significant with respect to the fact that the standards are declining more significantly where there is not an open space strategy. There are pie graphs and charts that show how many people have got an open space strategy and how many are hoping to put one together during the coming year. I think PPG 17 could help by requiring local authorities to produce such strategies. As I have already expressed, I would like to see such strategies, not just open space strategies but relating to other strategies that councils might be developing linked in with cross-cutting.

  372. Do strategies not cost money?
  (Ms Woolley) What is wrong with spending money to provide a better environment?

  373. If it is a question of either having a strategy or putting a few swings back into a park, would it not be better to put swings in the park?
  (Ms Woolley) Not necessarily. I think the two have to be looked at together. There are some places in the research we are doing—and we are doing it in confidence and I perhaps ought not be telling you—where swings and playgrounds are being taken out because as soon as there is any risk of something being dangerous, councils are afraid of being sued so playgrounds are being taken out. In one way you could say in the short term putting swings back immediately is a good thing to do but if in the long term a strategy helps you to look at not just what you have got and what you might have but how you might attract long-term funding to it, then, surely, that is a good way to be spending your time and effort and then you can be developing your individual projects within that overall strategy. The issue really about two or three swings—and I am a mother of young children who love to go to the park—is for the individual communities and what that means. There needs to be a whole educational process where the community is involved and it is explained why strategies are important.

Mrs Dunwoody

  374. You sound a bit as if you are saying if there is not a response to the need for properly managed open spaces then that is the responsibility of the locals themselves and that it is quite alright to have a lot of local government space and time moved up getting a nice infrastructure sorted out. All that means, in effect, is that they will cease to think in terms of non-expensive open spaces and concentrate on how much time they have got to give to specific projects that show up on the budget.
  (Ms Woolley) My intention is that a strategy would look at all the open space a local authority has and it might sometimes have to make some a priority, partly through funding opportunities. If you look at what HLF has done, it has meant that local authorities which did have strategies have had to go into that strategy but they have selected historic parks, and the ones that were not historic have not been prioritised in. So there has been a degree of opportunism where there has been some money available and people have had to go to that, which means that other places have not had the money put in. That is not what we would like to see. What we want is a strategy whereby decisions on priorities might be made on different reasons, and I think that is where some guidelines are needed associated with this, making assessments about existing facilities and facilities that might be needed ( "facilities" here meaning open spaces) and that there should be guidelines attached to the PPG to help local authorities to make those decisions so they are not making them in a vacuum.

Christine Russell

  375. In a nutshell, are you saying that PPG17 should emphasise quality over quantity and that the priority should be to enhance the existing spaces rather than creating new ones?
  (Ms Woolley) I suppose in a way I am. I had not thought of it as prioritising existing space over new space, but I think the quality of those open spaces is very important and that is the issue that needs to be addressed. It is about what is most appropriate for the community as well. I will just tell you what we were doing last night for the research. We met a small group of young people in Bexley and after some discussion about the space that they were talking about which they call a "field", they took us to see it. It was so bland and poorly designed. It has one football post, not two, it has one basketball net, it does not have any hard surface to bounce a ball on and it is surrounded by roads, and yet for ten years this 13-year-old boy has been using that. I look at that as a designer and think, "My goodness, this is a really poorly designed space". If there is so much meaning attached to some of these existing spaces, you would not want to take it away from them or create something else they were not going to use. You want to do what the community needs and improve that site. I suppose in a way I am saying what is happening with existing spaces is that you can re-design them and it does not mean that you necessarily change their character, and that is perhaps more important than new spaces that nobody can afford to maintain or look after where there is no community value attached to them at that time.

  376. I know you are a new organisation but would you like to comment on whether or not, in your opinion, there is a serious communication problem in most local authorities between the planners and the officers who run the parks and amenities or leisure departments?
  (Ms Woolley) I think I alluded to that a little bit in my introduction. I have worked in local government and know something of what it is like. The Urban Parks Forum started as a group of predominantly managers and people looking at new ways of managing parks along with other people concerned, such as ourselves as academics but who have perhaps been practitioners. I think the contemporary importance of open space means that quality is very important. I think that in many local authorities a lot of local authority officers have worked in individual boxes within that local authority and have not talked across to each other. I think historically planners have not talked to park managers. We are finding that some UDPs, even on the planning policies about leisure and recreation of open spaces, have not talked to the managers about it, and I feel that is a professional mistake really.


  377. Who is at fault, the planners for not talking or the people in the leisure departments for not making a fuss?
  (Ms Woolley) Perhaps it is both. It takes two to tango, it takes two to make a decent policy, or perhaps even more than two. As I said earlier, we need to have the early years workers education, health, a whole range of people involved. I think that this needs to be encouraged in that way. If we think of what planning policy guidance is about, it is about providing a framework for planners to advise developers, to make policy and make decisions on, and to be doing that in isolation from the rest of society, in a way, which is sometimes what they do, I feel is wrong. I think this may also come down to how they should be trained and on-going professional development, if they are not used to working together. In a way, involving communities in projects and regeneration processes means that the timescale is very different, and you have to allow more time and resources, and it may mean that developing those policies and strategies may take more time because rather than the planners coming up with policies they will be talking with other people.

  378. You criticise the draft as being overwhelmingly biased towards sport. Is that not a bit unfair? If sports provision were dramatically improved, would it not help in improving open spaces as well? An awful lot of parks have playing fields in them and if playing fields are well-kept and well-used it brings people into parks and makes the parks successful.
  (Ms Woolley) Sport is not the only activity that takes place in parks, just one of them. The amount of space they take and the amount of budget they take is disproportionate to the amount of time and the sectors of society that use sports grounds, which tend to be predominantly male and a certain section of the male population, although there are some women's teams around and increasingly so. Other activities that take place in parks and open spaces, as you know, are dog walking, taking the kids to the playground, going to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and away from the traffic, lots of other activities. Sport is one small activity that takes place.

  379. You do not think they are complementary; you think they are competitive?
  (Ms Woolley) No, I do not think they are competitive. What I think is that the emphasis should be swapped round and instead of it being sport with open space tagged on, it should be open space with sport as a subset of that. Because even where sport takes place in a sports centre, it is set in an open space. Even if that open space is just a dreadfully designed car park, it is set in it and associated with it and very often they have with them playing fields as well, and that is part of it. Playing fields are not often set in isolation; they are part of open space. I do feel that the emphasis needs to be swapped around and that it should be open space, which is in fact the land. Sport is not the land, planners deal with the land, open space is the land and then there is sport and recreation. You could put dog walking in there as well. These are the issues that need to be considered because dogs and dog walking and dog mess is a big issue in a lot of open space and not just parks. They are complementary to each other, but the emphasis is wrong.

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