Monday 18th June 2018- by Sarah Cosgrove

Green-space professionals have called for the Scottish Parliament to take a deeper, broader and longer look at the issue of funding and access to quality green spaces at a one-off evidence session held at Holyrood last month (May).

Green-space groups submitted written evidence and research on the benefits of green space and concerns about the link between budget cuts, reduced maintenance and lower levels of use, outlined in the Third State of Scotland’s Greenspace Report to the Scottish Parliament Local Government & Communities Committee, and spoke at the round table discussion.

Who gave evidence?

  • John Kerr, chair, Edinburgh Green Spaces Forum
  • Dr Matt Lowther, head of place and equity, NHS Health Scotland
  • Kevin O’Kane, green-space officer, Fife Council
  • Julie Procter, chief executive, Greenspace Scotland
  • Colin Rennie, manager, Scotland, Fields in Trust Scotland
  • Bruce Wilson, Scottish Environment LINK (and Scottish Wildlife Trust)

Funding, quality, re-wilding, volunteers, young people, ecology and biodiversity, planning and health were all discussed during the session on 23 May, which was broadcast live on Scottish Parliament TV.

As in the UK Parliament, committees hold round table discussions as part of an inquiry or, in this case, to explore an issue and consider whether an inquiry is merited. Scottish green-space professionals have been keen for the Scottish Parliament to hold an inquiry into parks, following the Communities & Local Government Committee’s parks inquiry, which only applied to parks in England.

Greenspace Scotland chief executive Julie Procter (pictured, left) said there is a “real opportunity to take a deeper and broader look” at the subject. She pointed out that policy in Scotland on green space is better than south of the border but “something is lost in translation between the ambition of national policy and the aspirations of local communities and what people actually experience on the ground”.

She added: “We see this as a strong area for preventive spend. The money that is spent on green space delivers huge benefits in terms of our health and our children’s education, play and futures. There’s an opportunity to get ahead to what happens in England and Wales.”

Provision of green space is not seen as an issue in Scotland. Greenspace Scotland’s recent report found that 54% of urban areas in Scotland is green space. However, its quality is a key concern.

Procter told the committee that in the country’s more deprived communities green space tends to be unwelcoming “functionless, boring, green deserts around high-rise buildings”.

Dr Matt Lowther was keen to elucidate the health benefits of access to quality green space, saying it is particularly significant from a health and health inequalities aspect.

Edinburgh Green Spaces Forum chair John Kerr said green space is a “tremendous benefit to health, both physical and mental, but people have to want to visit them so we have to try to improve the quality if we can”.

In Fife, there has been a 25% reduction in green-space funding, said Fife Council green-space officer Kevin O’Kane. “We have reduced the nice things, such as the flowers and shrub beds, maintenance of intensively managed grass and litter picking,” he added. “There is evidence that we are reducing the quality.”

Referencing its recent Revaluing Parks & Green Spaces report, which values green space as giving the UK £34bn in health and well-being benefits, Fields in Trust Scotland manager Colin Rennie said: “Parks and green space should not viewed as a ‘nice-to-have’ or a ‘good-to-have’ but as a ‘must-have’ if we are to tackle some of our health and other problems in Scotland.”

Committee members have also noticed negative effects from cuts. Kenneth Gibson MSP said the trend for re-wilding only meant areas “became a magnet for litter”. Graham Simpson MSP said budget cuts in East Kilbride are leading to an even worse outcome, with the council considering selling one area of green space to housing developers.

Procter said the problem is that green spaces are not valued on local authority balance sheets or they may be given a nominal valuation of a pound, which means they are only seen as a drain on resources. “We need to start looking at how do we value our parks and green space as an asset,” she insisted.

Lowther said the issue of preventive spend is central to the issue. “If we can move money into prevention, that will have longer-term benefits, which will save the NHS money in the long term. Getting the evidence for that is quite difficult sometimes and that is a challenge for us. There are some things that the NHS can do. For example, we are part of a programme called the Green Exercise Partnership.”

Role of volunteers

As with the English parks inquiry, the committee was interested in the increasing role of volunteers. Kerr said volunteers have come a long way in recent years and are now “experts in public liability, insurance risk assessments, health and safety, and they are currently wrestling with GDPR, becoming a registered charity to encourage funding and how to apply for funding”.

He added: “The thought of taking on ownership as well is, I think for a lot of groups, a step too far.” He also said many friends group volunteers are older and unwilling to consider the extra work.

O’Kane said council officers are still needed for support. “A lot of the groups burn out because they are volunteers and there are only so many volunteers.” He said a transformation and innovation fund from Government could be used to help with “day-to-day things”, adding that in Fife the council has had to sometimes take back control from community groups.

Procter added that fewer than 10% of friends groups want to take over a park, with a key issue being the lack of any clear way of resourcing. This is another area where a transformation fund could help, with one idea being generating energy under parks.

Simpson pointed out that community takeovers could be problematic — for example, a football team wanting to fence off a pitch for which they have taken ownership.

The proposed loss of supplementary guidance in the current Planning (Scotland) Bill, which had its first stage reading on 29 May, was also discussed. The committee had separately called for “more meaningful” engagement on planning applications, local place plans and local development plans.

Wilson said references to green space in planning statements are “‘shoulds’ and not ‘musts'”, with green space left to the end of the process. Procter said it is essential that supplementary guidance is not lost in the new planning bill and called for a duty to produce an open-space strategy.

 

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