Despite the known benefits for physical and mental well-being, and a positive impact on house prices and local economies, our public parks and green spaces are under-threat and in decline. This fact was the main conclusion in a recent report from the Communities and Local Government Committee who have called on Councils to develop a strategic approach for the management and development of public open spaces.
However, many new public open spaces are the result of planning regulation. Councils will require the creation of parks and open space as part of green infrastructure within new housing developments. Whilst this gives rise to the creation of new public space, they remain outside the control of the local council.
Historically open spaces have been adopted by the local council with a sum of money from the developer to pay for maintenance ‘in perpetuity’. More recently, developers have argued that councils have been unable to maintain the open spaces to the desired standard, seen the money as a tax on their profit. and have set up management companies to service the developments. Crucially these management companies, which represent a cost benefit to the developers, are funded by the property purchasers in the form of annual fees. Fees the council would not currently be permitted to charge.
But if Councils don’t adopt these new public amenities, to whom do they belong? When is public land not public land? The answer seems to be when it’s part of a new development that uses a management company. Finding out who the land belongs to is difficult, and accessibility to the open space is not clearly established with some owner occupiers regarding the open spaces and parks as their own.
One example that illustrates the problem is ‘Merrington Place,’ developed by Campbell Buchanan. Highly regarded within its village, it boasts contemporary architecture, landscaping with elements of public art, a public pocket park, and a public footpath. Seloc Asset Management Company have recently taken over upkeep of the public open space. The residents pay for for this landscaping service, and they also pay the community charge to the council. Notably, the owners who part-buy as shared owners, and the tenants of the affordable housing, contribute financially through the housing association, but have no right to participate in the resident decision making process. This is not unusual, but it is certainly undemocratic and divisive. The clue is in the title – asset management – but whose asset? There’s the rub. The publicly accessible open space is private land with a public right of way. The public artworks sit on privately owned land.
The Land Trust has a different model. Established as a charity to hold in trust land polluted by former use as part of the northern coal fields initially it was government funded but is now independent. The Trust invested funds and created public park-lands, bringing both social and economic regeneration to the areas. Since then the trust has grown and taken on new housing developments. The crux of the difference seems to be that as a ‘not for profit’ organisation it is open about it’s resources, it’s aims and its accountability. The focus is on community building rather than profit making for individuals. All residents of all the tenures, have an equal stake in the management of their neighbourhood.
This model seems to be so much more than a profit making estate management company. But the issue of residents paying twice remains. Is this acceptable? Perhaps, if the residents choose to buy this service. An alternative would be to allow the local council to make these similar charges, and employ local people to maintain these areas. It would be a more democratic and accountable approach and enabling all our urban areas to be improved. Public parks, green spaces and play areas cut across gender, ethnicity, age and socio-economic group helping to build social cohesion. The benefits for our health and economy are already demonstrated. The mechanism for achieving these benefits is less obvious.