Parks at risk: ‘If it was not for the volunteers, we would struggle’

Updated: Sep 1

Local authorities have had to slash funding for maintaining their open spaces, and friends groups are picking up the slack


Funding for England’s parks down £330m a year in real terms since 2010



Sparse. That’s how Chrisie Byrne describes the playground in Walton Hall park. The outlines of missing equipment scar its black rubber flooring. “It’s a huge footprint, with nothing in it, or at least very little in it,” says Byrne.


There is a set of swings, a low climbing frame with a slide for small children, and a roundabout. A couple of rocking horse-type contraptions date back to the 1990s, well past their usual lifespan, but local people have begged the council not to remove them. Another climbing frame that was burned by vandals was removed and never replaced.


Liverpool is blessed with an abundance of parks but not the money to maintain them. Over the past 10 years, amid plummeting budgets across the board, the council has had to cut its spending on parks by 72%. In 2010 the city had 17 Green Flag-accredited parks: now it has only two.


When Walton Hall opened to the public in 1934, it had a full-time staff of 25. Now it gets a gang of three men in the summer – two in the winter – two days a week. At least, when they can: they have 15 other parks and cemeteries in Liverpool to look after.


That leaves Byrne, and the rest of the volunteers in Friends of Walton Park, the group she chairs, to pick up the slack. Which means picking up the litter, emptying the bins, gardening, cutting back bushes, repainting fences and playground equipment, and any other general maintenance the council can’t manage.


And there is more. “The friends groups are becoming active in a different way to what they would have been five years ago,” says Byrne. To cut the cost of plants, they now grow their own from seed in their own community garden: leftovers are sold to other parks and local people at a low price.


Two days a week they run a community cafe in the park, with all profits going back to the park’s upkeep. That, in particular, has changed the park from a mere green space to a community hub, bringing together Walton locals, including many who had grown isolated during the pandemic. “The government don’t get the vital work that these volunteers do,” Byrne says.


Daniel Barrington, Liverpool city council’s cabinet member for environment and climate change, said the city took pride in its parks, but a 66% overall cut to the authority’s budget was having a serious impact on all its services.


“Councils can only do so much with finite and dwindling resources but Liverpool is fortunate to have a long-established and active network of Friends of Parks groups who do brilliant work and we liaise very closely with them to support their activities,” Barrington said.


“We’re also counteracting the cuts by being more creative with section 106 funding and have earmarked £5m in the past three years to invest in our green spaces and playgrounds. We’re also looking to secure our parks’ future by strengthening our partnerships with communities and volunteers, alongside new alliances with national stakeholders such as Fields in Trust and Keep Britain Tidy.”


But Liverpool is not alone. It is not even the worst-affected area. A Guardian analysis of spending on parks by local authorities in England found that close to three-quarters had reduced their budgets, with deprived areas such as Liverpool the most likely to have cut funding. The result has been the slow decline of parks across the country, particularly in those areas most in need of green space.


Twenty-five miles away in Bolton, another most-deprived area, Jane Wilcock, a local GP, began the Friends of Longsight Park in 2014 – the same year Byrne took over Walton Hall’s park in Liverpool. When Bolton council – which has cut its parks budget by 71% over the past 10 years – could not pay for new benches, bins and flower beds, they stumped up the cash themselves. “It varies a bit but we probably put in about £2,000 a year of our own earnings … obviously, we’ve been taxed on that as well,” Wilcock says.


Apart from one big repair lobbied for by the friends group, the paths in the park have not been repaired since the 1980s, Wilcock says. They include public rights of way in need of a serious overhaul.


Judged alongside the roster of local authorities’ responsibilities, it is easy to see why parks have suffered so badly from cuts. In deprived areas in particular, the needs of adult social care, child services, education and housing leave little spare for taking care of green space. And there is no statutory obligation on councils to even provide parks at all.


It’s no surprise then that more than nine in 10 parks managers said they thought parks were disproportionately affected by the squeeze on public sector budgets, according to research by the Association for Public Sector Excellence.


The consultancy, which undertakes research on behalf of public bodies, conducts an annual survey of parks staff. It found 72% expected cuts to budgets in the coming five years; 28% expected cuts of 15% or more. Almost half expected cuts to staffing.


Cuts have had an inevitable impact on the kinds of services council parks departments can offer. Floral and horticultural displays and general maintenance are the worst-hit areas, with almost three-quarters of respondents expecting to cut these duties even more. Almost nine in 10 said volunteers were now relied on to pick up litter.


“If it was not for the volunteers in the parks, we would struggle,” said one parks worker with more than two decades’ experience, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity.


“A lot of the grounds maintenance has stopped, basically, just because of budgets. You won’t see a lad in the park any more with a pair of secateurs, you will see him with a hedge cutter and they will just take the tops off.


“There is no colour in the park, everything is just green, everything is cut with hedge cutters. I can only do one flowerbed a week.”


Workforce morale is through the floor. Many parks workers have had to take second jobs as private gardeners to make ends meet. “We were speaking about it and the only reason we come to work now is to pay our bills. There is no passion in the job. Some mornings you wake up thinking ‘groundhog day again’.”


Parks in a poor state can affect the mental health of users too. In recent years, studies have shown that being in nature can help manage anxiety and depression. But, says Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind: “We don’t all have equal access to green spaces, or to high-quality green spaces … For example, some parks or green spaces may feel unsafe and evoke worries about crime, harassment or abuse, especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past.”

Farmer points to research by Public Health England that highlights the importance of access to high-quality green spaces, but also suggests that lower-quality spaces – such as those with poor-quality footpaths, vandalism or litter – may have a negative effect on health. “It’s really important that we all feel safe and able to access [high quality] outdoor spaces, if and when we choose to,” he says.

Byrne has a lot of complaints about Liverpool city council, but mostly she is just glad to have a park at all: she was part of a group that saw off plans by Liverpool council to build homes on Walton Park, and has since been instrumental in a campaign that persuaded Liverpool to become the first local authority in the country to guarantee all its green spaces for ever. More than 100 parks in the city – covering 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) – will be secured in perpetuity in collaboration with the charity Fields in Trust.

Now it just has to find the money to maintain them. On this point, Byrne, Wilcock and parks volunteers across the country are united: parks must be made a mandatory service for councils. Until then, it will be up to the friends groups to fill the gap.